For two decades, Davis Phinney was one of America’s most successful cyclists. He won two stages at the Tour de France and an Olympic medal. But after years of feeling off, he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s. The body that had been his ally was now something else: a prison.
The Happiness of Pursuit is the story of how Davis sought to overcome his Parkinson’s by reaching back to what had made him so successful on the bike and adjusting his perspective on what counted as a win. The news of his diagnosis began a dark period for this vibrant athlete, but there was also light. His son Taylor’s own bike-racing career was taking off. Determined to beat the Body Snatcher, Davis underwent a procedure called deep brain stimulation. Although not cured, his symptoms abated enough for him to see Taylor compete in the Beijing Olympics. Davis Phinney had won another stage. But the joy, he discovered, was in the pursuit.
With humor and grace, Phinney weaves the narrative of his battle with Parkinson’s with tales from his cycling career and from his son’s emerging career. The Happiness of Pursuit is a remarkable story of fathers and sons and bikes, of victories large and small.
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About the Author
David Phinney is a former professional cyclist, a TV commentator, and one of three Americans to win multiple stages of the Tour de France. In 2000, he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's Disease. Today he and his wife, Connie Carpenter Phinney, an Olympic gold medalist, run the Davis Phinney Foundation.
Austin Murphy is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.
Read an Excerpt
I didn’t know where the kid was going. I just knew it was
going to be interesting. I was standing next to my twenty-yearold
son Taylor on the dais at an awards banquet in Davis, California.
I’d just introduced him to a crowd of three hundred or so
people at a ceremony hosted by the US Bicycling Hall of Fame.
USA Cycling had named Taylor its 2010 Male Athlete of the Year.
As he made his way to the lectern, someone fired up a Lady
Gaga tune, inspiring T to shake his booty in the direction of the
crowd, which roared with laughter. The prospect of giving an acceptance
speech didn’t exactly rattle him.
Taylor could have talked about any number of victories: in the five
years he’s been racing a bike, he’s won five world championships.
Instead, he told the story of “the Text,” a message I’d sent him as he
struggled through a tough French race called the Tour de l’Avenir.
After winning the prologue — a short, solo effort against the
clock — he’d crashed heavily on a rain-slicked descent toward the
end of the second stage. As he lay dazed and bleeding on the road,
his shorts and jersey shredded, he was ringed by anxious onlookers:
his team director, Patrick Jonker, and several paramedics, all
of them Tour de France veterans. They urged him to abandon the
race, to board the waiting ambulance. Shaking them off, T climbed
back on his bike. He went from the yellow jersey to the lanterne
rouge that day — from first to last. After returning from the hospital
with a half mile of bandages on his left side, he took the start
the next morning.
He raced in pain that day and the next. On the eve of Stage 5,
the most mountainous and difficult of the race, he sent me a text,
describing his condition as “pretty f-ed.” His will to keep racing
seemed to be wavering. “If they go crazy on those climbs tomrw
and I get dropped . . . not sure if I’ll finish.”
“So I send that to my dad,” Taylor told his audience, “and I
get back a text about this long.” He held his thumb and forefinger
about five inches apart.
While laughing along with the crowd, I also reflected on how
much time it had taken me to peck out a five-inch text message.
Since my diagnosis with young-onset Parkinson’s disease about
ten years ago, my hands don’t work as well as they used to.
Taylor wanted to bail on the race, is what it boiled down to, and
he wanted my blessing. Which was not forthcoming.
“Hmmm. OK. See how it goes,” is how I began my reply. “Start
with the mindframe that you’re gonna finish the stage, tho, otherwise
you’re done for sure.” And I proceeded to lay it on thick. If he
was capable of competing, he needed to honor his commitment to
his team, to show his true character, to remember what his mother
and I had instilled in him from the beginning, the lesson my own
father had drilled into me: Phinneys don’t quit.
Before beginning this memoir, I held in my head a CliffsNotes version
of my father as a kind of cold, close-minded scientist who impeded
my success as much as he enabled it. The exercise of writing
this book made me realize, fairly quickly, that while it made
my journey seem slightly more heroic — Look at everything I’ve had
to overcome! — the CliffsNotes version was incomplete, and unfair.
Damon Dodge Phinney had more depth and generosity than I
long gave him credit for. His love was often disguised, but always
present. Even as he disagreed with what he viewed as my risky,
wrong-headed career choice, he supported me. In his way. He took
time off from his job to drive me to races from Kentucky to Canada
to California. His fervent wish that I wasn’t racing didn’t stop
him from peppering me with advice on how to race better. One or
two days after my competitions, he would slide unsolicited, single-
spaced typed letters under my apartment door. Disapproving
of my line of work (he would have much preferred to see me
head off to college) didn’t preclude him from holding — and sharing
— strong opinions on how I went about my job. After giving
them a brisk once-over, I usually tossed them, believing I knew
better. As I grew older and recalled his advice, I was struck by how
spot-on and incisive it often was.
Damon was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer in 1987.
It was grim news, and, in its way, a blessing. Rather than a death
sentence, he heard a gong that jarred him out of his lifelong stoicism.
