Davis Phinney Interview

Davis Phinney (born 1959 Boulder, Colorado) was credited by Velo News as the Winningest Cyclist in US History with over 300 National and International Category 1 and Professional victories.
Davis began competing in 1976. In 1984 he won an Olympic bronze in the 100K Time Trial and took 5th place in the Olympic Road Race. In 1986 he was the first American to win a road stage in the Tour de France repeating that feat in the 1987 Tour. The list goes on; 1988 Coors International Bicycle Classic overall winner and all time record holder in the Coors International Bicycle Classic with 22 stage wins; In 1988, he finished 2nd in green jersey points competition at the Tour de France and was the 1991 USPRO National Road Champion. Since retiring, he has served on the USPRO Board of Directors from 1997-2000, was a sports marketing director for Pearl Izumi Technical Wear and does charitable work. Davis is married to Connie Carpenter (1984 Olympic Gold Medalist Road Race). They have two children, son Taylor (15) and daughter Kelsey (12). Davis has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and has established the Davis Phinney Foundation to raise money for research into this disease.

Davis Phinney: There is so much information, focus and attention paid towards physical work in sport and training, and to a lesser degree, technique. But ultimately, what has really been bypassed, to a large extent, is the mental part in the process, and the mental preparation necessary to be successful. It’s been touched on by a number of experts. But people generally only go for the bullet points. For the most part they say, “Tell me what to do.”

I think what’s really missing in that approach is just that; People just wanna be told what to do. They want to click off their brain and simply be programmed. And then, you know it’s like ‘hey, I’ll be successful now’, I’ll be a good bike racer, runner, what have you. I see that and I say, “You just don’t get it.” You actually have to start with your own thought process and everything comes from that. Everything originates from the power you have in your mind. For me, the most important tool I had in my career was my brain.

So when people say, “Well, just tell me what to do.” I say, “No, you’ve got to think about it.” A good physiologist can read the numbers and see where [or] how [your] training is going. But ultimately, it’s the athlete who’s on the bike, who’s on the run, who’s on his Nordic skis or whatever, and they’re the ones doing the work, not the coach or trainer. But why do you do the work? Just because someone else tells you too? No! It’s because your mind is saying, “I’ve set a goal and this is where I’ve got [to get] this goal.” That’s what drives the process.

Podium: You are quoted in Bill Strickland’s book – “When I’m on the bike I’m nobody’s friend.” – which is contrary to your social nature. How did this process develop for you?

Davis Phinney: When I was young I spent an inordinate amount of time visualizing what I was going to be and what I was going to do. I really created an entire movie about what I was going look like on the bike and how I was gonna feel. I would go through every scenario of every situation. It was such a complete and true picture to me that when I got in a race I was extremely well prepared.

I wasn’t there to goof around. I wasn’t there to maybe do well. That was my thing. I really only raced to win bike races. That was the only thing I thought about. I never considered not winning the races. I really threw people off because I would be really friendly with everybody; but, [once] the gun went off, especially in American racing, my nature would be completely different. I wanted everybody to serve my purpose, because I was going to win. They were gonna facilitate me winning, and if they weren’t gonna facilitate me winning, I was gonna berate them until they did. Because it was my game. I really wanted it to be my game.

I became very adept at the psychology of racing. For example, you’d have a hundred bike racers held back at a big race, waiting to up to the start line. Everybody would cue up really early to jam in on the front in line, in criteriums especially, the start was really important. I would never do that. I would always ride up from the other direction [facing them] so they were looking at me and make them make space [for me] on the front line.

Everybody, ultimately, allowed that. I was good with the promoters, I was good with the officials, I was good for the race. We had a good sponsor. And you know, 8 out of 10 times I won the race. So I really wanted people to say [to themselves] “Shoot! Phinney’s here. Well maybe I can get second.” That’s what I wanted. That’s what I projected.

Also, I never warmed up in the [expected] manner. Nowadays, everybody has their home trainers and you warm up differently. But back in my day you’d ride laps to warm up. Everybody would be riding fast and really getting their engine primed, and I would go out and ride super slow. I would go almost walking speed. And everybody would be [going] vroom – vroom – vroom, right by me. But I was like “I don’t need to warm up fast.” I just sort of always had to be a little bit different in that way. And it was really fun. It was really fun to get in their heads.

