The cyclists in Chattanooga over the weekend for the USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial Championships displayed the beauty of their sport at its highest levels, crowning new national champions before thousands of spectators.
But it is also a sport with violent dangers, and one wrong move can have horrible consequences.
BMC Racing's Taylor Phinney had his promising 2014 season come to a brutal end on the side of Lookout Mountain when he crashed on the descent after the first of four climbs up the mountian in the men's road race championshp Monday.
"This was terribly unfortunate accident down a hill," USA Cycling president and CEO Steve Johnson said Tuesday afternoon. "It is what it is. Descending is always dangerous and fraught with risks, but this was a terrible accident."
Phinney, one of America's top young cyclists and winner of the time trial national championship Saturday in Chattanooga, was likely traveling 60 to 70 mph when he went down and slid hard into a guardrail in a sharp left-hand turn on Scenic Highway.
He fractured the tibia and fibula in his left leg and injured his left knee, according to a statement from BMC Racing press officer Sean Weide on Monday. He was taken to Erlanger hospital, where he had surgery Monday night. BMC Racing had no update on Phinney's condition as of Tuesday evening.
UnitedHealthCare Pro Cycling rider Lucas Euser was following Phinney on the fast descent and was caught up in the crash, and he was the first to come to his aid.
"I just saw Taylor and he was screaming, and it was not pretty," he said. "You could just tell that something was wrong. Taylor and I are friends, and then something like this happens to someone you're close to.
"I would have stopped to help anybody that went down like that, but when it's your friend it's a little bit more emotional."
While Euser admitted that he can't be sure of exactly what happened, his recollection of the accident raises questions about whether the wreck could have been prevented.
"It's hard for me to know exactly what happened, because when he hit the deck is when I had to try and not crash myself, so I had to protect myself," he said Monday night.
"All I really remember is that we came blazing up on what I think was a moto bike and maybe a car. All I remember is the moto was swerving back and forth, and it took Taylor to the inside and me to the outside of the corner and forcing us both to go straight [into the guardrails]."
Johnson of USA Cycling said race officials were looking into reports that race vehicles were involved in the accident and would do their best to determine what happened.
"The investigation is ongoing," he said while traveling back the USA Cycling headquarters in Colorado. "There was an incident report. I think chief [race official] Carla [Geyer] was interviewing motorcycle drivers. We'll interview the riders that saw it.
"I haven't heard when they'll talk to them, but the technical directors are aware of it and all over it."
The incident could have been even worse as both Phinney and Euser slid into barriers on the sides of the road at a high rate of speed.
"There's a concrete wall at first, and then there's a guardrail," Euser said. "Taylor hit the deck and went into the guardrail, and I tried to lay it down into the wall.
"I somehow managed to get my rear wheel in front of me and smashed my rear wheel into the wall first. And that took all of the energy and crumpled my rear wheel and took all of the impact, so I never even hit the ground. I kind of popped up and leaned against the wall. I don't know how I pulled that off."
Euser said he did what he could to help Phinney after the accident, asking spectators to wave other riders away from the crash site and keeping Phinney from hurting himself further while waiting on medical support to arrive.
"I've been hit by cars and I've crashed in races, but I'm always the victim," Euser said. "This time I somehow escaped it, being extremely lucky, and Taylor was the victim.
"I obviously saw the extent of his injuries right away -- they were pretty presentable. At that point he was trying to get out from under the guardrail. It was just a matter of not having him move, because you don't know what else is broken or how bad everything is."
While the details are still unclear about what happened on Scenic Highway on Monday afternoon, Euser said he is sure of one thing: Phinney is a good rider and not reckless.
"I trust Taylor. I ride with that guy day in and day out, and I trust him as a descender," he said. "I don't think he would do anything stupid to overtake [the moto] on the inside of a corner.
"I don't know what his decision process was, and hopefully he can remember. I just know there was a lot of confusion happening, and the moto just not being out of the way. It didn't seem like we should have ever caught it."
Bicycle racing is a dangerous sport, a fact that is often forgotten when watching elite athletes sprinting to victory and celebrating on the podium after winning races, and there is often a razor-thin margin of error between victory and tragedy.
"We take these risks, and we assume these liabilities when we get on a bike," Euser said. "But you never want it to end that 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 ...