It was in the final fourteen years of his life that my father
truly learned to reach out to people, to show the world his inner
light, even as he fought his cancer like a Spartan at Thermopylae.
In so doing, he set an example of grace and courage that turned
out to be his greatest gift to me, as I cope with my own chronic
“Phinneys don’t quit,” declared Taylor, explaining to the audience
why he gutted it out in Stage 5 at the Tour de l’Avenir. Because
he made that decision, because he pushed through the pain, because
he endured, he learned something vital. T stayed the course,
worked hard for his team, and, following that ebb, he began to
flow. He felt stronger at the end of that eight-day race than he had
in the beginning. And the form he found in the final stages of
L’Avenir helped him ten days later in Greenville, South Carolina.
There, he won his first professional national road title, eking out a
0.14-second victory over Levi Leipheimer in the USPRO time trial
championships — a stunning outcome. Levi is one of the best in the
world in that discipline. A fortnight after Greenville, Taylor won
the U23 (under twenty-three) world title in the same event in Melbourne,
Those races down under were his last as an espoir. (That’s a
French word for a promising young rider. Translated literally, it
means “hope.”) T was primed for his next quantum leap — this
time to the top of the pro ranks. He’d recently signed a multimillion-
dollar deal with the BMC professional racing team. Funded
by Swiss businessman Andy Rihs, BMC is directed by my old boss,
It was Och (rhymes with “coach”) who created the 7-Eleven
team I rode with for nine years, from its early-’80s success in this
country through its pioneering days as the first North American
team to contest the Tour de France. Twenty years after my last race
in the red, white, and green tricot of Team Slurpee, as we were
known, we entrusted Taylor to Jim’s care.
To follow Taylor’s races in Melbourne, I found myself devouring
Twitter updates at 3 a.m. in a Glasgow hotel. While he was in Australia
for Worlds, I was in Scotland for the World Parkinson’s Congress.
In addition to serving as a featured speaker at three of the
sessions, I represented the foundation that bears my name. Meeting
with leaders in the PD community, I engaged in our ongoing
conversation on how to live better with this disease.
Sixteen years after I stopped riding a bike for a living, I’m still
in a race. But this is a race I can’t quit, or even take a break from.
Like an insidious vine, Parkinson’s has crept and coiled its way into
every corner and recess of my life, slowing me in all ways. The disease
has forced me to see the world differently — to recognize and
seize the small moments, the hidden grace notes available to us every
day. That explains the tag line, or motto, of the Davis Phinney
Foundation: Every Victory Counts.
Three of Taylor’s world titles, incidentally, have come in the individual
pursuit, an event contested by riders who start on opposite
sides of a banked oval track. The Happiness of Pursuit is more than
just a pun on my son’s track specialty. On a deeper level, “pursuit”
denotes action. It is the opposite of the inertia and resignation
that have settled on too many members of my tribe, as I refer
to my tremulous collective. “Pursuit” in this context means taking
responsibility for your own happiness. It is the pro-active seeking
out of what I have come to call “curative moments.”
Living the last two decades with PD, I’ve learned to savor and
magnify these moments. I appreciate that I have more control over
the course of the disease than I once thought, and that these lesser
triumphs provide their own source of cure. And that is the heart,
the crux, the essence of my message to the tribe.
With a chronic illness, it can be all too easy to live in the shadows,
to become absorbed in the down times, but in bike racing, as
in life, it’s imperative never to renoncer a l’espoir — to give up hope.
To concede, to abandon the race, is to miss out on those charged
instances, those gratifying moments of victory, those few seconds
that sustain us. Those stories, and the lessons therein, make up the
happiness of pursuit.