Podium: I had an opportunity to meet your dad one time. And of course, this is important because your son, Taylor, is ripping up the local racing scene these days, but how did your parents encourage, support, or contribute to your racing early on?

Davis Phinney: I think the best thing they did was not get too much in my way. They were definitely concerned about my future, especially my father. Because I wasn’t focused on school and I wasn’t multitasking very well. The cycling came on at a time when I sort of needed something to give me an anchor, or conversely sink my teeth into. My father was definitely concerned. I don’t think he watched me race until I qualified to go the national championships as a junior and we drove out to Kentucky together.

He was supportive but he didn’t know cycling that well. I can really take an interest in what my son, Taylor, is doing and give him so much more insight. I can’t say that my father did that for me. But [that] was in a way almost helpful for me because then I had to figure it out. I learned to be the observer. I had to become the student. Because if I didn’t, how was I going to get any better?

Also, I was really terrified of appearing ignorant. When I was 15 I started racing and [back then] bike racing was very small. In Boulder you had to find a club and be a part of a club to race. You couldn’t just sign up, get a license and race. So I went to a few different bike club meetings. And here’s this kid walking in the door who does not know anybody. It took some self-provocation on my part to do that. But I tried hard to fit in – to not appear the dummy that I was!

Podium: Did you have a buddy that you did that with, or was it just you?

Davis Phinney: No, it was all on me. Whew! You know, it was hard getting started. But I really, really wanted to be a bike racer, and I can’t even say why. I just saw the first Red Zinger in ’75 and said, “I want to do this.” And, I really wanted to do it. My personality was such that when I put my focus on something, everything else fell away. My father kept [saying], “Can you please pay attention to school?” I’m like, “No, I wanna be a bike racer.”

It was big risk to do that in terms of having a balanced life plan. But that was just my personality. My dad ultimately became a huge fan. My mom was always a huge fan. Anything I did was fine with her, but dad laid awake a lot of nights worrying about my future.

With our kids we’ve been much more cognizant of supporting all the things they can do, directing them towards things that are maybe more important for us, or more healthy for them. They are much more balanced. Connie was actually more serious than I was when she was really young. She went to the Olympics at age 14 for speed skating so she was just this phenomenal athlete. Taylor is getting really good grades at Boulder High, has a lot of good friends and has good social time. At the moment, he’s bike racing, so we’ll see. But my support structure was different and I really was grasping for something I could stand out in.

Podium: Do you coach Taylor? How do you work that balance of being supportive but letting it be his?

Davis Phinney: Well, we have a really amazing relationship, my son and I. Because even when they were younger and I was busy I made a lot of time, as much time as I could for the kids. Taylor, because he is three plus years older than his sister, we did a lot of stuff together. I’d call them boy’s weekends. When he was like six we’d throw skis or whatever in the car and just go somewhere as an adventure. And we’d be driving by Vail and it would be 2:30 in the afternoon. I knew they weren’t checking tickets about three so hey! We’d jam on the gondola [and] go get an hour in of skiing. Then we’d drive to Glenwood [and] we’d swim in the hot pool. Then we’d drive to Aspen, find a $60 hotel room, which you can’t do anymore, and just do fun stuff.

So we’ve always had a really good communication level. I have made (right or wrong I don’t know, it will come out in the wash) a huge imprint of my way of thinking and doing things on him.

Now, with his cycling, we simply talk about stuff. When I ride with him I try not to overly impose my opinions on him. If there’s something that I feel strongly about and I’ll say, “Here’s my suggestion. You make your decisions, but here’s my suggestion.” And sometimes he takes it and sometimes he doesn’t. Ultimately, it’s his thing, not mine.

Taylor has very good genetics. He’s almost dual turbocharged. He’s got a lot of the best physical characteristics of his mom and he’s definitely got some of mine. Hopefully, he won’t grow any taller. But to me, the single best quality that Taylor possesses, and his sister (Kelsey) possesses it in spades, is what both Connie and I had; he races to win.

Podium: There are a lot of sport psychologists and coaches that purposely focus on the process not the outcome. Does his mindset to win every time interfere with the way he is developing certain skills?

