Today was supposed to be so very different for Taylor Phinney.
The 24-year-old professional cyclist was aiming to begin his first Tour de France this morning when the three-week race begins in Leeds, England, as one of a strong group of young American riders looking to make their mark on the sport's biggest stage.
The BMC Racing Team rider was coming off a win at the 2014 Dubai Tour in February, had a stage win at the Amgen Tour of California in mid-May, and he won his second national time trial championship at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant on May 24 as part of the USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships.
But a serious accident on Lookout Mountain changed everything for Phinney on Memorial Day, ending his season and threatening his career as a professional athlete. On the first major descent in the men's road race championship, Phinney crashed hard on Scenic Highway and slid into a guardrail, breaking the tibia and fibula in his left leg and injuring his left knee. Instead of beginning his first Tour de France today, Phinney is recovering at home in Boulder, Colo., and will watch the race on television.
"It's been interesting," Phinney said Tuesday in a phone interview. "I had a couple of days to be sad and angry about the whole thing. But that quickly passed, and I was able to accept the fact that I had a long road ahead of me.
"For sure I go a little stir crazy wishing I could be heading to the start of the Tour de France right now, but just try not to think about that."
After the accident, Phinney was taken to Erlanger hospital, where he had two surgeries on his leg. He spent five nights at Erlanger before being transported to Park City, Utah, to begin his recovery under the care of BMC staff doctors Max Testa and Eric Heiden. Then Phinney returned home to Colorado.
"He has actually recovered at a very rapid rate and is ahead of the curve," Testa said in a statement released by BMC. "At this time, there is no timetable for Phinney's return to competition. The team's medical staff want to respect the biological time of healing and make sure he is recovered 100 percent."
Phinney said he still must use crutches, which he hopes to put aside next week, and he's been able to ride a stationary bike with no resistance to keep his legs loose as he recuperates.
"The body has been getting better every day, but it's just a slow process," he said. "But you have to respect the process, and I'm miles ahead of the average person recovering from a similar injury. So I can be thankful for that."
Phinney said he feels fortunate to have been treated at Erlanger, a Level I trauma center, and with the care he received from Drs. Paul Apyan and Peter Nowotarski, who performed his operations in Chattanooga.
"The group of surgeons there definitely inspired confidence, and then post-operation having other doctors look at it, they were really satisfied with the results," he said. "That's all you can ask for -- having a successful surgery and being able to put your trust into somebody you don't know to do a really good job. So I was very thankful to have that hospital to go to; it could have been a lot worse."
The accident caused some controversy in the cycling community because of a race motorcycling marshal who was on the bridge when Phinney and fellow pro cyclist Lucas Euser crashed, but Phinney said he's trying to focus his energy on his recovery.
"One of the biggest pieces of advice I got was to not dwell on the accident," he said. "Not relive the accident or think about actions that I could have taken to avoid the accident. It's already happened, and I have to look forward, so any time the accident has come up in my mind I just try to push it aside and accept the fact that it's done now and I'm moving on."
As much as the crash affected him physically, Phinney said the emotional and psychological impact has been just as profound, prompting thoughts about his approach to racing and what he wants to do with his life after cycling.
"You always hear about people having serious accidents, but it's not something you really understand until you've gone through it," he said. "There's so much from the pain of the accident itself and the stress on your body. ... Any kind of ordeal like that changes your perspective on things.
"I can tell you that before the accident, I really wanted to go wingsuit BASE jumping at some point in my life. I don't think that I'm going to do that now. After the accident you realize that there are risks that make sense and risks that can put you back into a position like this, and I definitely want to avoid that."
Phinney, the fourth-place finisher in the time trial and road race at the 2012 Olympics in London, said he thinks this accident will affect how he races when he is able to resume his cycling career.
"I'm sure that I'll approach racing in somewhat of a different way," he said. "I've always been kind of a daredevil descender, and I'd never had a crash on a descent before.
"I'd always been a risk-taker in life, and now I think I'll think about things a little bit more as far as my approach to risks. I don't think that will impact me negatively, but in a positive manner in that I'll think about things a little bit more."
Despite the crash on Lookout Mountain, Phinney said he has no bad feelings about Chattanooga. He hopes he is able to come back for the USA Cycling pro championships next year to get a measure of revenge on the race that cost him what was promising to be a special year.
"There's no resentment on my part toward the city of Chattanooga," he said. "It's a cool, hip little town, and it just so happens that I had a bad accident there. But just because of the accident doesn't mean that I have bad feelings. I was treated really well there both before and after the accident.
"I'll be back there next year, race program permitting, and it would be really cool to come back and defend the time trial title and then really gun for the road race and hit that descent hard again -- but in a better way."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.
Jim Tanner has worked as assistant sports editor at the Times Free Press since late 2006. He started at the Times Free Press in 2001 and worked as a news copy/design editor from 2001 through 2006. In addition to working as a night and weekend editor producing local and national sports coverage for print and online readers, Jim occasionally writes local sports and outdoors stories. Jim grew up in Ringgold, Ga., and is a graduate ...