Table of Contents
1. Good News 1
2. Diagnosis 10
3. The Road 22
4. The Amateur 44
5. Ahab 55
6. The Big C 66
7. “We’re Just the Americans, Man!” 78
8. I Can’t Believe It. I Won? 92
9. You’re Not Supposed to See This 104
10. If God Were a Cyclist . . . 112
11. For a Little While, I Was Cured 121
12. Desperation 131
13. Dad, I Gotta Do This 138
14. The Trenches 146
15. Rocket Launch 154
16. The Gavia 172
17. The Light in Your Face Just Came On Again 182
18. Beyond Beijing 186
19. As Good As It Gets 202
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Quick Version:This is the story of three generations of Phinneys-a story about life on a bike, life in a family, life in the spotlight, and life lived with devastating illness.Long Version:In the mid-1980s Davis Phinney and his 7-Eleven team cohorts took European cycling by storm as they demanded respect for American cyclists through their actions in the peloton. As a teenager in Germany I followed their rise with great excitement-I even subscribed to Bicycling magazine, not for the gear guides and training tips, but for articles about these young men. In this memoir of a life well lived, Davis Phinney takes his reader through all the excitement of the eighteen years that he experienced The Life, as he calls it. But this book is so very much more than a cycling memoir.One might make the logical assumption, given the book¿s title and the career of the author, that this is a book about bicycle racing. And it is. Those who avidly follow the sport will find lots of edge-of-your-seat action here. However, the expression ¿life in the saddle¿ definitely has more than one meaning to Davis Phinney. It is also a book about more than one man-The Happiness of Pursuit is really the story of three men, the author, his father, and his son.The author, as many know, was a world class cyclist. What many do not know is that Davis Phinney is afflicted with an early onset form of Parkinson¿s Disease (the same illness from which Michael J. Fox suffers). Davis takes us from the height of cycling¿s glory to the depths of life in the grip of The Body Snatcher. From a life of unparalleled physical potential to the inability to tie his shoes. Along the way he refuses to let us pity him, instead providing us with an intimate portrait of personal courage such as I have rarely seen so well expressed in words. The grit that carried him to the top of mountains on a road bike now carries him through the toughest challenge of his life, and he is an inspiration. He credits two things with his ability to embrace this unexpected life: cycling and his father.Damon Phinney was a rocket scientist. Literally. He was not a terribly involved father, and Davis always felt distance between them. Until his dad was diagnosed with the Big C. Cancer changed Damon in the most profound way imaginable. He went from being emotionally unattached to immersing himself in the life of his son, from never smiling to smiling at everyone he met because he felt it lit up the world. More than anything else, he set an example for his son regarding how to live with chronic illness, and not just live, but live an enhanced existence. Damon got on a bike after his diagnosis and rode some of the same challenging road courses that his son competed on; Davis attributes how active he was to the fact that he lived an unheard of nearly ten years post diagnosis. Damon Phinney is beautifully eulogized by his son; the reader can easily see the father in the son.The final Phinney the book follows is Taylor, Davis¿ son. Taylor is said by many to be one of the biggest talents in cycling today and is likely to be an Olympian to watch in London in 2012. Davis gives readers a heart-wrenching look into how difficult it has been to see others handling the physical aspects of shepherding his son¿s career. Despite many high points in this often moving book, the story I will never forget is the one which Davis relates a story of being in the follow car as Lance Armstrong (who was a mentor to Taylor) puts Taylor through his paces on a training run. Davis, gazing through the window, experienced a bittersweet moment-thankful on the one hand for Lance being there for Taylor, but jealous too of the man on the bike beside his son.Towards the end of the book, Davis sums things up:Happiness comes from the pursuits within your life-whether those dreams are lofty Olympic ambitions or those smaller everyday goals that I now set for myself. In fact, happiness occurs most often in those moments when I¿m pursuing nothing more
Phinney has been a hero to me since the early days of American cycling & Team 7-Eleven. Great stories, great life lessons.
Quick Version: This is the story of three generations of Phinneys-a story about life on a bike, life in a family, life in the spotlight, and life lived with devastating illness. Long Version: In the mid-1980s Davis Phinney and his 7-Eleven team cohorts took European cycling by storm as they demanded respect for American cyclists through their actions in the peloton. In this memoir of a life well lived, Davis Phinney takes his reader through all the excitement of the eighteen years that he experienced The Life, as he calls it. But this book is so very much more than a cycling memoir. One might make the logical assumption, given the book's title and the career of the author, that this is a book about bicycle racing. And it is. Those who avidly follow the sport will find lots of edge-of-your-seat action here. However, the expression "life in the saddle" definitely has more than one meaning to Davis Phinney. It is also a book about more than one man-it is really the story of three men, the author, his father, and his son. The author, as many know, was a world class cyclist. Davis Phinney is afflicted with an early onset form of Parkinson's Disease (the same illness from which Michael J. Fox suffers). He takes us from the height of cycling's glory to the depths of life in the grip of The Body Snatcher. From a life of unparalleled physical potential to the inability to tie his shoes. Along the way he refuses to let us pity him, instead providing us with an intimate portrait of personal courage. The grit that carried him to the top of mountains on a road bike now carries him through the toughest challenge of his life, and he is an inspiration. He credits two things with his ability to embrace this unexpected life: cycling and his father. Damon Phinney was a rocket scientist. Literally. He was not a terribly involved father, and Davis always felt distance between them. Until his dad was diagnosed with the Big C. Cancer changed Damon in the most profound way imaginable. He went from being emotionally unattached to immersing himself in the life of his son, from never smiling to smiling at everyone he met because he felt it lit up the world. More than anything else, he set an example for his son regarding how to live with chronic illness, and not just live, but live an enhanced existence. Davis attributes the fact that he lived an unheard of nearly ten years post diagnosis to Damon's refusal to hole up and die. Damon Phinney is beautifully eulogized by his son. The final Phinney the book follows is Taylor, Davis' son. Davis gives readers a heart-wrenching look into how difficult it has been to see others handling the physical aspects of shepherding his son's career. One story I will never forget is the one in which Davis relates being in the follow car as Lance Armstrong puts Taylor through his paces on a training run. Davis, gazing through the window, experienced a bittersweet moment-thankful on the one hand for Lance being there for Taylor, but jealous too of the man on the bike beside his son. You will want time to ponder and a tissue box handy as you read this one. I guarantee that while parts will make you want to stand up and cheer others will bring you to your knees in tears. A moving, glorious tribute to life in all its forms.