Davis Phinney: There’s a downside, especially in a sport like cycling and it is just that, if you’re obsessed about winning then you’re not necessarily preparing yourself in the [best] way for the bigger goal. I had that problem, you know? I focused way too much on getting the results in too many races where I really didn’t need to. I think [we will] help with him with that. Because you’re right, it’s easy to not see the forest for the trees because you’re just thinking about [doing] well in this race today, and [then next week] do well in this race today, instead of [preparing] to do well in the bigger race a month from now.

The thing Taylor does well is [not] obsess about the upcoming race all week. He is really engaged. He goes out on a training ride. He’s on that training ride. He’s doing the work and focusing on that training ride, which is better than what I was. ‘Cause on my training rides I was always anticipating [&] visualizing. I was much less in the moment and not really engaged as much as I should’ve been in the process.

That’s important for two reasons. Because when you’re engaged in the process you’re focusing on the work that you need to do, and you are in tune with how you feel. More importantly, you’re also experiencing what you’re doing and that’s what ultimately makes your life rich over time. It’s about being acutely aware of the experience that you’re having as you do it, not “well I’m doing this, but I’m thinking about that.”

When I went to the Olympics, I hadn’t paid attention directly to what I had been doing for two years because I had been thinking only about the Olympic road race. I didn’t win the Olympic road race and it was the biggest, bitterest defeat of my life. I finished 5th, which was good but I really had only anticipated winning and it was a good lesson to me [as I thought to myself] “What did you do for the last two years?” You only thought about this one moment and when that moment didn’t happen, it was like a failure of two years – instead of acknowledging that within those two years, [there] were a lot of great rides, great races, great experiences. It was a good lesson for me.”

Podium: How did you come back from that adversity?

Davis Phinney: I just turned pro and upped my training level and gave myself a new direction, a new focus, and we started pointing towards the Tour de France. But, you know, I have relived that dumb Olympic road race at least 10,000 times. Even occasionally [now] I’ll catch myself reliving a moment in that race saying, “Well, if I would’ve only done this.” That’s how strong that was in my system.

That was an interesting experience, but that [connection to Olympic results] is also where it really, really tweaked me to listen to the PR from certain athletes at this year’s Olympic games saying, “I’m just here to have fun”. That is such hooey. If you are there to have fun, you shouldn’t be there, in my view…because I view you go to the Olympics to represent your country and be a medal contender. And that doesn’t equate to having a ‘good time’ – like it’s a party.

Podium: When you think about the mental skills, you think about focus vs. distraction, or the influence of the press on how an athlete prepares. Looking at these mental skills – confidence building, concentration, overcoming adversity, putting yourself into a positive mental frame of mind – who taught you about those things?

Davis Phinney: That was all self-taught, basically. Like I said, I was a great daydreamer. I would muse about things for amazing amounts of time. Once I graduated from high school I chose not to go to college so I could be a bike racer full time. Well, I had to get a job so I worked at Celestial Seasonings, the second shift, four to midnight, packing bulk tea, which was about as mindless a job as you could imagine. There were a couple of [cycling] magazines that I [followed] and I picked out one rider who was the best rider of his time when I started.

He was Belgian, Freddie Maertins. Guy won 56 races in one year; won the world championships; won like eight stages of the Tour de France. I mean, he was unreal. So I picked him as the guy I was going pattern myself [after], and visualized myself as. I had a picture of Freddie Maertins, in one magazine, a side profile of him in a time trial from the Paris-Nice Stage Race. I would look at that picture when I was home. Then when I went to work; for eight hours in my mind I would recreate the imagery of that picture and think about how I could be like that. Then when I would go riding, I would see my body position like his body position [and] I morphed myself. But it was because I was doing this mundane job for eight hours at a stretch, where in my mind I just created the image of who I wanted to be.

Podium: Research in sport psychology suggests that visualization is one of the most difficult mental skills to master.

