One of the Biggest Compliments I’ve ever Had – From Davis Phinney

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Sunday night I went to the 7-11/BMC gala after the Pro Challenge. Trudi was going and I hadn’t seen a lot of those guys for a few years or maybe longer. There were a ton of “famous” cylists from all over the world there. Plus, sponsors galore.

The 7-11 guys got up on the stage and sat on couches and reminisced about the old days. About the first year of the team, an old communal car, and of course their recollections of first racing professionally in Europe, especially the Tour de France.

The evening was dedicated to Davis Phinney, whose son, Taylor won the last stage of the Pro Challenge that day, but more importantly is currently fighting Parkinson’s Disease.

At the end of the evening Davis had the mic and was wrapping it up and he said he especially wanted to thank me, (Steve Tilford) for attending. I thought that was really nice. Afterwards I went over to say hi and thank him for singling me out and he thanked me once again and said something about me being a true legend, which really pretty much embarrassed me.

That got me thinking about Davis and my history with him.

Early racing, Davis and I were just competitors. He was much better than me. He could out sprint me with one hand tied behind his back. He could out sprint about anyone. Every once in a while, Steve Bauer would get the best of Davis, but not that often.

Davis rode for a bunch of teams before he ended up racing for 7-11. He rode for Austro Daimler Bicycles, then AMF I think, and a defunct before it started Yoplait yougurt team. He finally ended up on 7-11.

There were really 3 teams during that time, the early to mid 80’s. 7-11, Levis, and Schwinn. Nearly all the “good” riders in the country were on one of these three teams. So, obviously we bumped heads every weekend, month after month. We went to after race parties and trained with each other when we were in the same town, but really didn’t hang out much other than that.

Connie, Davis’ wife, was riding for us, the Levis/Raleigh Team, during the 1984 season. She won the Olympic Road Race that year. But, the men’s and women’s Levis teams were pretty autonomous. We had completely different support, vehicles etc.

I remember a criterium at the Tour of Texas one year when Davis and I had a little falling out. Roy Knickman, Levis and Alex Steida, 7-11 had lapped the field in a criterium in San Antonio, I think and I was leading Roy out. Back then, great team work would be one rider on your team helping you the last lap or two. Anyway, I thought I was riding like shit, but got to the front with a couple corners to go with Roy on my wheel. I got Roy to the last corner in the lead and Roy came through on my inside and I swung off to the outside. Davis was coming by on the outside and I obviously screwed up his line, very unintentionally. Afterwards, Davis, along with Connie, came over to me and our team director, Michael Fatka and proceeded to scream about the incident. I told Davis it was completely unintentional and I was just trying to get out of the way. I normally wouldn’t of even cared about the whole thing, it was just normal criterium racing, but Connie was really on my team and I felt strange having Davis and her confront me.

Anyway, that was that and Davis raced more and more in Europe, won a couple stages of the Tour and whenever he came home after that, his sprint wasn’t quite what it used to be. He was still super fast, just not unbeatable.

Michael Engleman and I spent a month or so after the 1988 Pro World Road Championships in Belgium, racing in Europe. One of the first races was in Geneva Switzerland and Davis, Steve Bauer and a bunch of other guys were there. It was pretty much for start $$$. I think the first race was a miss and out criterium, then the 2nd, maybe a points race. Micheal was riding good and was actually out sprinting Davis for point sprints. And Michael had just about the slowest sprint on the whole Wheaties/Schwinn team. It was just about then when I realized how much speed it takes out of your legs riding 250 km stages of the Tour, day after day.

Davis rode a bit on the Coor’s Light team domestically, after leaving Europe, before he retired in the early 90’s.

Flash forward maybe 10 years later, after Davis had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I was racing the Athen’s Twilight Criterium and Davis was there. I’m not sure why exactly he was watching, other than someone was doing a documentary on his life and filming him. Right when the race was over, pretty late at night, Trudi came over and told me that Davis was in hanging in the wheel pit. I asked her if she had went over and said hi, but she said that she hadn’t and was a little worried because she hadn’t seen him in so long.

I rode over to the pit and he was there. He looked pretty nervous and he was having a lot of shaking and movement issues caused by the disease. It was kind of uncomfortable just talking to him. He told me that when he got stressed out and nervous, then he had a lot more problems with the shaking and tremors. There were lots of people around and I finally asked him if he wanted to go somewhere else, sit and have a beer or something. He said sure.

I was still in my skinsuit and on my bike, and Davis was walking, so we just went around the corner a block or so off the course and sat outside. It took him a little while, but pretty soon it was as if I was just talking to “the old Davis”. No shaking of the hands, no head movement, nothing.

We talked for quite a while and then he thanked me for helping him escape from the crowds, for just being a friend, and having a beer. I’m pretty positive, that I’d never just been with Davis one on one before, just hanging out and talking. It was a huge compliment to me, that he could feel comfortable enough to laugh his great, deep laugh and just be himself. I’ve never forgotten that night and never will.

If you would like check Davis’ Parkinson’s Foundation, please click here. I’m sure he would appreciate it.

Davis and Ron Kiefel, who were nearly inseparable though out their careers.

Davis didn’t crash much, he was a very good bike handler. But, this was a bad one. I remember seeing him in Boulder a while after this accident and he looked awful. He laughed and said something about how it he thought it made him look gnarly or something like that.

26 thoughts on “One of the Biggest Compliments I’ve ever Had – From Davis Phinney

  1. Jeff

    Steve, Possibly one of the best posts . Davis is a legend to the guys from that era. To show the human side of 2 riders offers a glimpse of the bonds created by our sport . Respect is often lost upon the young generation of power tapped kids. Thanks for the memories !

