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The Happiness Of Pursuit, by Davis Phinney


Title: The Happiness Of Pursuit - A Father's Courage, a Son's Love and Life's Steepest Climb
Author: Davis Phinney (with Austin Murphy)
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year: 2011
Pages: 227
Order: Houghton Mifflin
What it is: A biography of Davis Phinney - husband of Connie Carpenter, father of Taylor Phinney and a pretty cool guy in his own right.
Strengths: Deeply personal and refreshingly candid. It's a book that can make you smile and cry within a couple of pages.
Weaknesses: Made me realise that I really, really want to see Connie Carpenter's story told some day.

So there's this guy, right. Successful bike rider. Great wife. Cool kids. Probably has a wonderful house and all those other things in the Talking Heads song too. And he's making the break into the world of TV. Then. one day when he's doing a rider interview, everyone starts noticing that his hand, holding the microphone, is shaking. Fuck, he must nervous. Fuck, he must be cold. Fuck, he must have been knocking back the caffeine. Whatever it is, it ain't nice to look at. There's something disconcerting about watching people shake uncontrollably.

It wasn't nervousness. It wasn't cold. It wasn't caffeine. It wasn't a load of other things either. So this guy started asking the medicos to tell him what it was. And they poked him and they prodded him, probably did all that shit you see in House, where they keep guessing wrong until they finally guess right, only without the near-death experiences. They finally guessed right when they gave him a pill and it cured his symptoms.

Then the doctors called him in and gave him the good news / bad news spiel. The good news: his positive response to the pill they'd given him enabled them to diagnose his problem. The bad news: the diagnosis was that he had Parkinson's. The early onset variety. This guy, he was forty years old.

Ain't that a kick in the nuts?

* * * * *

Hiding the fact that that guy was Davis Phinney is hard to do when you're writing a review of his book. Why even try? I dunno. Maybe it shows how difficult it is to accept that Phinney has Parkinson's.

I remember, a few years back, finding out that Phinney had been diagnosed with Parkinson's. My mother has Parkinson's, was diagnosed with it a few years back, shortly before my father died, and I know how hard and how frustrating she finds it. I know how hard and how frustrating I and the rest of the family find it. But my mother, she's like, way old. Older than me. Davis Phinney ... I can remember seeing that guy riding in the Tour de France. I've got this picture of him in my head. Ageless. Parkinson's just doesn't fit into that picture. Even when I force myself to age the picture, Parkinson's just doesn't fit. No way, no how. Not him.

Since being diagnosed with Parkinson's Phinney has fought a very public struggle with the disease. Formed his own foundation - the Davis Phinney Foundation For Parkinson's - and taken his message on the road. I can be a cynical bastard at times, and I don't really get this foundation thing, particularly in cycling. Call it a cultural difference, something that probably works in the US but is still relatively knew over this side of the Atlantic. Or maybe it's just me.

But the unexpected thing about reading The Happiness of Pursuit is that Phinney somehow kicked my cynicism into touch. Okay, maybe I've got some personal things going on here, the mother and the memories and all that. Are they enough to make me give The Happiness of Pursuit a soft ride? I'd like to think not, but so what if they are? At worst, what made Phinney's book work for me won't make it work for you. But I'll try and tell you what made it work for me anyway.

There is another, important, factor that needs to be considered in my reading of The Happiness of Pursuit. Before picking this one up I read Geoff Drake's Team 7-Eleven. There is, obviously, a lot of crossover between the two books. With Drake's book being particularly poor - too much chest-thumping jingoism and not enough objectivity - was I really ready for another take on even a part of the 7-Eleven story? Thankfully I took the risk and The Happiness of Pursuit rewarded with a story told with the sort of frankness and humility that I only wish Drake could have even dreamed of emulating.

So, what's it all about then? The Happiness of Pursuit doesn't really synopsise well. It's a three-part story: a story about Phinney and his relationship with his father; a story about Phinney and his relationship with his son; and a story about Phinney and how he has had to learn to live with Parkinson's. Let's be honest here, synopsising it like that certainly doesn't make it sound like much a barrel of laughs, does it?

Truth is, The Happiness of Pursuit has plenty of funny little bits in it. Try this one: Phinney's on a plane one day, this'd be a few months after the LA Olympics, late '84. There's a granny in the seat next to him and she's going on about the Games and about Connie Carpenter winning gold: "It was so exciting!" And then granny adds the kicker: "Her husband, I forget his name, but he was such a disappointment. I wonder what happened to him?" Are grannies naturally cruel or do you think they have to go to granny school and work on it?

That Connie Carpenter thing - for me - is one of the curious things about Davis Phinney. He's the guy who, for a time, was known as Connie Carpenter's husband. Nowadays he's the guy who's known as Taylor Phinney's father. What's curious about that is that Phinney was a sprinter. Let's be brutally honest here a moment: just about the most egotistical kind of cyclist out there is the sprinter. It's a discipline that calls for supreme self-confidence, often bordering on arrogance. For a sprinter to be known as someone else's husband, someone else's father ...

In between being husband and father, Phinney earned his own reputation. Back in the day, on the American circuit, he was known as the Cash Register, the amount of prize money he hoovered up. And then, when the Americans started coming over to Europe in ever larger numbers, Phinney was one of the supporting stars of cycling's Baby Boom generation, the years of the Foreign Legion, when the doors of the old cycling world got kicked wide open. Phinney was one of the Slurpees, the 7-Eleven squad who came over to this part of the world advertising a convenience store few of us had ever heard of. And, if that's all you're looking for, Phinney has plenty to say about those days.