Davis Phinney: I would say, in the modern era, we have way too many distractions. You don’t need to visualize because you’re always doing something that is in your face. Watching TV, the computer, and people don’t read nearly as much as they use to. I grew up reading quite a bit. Reading a book is a different way of ingesting information. [You’re] creating a picture in your head. So I guess I would say I was lucky to grow up in a time when we only had five TV channels. Most of the shows sucked. Everything was black and white. I didn’t go riding with an iPod. Bike riding was a wonderful way to spend five, six, seven hours in your head. It just worked for my personality to engage myself mentally. I really used to take pride in the philosophy that there was no problem that I couldn’t figure out the answer to, if I had enough time to think about it. And so my problem was how to be a better bike rider. Over years I just thought about all the little things that I could improve on; what can I do to improve my spin? What can I do to improve my sprint? The question was always “what” – what can I do to improve? And then I would pinpoint some area, and go out training and think about it.

One thing that I denoted, which was really crucial for me to make a big jump, was that the first couple years I was riding it was classic old school tutelage – go out and ride little gears, don’t really train that hard in the winter and ride your bike a lot as opposed to doing other exercise. What happened to me was that I read an article about Nordic skiing and a Swedish skier, named Tomas Magnusson. His philosophy was to out-train the competition. That year, in Sweden, they had no snow. So he shoveled a one meter wide path of snow, one kilometer long, and he skied back and forth 50 to 60 times a day.

And I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s what you gotta do.” You gotta define what you can do that’s different than everybody else, that’s got to give you the edge. It hit me like a ton of bricks. “Yeah! I’m gonna train when everybody else is taking time off in the winter. I’m gonna train more.” So when I was 18 I gave myself the prescription that I was going to train, minimally three hours a day, seven days a week in the winter. I was going to integrate a gym workout and define the right circuit training [routine] to improve all my weaknesses. I was gonna do a ton of hiking, developed this whole system of putting rocks in my pack and carrying them up the hill, dropping them at the top, and then coming back down. I was Nordic skiing. I was doing three, four, five hour bike rides. I just got into it, you know?

And I made this quantum leap, quantum leap. And I loved this. On all those days when nobody else was going out, I went out. And I figured out something that I could do that would get me one more step up the ladder.

Podium: How did you focus on nutritionally supporting this working out back when you were doing it?

Davis Phinney: Well, like almost everything with me I was self taught. I just didn’t accept being told what to do. People would tell me what to do, but then I’d say, “Well, let me think about that. Does this make sense? Does it work for me? Is it the right thing to do?” So I moved around a lot with diet. I had quite a bit of influence. My father was a runner and he had a fair amount of literature about training, about diet, nutrition, rest, stuff put out by Arthur Lydiard and whatever the body of knowledge available was. I actually went through a period of vegetarianism when I was 18 or 19 based on some of the philosophies of the day. Then when I went and raced in Europe that went straight out the window because I realized that ultimately you have to be adaptive. You have to be able to change environments and your body has to assimilate whatever it is that you can put into it. I realized by being extreme I had really restricted myself. But it was a good learning experience. I used to eat a lot. I could’ve eaten less. I could’ve been lighter. Now the guys eat like rabbits and they train like machines. I don’t really know how they do that. For me it was more like, train a lot, eat a lot. Eat a lot, train a lot. It just worked out that way.

Podium: Talk about going to Europe, and riding the Tour de France.

Davis Phinney: Well, those are two different things. First, going to Europe, I was 19 when I went to Italy. Holy Moly!! We had no idea what we were doing. Nobody from our team had any European experience. None of us riders had ever raced in Europe, ever! Nothing! So we were really just guessers. It was total guesswork. You get there and you’re just so over-awed because it is like going to mars, you know? But it’s a mars that you’ve imagined, and you’ve read about, and you’ve idolized these guys. You’re riding down the road and you see the famous names of the day are written on the sides of the walls. It was pretty dramatic for me. At first, I was pretty uncompetitive. Really, I could hang in there but there was so much to adapt to in those early years in Europe. But it served a great purpose. Because having gone to Europe and really getting spanked, I still came back into the smaller pond and I was like, “Yeah, I just raced in Europe”, and I was better, more competitive. Again, psychologically, I really needed that. What worked for me was to play in the small pool and then go jump in the ocean, and almost drown, but not quite. And then come back to the smaller pool and feel myself a bigger fish. That was really critical with my evolution. I had to do both, but not to the point where I exclusively was in this huge pool and drowning all the time. I progressively became a better ‘swimmer’ and racer, and ultimately, became totally dominant in my home water – and competitive in Europe.