  2. SalRuibal

    Steve, you don’t realize how many of us think about you in the same way you think about Davis Phinney. Meeting you and Trudi back in 1996 at Super Camp and Cactus Cup was an education in how to be a cyclist, not just someone who rides a bike.

  3. Joe Christian

    A great post! Being a junior racer in the 1980’s you guys were my cycling heros. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  4. Matt Gibble

    Great post Steve. Like Joe Christian above, I was in the same boat, in awe of riders on those three big teams. I remember riding a Wheat Thins race back east and a rider from another team had done something or pushed me off a wheel; I can’t remember what the incident was. As we came out of the last corner Davis rode up next to me and asked if I was okay. I told him yes and he replied “yeah, ‘said rider’can be like that.” That made a huge impression on me at the time that Davis would even care about a peon like me! I think that experience changed the way I relate to all riders now, regardless of their abilities.

  5. Joseph

    Another cool thing about this blog is the connections/memories. I lived in Boulder for a while in the 80’s and it was common to see some of the 7-11 guys (including Phinney) on the group rides in the winter. And yeah, everyone was pretty much in awe.

    Matt Gibble! I remember you. I used to train with John G in PA. You would sometimes join us.

    Again, great post and great blog.

  6. Scott

    I remember meeting Davis briefly after a race in Downers Grove, Il. It was near the end of his cycling career. He was still easily the most recognizable racer in the race. After the race he was being interviewed and I was trying to get some pics. You could tell that he was tired from the effort. He has also gotten stuffed and taken out on the last turn with about 15 other riders. A touch of road rash on the elbow and knee from the crash. He didn’t look all that pleased with how the race had finished as he was in good position to take the win prior to getting stuffed. He finished the interview and noticed that I was still snapping pics. He stopped for a few moments and smiled to make sure that I had a good opportunity to snap off a few good pics. Then was very nice when I introduced myself to him. Very nice of him to take the time out to say hi and meet a fan. Total class.

  7. Joe Saling

    You bring back great memories from a Tour of Killington many years ago. I was riding the 50+ event and was the Nat. Crit Champion and riding in the jersey. Davis complimented me on my results and the jersey and said he wished he had one to wear at that race. Of course he had many just not then. A few years ago Dottie and I saw him at Interbike and, after some hugs, he said “Did ya see my kid?” Arguably the most prolific winner in US cycling history and he is bursting with pride over his son. These stories are what this guy is all about. He is the “legend” in all of this and I am proud to call him a friend.

  8. SB

    Y’all are two of the classiest riders this country has ever produced. Thanks to both Steve and Davis for some great memories.

  9. charlie

    Man some stories are more fun to read than others. I am thinkin that was one of them.
    Steve…see how well your memory is as I tell a story on ya:
    It was all of 20 years ago if not more and we had the Taxi triathlon here in Manhattan. I had been racing pretty good but was caught and passed by a young guy who literally lived and breathed triathlons, Tracy Anderson. Tracy had just set the Tin Man tri record and was getting stronger each year. Anyway, of course we had all heard the name “Steve Tilford.” Tracy had come up to me a couple days before the race (Russ Pew race coordinator must have slipped him the word) and asked me what did I know of this Tilford dude? I think I told him something like..”He is a monster pro biker..untouchable on the bike.” Well anyway, probably to make both of us feel better, we then went on to convince ourselves of the following…”Sure he will hammer bike leg, but can the boy swim, can he run, nahhhh.” I had piled up the bike two days before the race, broke collar bone. thus, i would be watching the race from the side lines.
    Well, I never saw your swimming leg, but you must have at least done decent on that leg. Tracy later told me, You blew by him so fast on the bike his hair blew…”what the hell was that, does he think he can hold 30 miles an hour for the whole course?” But, the real surprise was your run split. Watching from the side line as you came up 1/2 way through the race by city park, The best I could tell you were pulling about 5 to 5:15 miles. At any rate you pretty much barried Tracy and all the rest of the guys who until then had thought themselves at least a bit “stud” like. I remember talking to Tracy after words. “Would like to blame it on being early in the season, bad day, ect….but, lets just say it…Dam, I hope he goes back to just biking…”

  10. tilford97 Post author

    Charlie-I remember that day well. I was having trouble getting under the lane ropes, not drowning, swimming the two pools. I rode and ran in a speedo, even though it was probably only in the 40’s.

    I’ve only done 4 triathlons. At a 75% win ratio. Probably should stick with cycling though.

    Thanks for the story from an outside perspective. .

  11. Wildcat

    Great post on cycling legends.

    Now all we need is what Scott Dickson has to say about all of this.

  12. Mike

    Did anyone catch the picture during Sunday’s airing of the Pro Cycle Challenge when they were highlighting Leipheimer and there was a reference to the “old Coors Classic race”. The picture was only on TV for a second and it was vintage early 80’s. Not positive but it sure looked like Tillford. Pretty cool.

  13. Matthew Williams

    That was a great read, thank you. If ever in TN and need a place to stay and a mate for a recovery ride, I am your man!

  14. Therese

    I was truly touched by this post for many reasons. I raced as well during part of this time and remember Davis as a good guy and great racer-although he would have no idea who I am. It was nice to reminisce about this era in this post.

    Secondly my grandfather suffered from Parkinson’s. Although he was much older than Davis and a simple florist from Queens New York-I am inspired by this families journey. I am so sorry that they are going through this.

    Watching them as a family unit and seeing Taylor’s success is a joy. I wish them all the best of luck.

    Steve your posts are always great and I enjoy reading them. Well done.

  15. JJ Robb

    Thank you for sharing this story. It is timely, I just learned of a family member diagnosed with this disease. Keep speaking what concerns you, remember that we can learn from others, critics or fans.

  16. Ben

    So… Why isn’t Steve in the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame? Seriously, If people in this state only knew.


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