Cycling is central to the book's two father-son stories, the stories of Phinney's relationships with his father and his son. The story of his own father is a not untypical story of a father and a son who just never really understood one and other until the son had turned into an adult and - atypically - they got a do over. That story also explains something of why Phinney is so close to Lance Armstrong, his father having been diagnosed with prostate cancer in '87, and survived it for the best part of a decade and a half.

The key strand, running through all the different stories, is life with Parkinson's. Some of the time when Phinney tells a story from his racing days, it's to illustrate a point about life with the big PD. Like a story from the 1990 Tour when, in the Alps, he blew a gasket after all the exertion of defending Steve Bauer's yellow jersey for most of the previous week.

Cresting the Col de la Madeline he was twenty minutes off the back and still shipping time. With another hundred klicks and two climbs to go, he was toast. Climbing the Glandon, having toyed with quitting, it hit him: he was going to do this. One way or another, he was going to make that finish line and beat the cut off. He hit Alpe d'Huez more than half an hour after the first riders had gone through, one of the tail end Charlies. The crowd carried him upward:

"Their languages and cheers flowed together, willing me forward [Allez! Allez! Hop, hop! Dai, dai, dai! Courage Phiney!]. So thick were the crowds, I found myself in a vortex of noise and sweat and energy. Plenty of those fans had camped out; they'd been partying for days. It was a raucous, unruly group, so I was gratified to see a motorcycle gendarme tuck in ahead of me ten switchbacks from the top, to lead me through the chaos. I ate his fumes the whole way, the crowd parting just wide enough for the two of us to get past. Any pain I might have felt was smothered by deafening noise and a sea of energy as hands reached out to push and a virtual cascade of cooling water was poured over my head."

Through the town he rode and round the final turn before the finish line and there in front of Phinney was ... the sight of the finish area being dismantled to be driven ahead to where it was needed next. But he'd made it. Two whole minutes ahead of the cut-off. As the years have gone by, Phinney has returned time and again to that day and the lesson he finally learned from it:

"That long day on the Alpe proved a triumph - if only for me. In losing I gained something so valuable that it shines like a beacon within me. I know I can persevere. I can do this. While I may entertain occasional thoughts about quitting, I am not a quitter. I will not give a millimetre to this disease, will not let it take me easily. I will pursue life, pursue living with grace and guts."

Stories from his racing days aren't just some shtick to beat a crowd with, get them whooping and cheering and believing. They're also a survival tool for Phinney himself. They are what he is, a bike racer and a story teller. Times, they're a form of disassociation. Take the day in Spring 2008 when Phinney underwent Deep Brain Stimulation surgery. That was done with limited anaesthetic, Phinney needing to be conscious as the docs needed his feedback. On the operating table that day, Phinney took himself off to another pat of his brain: Gavia '88. Il giorno della neve. The day the day of snow. Way Phinney figured it, if he could survive that, letting some sawbones drill holes in his head was a piece o' cake.

That Deep Brain Stimulation surgery is not a cure for Phinney's Parkinson's. It's good for who knows how long. Five years his docs told him, but you know he's going to knock that out of the ground. You know that. Even so, his time is limited. As Phinney himself would put it, he's in a race. Behind him the pack, Parkinson's trying to catch up with him. Ahead, the prospect of a cure for this disease one day being found. Phinney is not alone out there. He has a family he loves and who love him. He has friends. He has fans still cheering him on. And then there's his tribe, his fellow Parkinson's sufferers.

For his fellow sufferers Phinney offers the lessons he himself has learned, the rules he lives by. Phinney's mantra for coping with Parkinson's is mostly about having realisable goals, finding positive moments, little victories, reasons to be cheerful. Okay, the way I'm telling it there may give it a tinge of Hallmark schmaltz. And maybe it does actually have a tinge of Hallmark schmaltz. But I'll tell you this: the way Phinney sells it, his humility, his openness, well I believe him.

One of the things that helps here is that Phinney is not a total jock, he's not your stereotypical meathead sprinter. All that talk of realisable goals, positive moments, little victories, it's not all about competition, about turning life with Parkinson's into a war. Take this story, from when the family - Phinney, Carpenter, the two kids - moved to Italy, early in the noughties:

"One Sunday, early in our stay in Italy, all four of us went exploring on our town bikes, with no particular destination in mind. We ended up on some back road in the hills between Marostica and Bassano. It was Autumn, and the farmers were burning their organic refuse. The haze and smoke gave the light a certain ... density. We pedalled past Palladian villas whose statues stared imperiously down on us. Everything looked like a postcard - the vineyards, the fallow fields, and the gnarled forms of olive trees. I couldn't put the camera away. To this day those images evoke a sense of place; they preserve memories that might otherwise have dissolved."

Finding images like that, that was - is - a daily victory for Phinney:

"By capturing those images, I was able to safeguard a bit of the joy from the moment of discovery. [...] By stockpiling these snapshots, literal and figurative - a smile from the cute barista with the provocative tattoo, a sunrise over Monte Grappa - I could lose myself in them."

Back in the day, when the 7-Elevens were part of the peloton, I was a fan. They weren't heroes for me, I had guys like Sean Kelly and Bernard Hinault for that. The Slurpees were just a team I liked. And Phinney, next to Andy Hampsten, was probably the most visible Slurpee. What I really remember and what I think I remember, that's hard to separate at this stage, but what I think I remember of Phinney is his ability and willingness to explain things and somehow come across as being modest and humble, even when he wasn't.

That modesty and humility is, for me, what makes The Happiness of Pursuit work. I've already warned you not to trust me on this one, I've got my own personal reasons for buying into this book. But I would like to think that, even without that, you'll see for yourself that there is something in this story that's worth reading. It's a story that's told well, with eloquence, with wit and yes, with guts and grace. In my book, a well told story is always worth reading. There's not nearly enough of them about.