Podium: How did winning a couple of stages of the Tour de France fit in with the overall experience in cycling?

Davis Phinney: One thing I feel like I never quite mastered in Europe was the [same] psychology that I had in the states. I always felt a little bit like a visitor there. And I never really felt like I could take ownership of a race there. Certainly it was more competitive but the racing style didn’t suit me nearly as well [as in the States]. I probably would’ve been better served to go back to my [earlier] philosophy of really trying to figure out why that was. I said [to myself], “I don’t have enough endurance [and] I just worked exclusively on climbing and endurance for the last seven years of my career. But because I neglected my sprint, I never became a dominant sprinter in Europe. Ironically, [Because] I viewed myself as a sprinter, I gave up a huge part of my arsenal. That shift [in my thinking] fit the definition of ‘allowing yourself to become like everybody else’. I can really see that clearly now. But when you’re in it you want so much to fit in to that world that you morph into something that you would be better served not to.

It’s funny, because when I first turned pro in 1985, I was aggressive. I was climbing hard. I was getting results in races where sprinters were dropped. But pretty quickly I went backwards from that just because I allowed myself to be categorized.

Podium: How has your career in racing helped you address these health challenges [Parkinson’s Disease]?

Davis Phinney: Well, I’m pretty lucky having been an athlete to address the challenge of living with a disabling disease. You sort of focus on it like a project, like you would being a good athlete. But instead of managing your growth, you are managing your diminishment. It takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness to deal with this disease in a reasonably good fashion. So a lot of that self-awareness comes from having had a lot of self thought in training as an athlete, so I think it serves me to a large degree.

Podium: What has been your greatest thrill in sport?

Davis Phinney: Good Question. Wow. Good question. (Long pause) I don’t know if I have an answer to that. You know, that’s the kind of question where you either get the immediate picture of one moment, or you get snapshots of so many different things. In my case I just went through forty years of snapshots. Hitting a homerun when I played in little league – winning blue ribbons at Flatirons Elementary School in track and field day – beating my father for the first time ever in a Nordic ski race – winning my very first bike race in downtown Denver at Larimer Square – and then it just goes [on] from there. I have so many. I mean – I have had a life of sport. And I’ve really been defined by sport. It’s allowed me to be everything and more than I ever could’ve imagined. And given me so much of my confidence and allowed me to put myself out there.

It’s funny, because you would think I would say winning the Tour stage in Bordeaux or whatever. But those are not so much what comes to mind anymore. It really is just the little things that fill in those couple of big pieces.

But actually I want to tell you one story about one of the greatest things that has happened in my life in sport. It was when we were living in Italy. My son was playing soccer for this Italian team and it’s a tremendously high level of play there. In the first year we were there he was on the bench a lot. It took him forever to really find his game. Finally in the spring, he got his game.

We went to this tournament and he just blossomed. In the second day he just took over the field. It was like, “Wow! This is the kid I know, “he’s the Man.” Anyway, after the first day we came home he said, “Dad, I want to practice something.” So we went out in the backyard and we had a clothesline and hung up like what you call in soccer “a wall”. He practiced a “direct kick” where you have a wall of players in front of the goalie. I was the goalie, and he kicked that shot over and over and over again. One particular shot maybe 30 meters outside of the goal, over the wall, into the corner of the net – like a hundred times.

The next day in the game he scores, they score, 1-1 game coming down to the end. They get a foul, outside of the box, and [we] have a direct kick. They set up the wall. Taylor steps up. It’s an exact replication of what we had practiced at his initiative the night before. He kicks it perfectly, over the wall, top corner, his team wins the game. I would say that was probably one of my best moments of sport ever. It was so perfect! Everybody went ballistic. They won the tournament. It was fantastic. (Laughter)

And so that’s what’s cool about sports — it’s not all about you, you know? You can get these great gratifying moments and [they] just go right to the [heart] – cuts to the chase. Ultimately, that’s what you want to be able to be a part of. Because that’s what makes all the work, and the effort, and the visualization all worth it, It’s to see a moment and then make it real. That tops everything!

Here’s the Podcast:


2 thoughts on “Davis Phinney Interview

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