Big Wheel : '84 Gold Medalist Carpenter-Phinney Rides On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Connie Carpenter-Phinney was pedaling on the parkways of Mission Viejo with the lead pack, jockeying for position with five others and dealing with the false breaks that are the obligatory mind games of world-class road races.

Davis Phinney sat in a courtesy van with rest of the U.S. men's cycling team, trying to decipher the flickering figure of his wife on a four-inch, black-and-white portable television.

"When the van got to the course, we suddenly realized what an unbelievable spectacle this was going to be," Phinney said. "We looked up the road and it was just packed with people as far as you could see. And when they saw the U.S.A. van, they just went berserk."

An estimated 200,000 people were lining the 9.85-mile course that bright, hot morning in July, 1984, to watch the historic first Olympic road race for women. And the roar at the intersection of what is now Olympiad and Marguerite Parkway was deafening as the leaders came into view.

Carpenter-Phinney was trying to locate France's Jeannie Longo when the sprint began about 1,000 meters from the finish.

Longo, who had finished second to Carpenter-Phinney in two recent races, had fallen back because of an equipment problem and Carpenter-Phinney was caught looking over her shoulder when the others began their final surge.

Back in the competitor's area, most of the men's team was preparing to race. But Phinney was still in the van, screaming at his little television.

Senses heightened, it seemed to be happening in slow motion for Carpenter-Phinney as she surged through the group. As she hurtled toward the finish alongside fellow American Rebecca Twigg, she concentrated on everything Phinney had taught her about "throwing" the bike at the finish line.

She straightened her arms and thrust the cycle ahead at the precise freeze-frame moment in time.

"They didn't call it right away and you sure couldn't tell who won by the grainy little TV I was looking at," Phinney said, "so I ran out there and everyone was mobbing Connie and Rebecca. I caught Connie's eye and she mouthed, 'I think I won.' "

After 49.9 miles of racing, Carpenter-Phinney had become the first women to win a gold medal in Olympic cycling . . . by six inches.

"I gave her a kiss and then tried to get totally focused on my event," Phinney said.

CHAMPAGNE OR BEER (TO CRY IN)?

Many were predicting that July 29 would forever be a golden anniversary for these newlyweds of 10 months. But a gilded morning would soon be tarnished by Phinney's disappointing finish in the men's 118.2-mile event that afternoon.

The midday heat was oppressive and Phinney wasn't hungry early in the race. And by the time he realized his energy was waning on the last few laps, his team crew was only handing out fluids.

"I'd go by and scream, 'I need food!' but they couldn't hear me because of the crowd," Phinney said. "At one point, I asked (teammate) Alexi (Grewal) if he had anything to eat because I could see the lumps in his jersey. He said, 'No,' but that's OK."

Grewal won the gold. Phinney finished fifth.

"It was a very bittersweet day," Carpenter-Phinney says.

The couple returned to the home of a San Juan Capistrano family they had been staying with during the Games. A celebration already was under way, but Phinney wasn't up to partying.

"Both our families were there and everybody was so happy for Connie," he said. "But I was so tired, so crushed, so mentally devastated. You put it in the perspective that your whole career, that everything you have done, is for this day.

"I had been absolutely obsessed with winning that race for two years and so for me, not winning was complete failure."

Carpenter-Phinney, who credits her husband with inspiring in her the drive and concentration of effort needed to win the Olympic gold medal, says she was "only disappointed for him, never disappointed in him."

"He was happy for me," she said. "I never doubted that."

Six days later, Phinney won a bronze medal in the 100-kilometer time-trial team event, an accomplishment he still refers to as "insignificant."

"You know," Carpenter-Phinney said, "it's taken him 10 years to get to this point where he can talk about it."

Phinney eventually was able to mold the pain of 1984 into a driving force to keep his cycle career churning. He became a two-time stage winner in the Tour de France, the U.S. professional champion in 1991 and when he retired last year, he had won 300 races, including four national championships.

"It fueled my desire to press on and put that day behind me," he said, "but Connie had followed through on her destiny. She had come back to cycling for that race and after she won, she got off the bike and didn't ride again for a year."

BACK IN THE SADDLE

Saturday, Carpenter-Phinney will make her first visit to the site of her Olympic conquest since the day she won the gold. The path of the Orange County Multiple Sclerosis 150 Bike Tour, two-day event that begins at 8 a.m. Saturday at Anaheim Stadium and has an overnight stop in San Clemente's San Mateo Campground, passes through Mission Viejo en route to Del Mar.

"I've got to go back to that start-finish area and kiss the pavement," she says, beaming.

Now, she rides for fun--and charity--putting in an hour or two three times a week and setting fitness goals for herself before the couple's annual summer cycling camps near Vail, Colo.

Still, she's never far away from cycles or cycling.

"If you had asked me 10 years ago if I'd still be involved in this business, I'm sure I would have said no," she said. "But we've been very lucky. The industry has been really good to us. Davis is part owner of a bike shop; he has been doing some television commentary and lots of speaking engagements.

"And I stay busy with the kids and the camps. The people involved in the sport are great, it's a great way to make a living and we're pretty much into fitness as a lifestyle."

Obviously. At 37, after two children, she still looks as if she could strap on her helmet and pedal with the best of them.

And maybe she could. Whoever said, "it don't come easy," don't know Connie Carpenter-Phinney:

--At 14, with little formal training, she made the 1972 Olympic speed-skating team and competed in Sapporo, Japan.

--After an ankle injury ended her skating career, she started cycling, and in the first year of racing won two national titles.

--While attending Cal to get her bachelor of science degree in Physical Education, she joined the women's crew and her fours boat won the 1980 national collegiate rowing championship.

By the time she was pulling on oars, however, she had just about retired from competitive cycling. She had won a silver medal in the 1979 World Championships, but was receiving criticism in the cycling press.

"They were already hinting that I had reached my peak and was over the hill," she said. "And I started thinking that it just wasn't worth it."

But then she started dating Phinney, who wasn't the best cyclist around but probably the most obsessed, and then came the announcement that women's cycling would be included in the Olympics.

"Connie clearly hadn't reached her potential," Phinney said, "because she didn't have the kind of singular focus, or direction, or advice, or just someone to help her build confidence.

"So we made a decision and set off on this course."

It was a trail that led to the 1984 Olympics and a morning of glory in the Mission Viejo sun.

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