published Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Taylor Phinney's bike race crash in Volkswagen USA Cycling 'was just awful'

  • photo
    A race spectator's camera caught the scene as, descending Lookout Mountain, Taylor Phinney crashes into the guardrail just after crossing the bridge over the Incline Railway.

Jeanne Crawford knows how risky the Scenic Highway bridge across the Incline Railway can be.

Crawford's family has owned and operated Lookout Mountain Memories gift shop by that bridge since 1928, and she's seen the left-hand bend of that bridge claim more than a few cars over the years.

Before the road ahead of the bridge was paved about three years ago, she'd go out after every rain and pick up car parts.

"I had enough to build a car, but just not the right model. I mean every time it rained there would be about five wrecks there. Now they have redone that, but it's still tricky."

Crawford, a retired Hamilton County schoolteacher, had an up-close view Monday when professional cyclists Taylor Phinney and Lucas Euser wrecked on the bridge during the men's road race at the USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships. Phinney broke the tibia and fibula in his left leg, derailing what had been a great start to the season and dashing his plans to race in the Tour de France next month.

Crawford was watching the race in her parking lot when the accident happened.

"Of course, police cars come by and other guys come by. Then I see the motor marshal come by, and all of a sudden the next two guys are on him. I mean they came so quick.

"I don't think that he [the motor marshal] realized they were that close, and when he did he was trying to move over. That's when his wheel seemed like it was wobbling because he was trying to move over.

"At that time I didn't know it was Phinney, but they were just too close to the bridge. He passed [the motorcycle] on the left and he never could recover. He just went on into the guardrail. ... It was just awful."

That's the same thing Euser remembered: a moto forcing him and Phinney to change course, resulting in the accident.

On the other side of the bridge from Crawford, mountain resident Beth Ward was shooting pictures as Phinney and Euser crashed, although she didn't realize what she had photographed until later.

"I was looking through the camera as things were happening," she commented. "So it wasn't until I was looking at the pictures later that I said 'Oh, this happened or that happened.'"

One photo captures the accident: Phinney sliding under the guardrail just past the bridge as his bicycle bounces down Scenic Highway, Euser on the right, trying to keep his bike upright, and a race motorcycle in the right-hand lane on the bridge. The moto driver appears to have his left foot on the pavement.

The photo shows hay bales placed at the front edge of the bridge, but none at the end where Phinney went into the guardrail.

Ward said she heard Phinney moaning, at one point saying, "my leg," while Euser tried to keep him calm until medical help arrived. How Phinney came to rest in that spot is still unclear to Ward.

"I'm still trying to picture the trajectory and the angles," she said. "My impression was that he skidded across the road. Like he was in the left lane and skidded all the way over [to the right] under the guardrail. But it happened so fast; I don't know."

Phinney's mother, Connie Carpenter Phinney, is a former national champion cyclist and Olympic gold medalist. What she saw in Ward's photo was that the motorcycle forced the two riders to change their angle into the left-hand turn.

"Clearly there was a moto where it shouldn't have been," Carpenter Phinney said Friday in Chattanooga, where she has been while her son recuperated in Erlanger hospital from two surgeries on his injured leg.

"Typically in a bike race you have motorcycles in the race. You have varying degrees of motorcycle involvement in a race to keep the race safe.

"There is a lot to manage, but everybody's health and well-being depends on that being managed professionally. This is the national championships, and you would expect the highest level done to secure a clear and open road."

Time stamps on Ward's photos show it took just six minutes from when Phinney hit the guardrail until he was on a gurney to be put in an ambulance.

"How lucky were we that we were in such close proximity to a Level 1 trauma unit," Carpenter Phinney said. "He had great care at the scene of the accident. They got him to the hospital, and I think they did everything right from the first minute. That's going to be critical to him in this recovery process."

Phinney was transported from Chattanooga on Saturday to continue his recovery at a hospital in Park City, Utah.

"We are doing our best to make sure Taylor receives quality medical treatment and care and we hope he makes a full recovery," BMC Racing Team President and General Manager Jim Ochowicz said in a statement. "A special thanks goes out to everyone who has helped him with his care and also the fans who have sent him their well wishes and encouragements on social media."

USA Cycling officials said last week there would be an inquiry into the accident.

"The nature of racing is that there are officials' vehicles on the road [during races]. Cyclists know to look out for them, and vice versa," USA Cycling director of communications Bill Kellick said Friday. "It was just an unfortunate part of the bike race, and obviously we're just saddened that it happened.

"We of course wish Taylor a speedy recovery."

Crawford expressed sympathy for Phinney and his family as he seeks to return to his sport.

"My heart just hurts for them," she said. "I have prayed and prayed for the whole family because it's going to be so difficult. ... I just pray that he comes back with a vengeance. ... I think that he will have a tale to tell."

Ward said that accidents such as Phinney's and the fatality in last year's 3-State, 3-Mountain Challenge concern her as a resident and driver on Lookout Mountain.

"I just feel so badly about the woman who was the innocent cause of that cyclist's death [in last year's 3-State, 3-Mountain Challenge]," she said. "That could happen to me so easily with the way cyclists are going up and down Lookout Mountain now.

"That worries me. I don't want to cause anybody's injury."

As for the future of USA Cycling's national championships in Chattanooga and on Lookout Mountain, Crawford said she remains a fan of the event and hopes to see the cyclists return next year and for years to come.

"My shop is called Mountain Memories, but I don't want this memory to be repeated," she said. "But I hope if we can we can get it extended [beyond 2015]. That would just be great.

"We're Chattanooga, you know? Come on -- that's what we do -- we love, we embrace. I mean, we didn't build that mountain; God did."

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JFTanner.

about Jim Tanner...

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 ...

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