When I looked to write a piece about the 1984 Olympic Road Race where Davis was the favorite, I interviewed both Davis and fellow American Alexi Grewal, who ended up winning the Gold that day. It’s rare when you interview two athletes about the same race and end up with both athletes remembering the details and the way the race played out exactly the same way. That’s what happened here. With the Olympic Men’s Road Race happening the other day with Davis’ son Taylor racing in it, my thoughts turned to Davis, Alexi and that classic race. In 2008, I wrote ‘The Holy Grail.’ I hope you enjoy it. -Bob Babbitt
The Holy Grail
By Bob Babbitt
You can tell it still hurts. When you ask Davis Phinney to think back to July 29, 1984, America’s winningest cyclist of all time, the guy they nicknamed The Cash Register because of his amazing array of sprint finish wins, the color washes out of his face and he just goes blank.
To understand the day, to understand why that memory is still so raw, it’s important to know a little bit about Davis Phinney and his adversary, Alexi Grewal. As Phinney himself will tell you, once he got a taste of winning, he was ravenous. Winning wasn’t just something he did after a lead out from his buddy and long time teammate Ron Kiefel pretty much every weekend of the year. It was who he was. He was a winner and anything less was unacceptable. He was one of the first cyclists to train year round to refine his craft. On race day, while the rest of the guys were getting settled waiting for the criterium in South Dakota or Colorado or Montana to get going, he was busy cruising the course in the opposite direction. When he got to the point where he came up close and personal to the entire frothing-at-the-mouth peloton, he simply spun his bike around and backed into the front row. His message was simple:
Boys, the winner has arrived. Make room for daddy and I hope you enjoy second, third, 20th or whatever the hell place you end up in.
He had learned his lessons the hard way. As a youngster, he and his dad had driven in the family’s Volkswagen van from Colorado to Kentucky for the Junior National Championships. He and his dad, who didn’t quite know what to make of his son’s growing fascination for riding around in tight fitting black shorts, were camped next to the LeMond family, which included young Greg and grandma and grandpa among others. “Greg was so irrepressible back then,” Phinney remembers. “He was always a bright light radiating energy.”
LeMond was also soon to become the greatest cycling talent America had seen up until another freak of nature named Lance Armstrong arrived a decade later.
Phinney started the road race in Kentucky that day and flatted in the first 100 meters. “I was riding the same set of tires I’d been riding on all year long,” he says. “My dad was down the road and he saw the peloton with about 220 cyclists in it and figured I was somewhere in the pack. Then he saw this kid walking way in the distance. He thought, ‘That poor kid…he’s so far back’ until he realized that that poor kid was me. After driving all the way across the country, after only 100 meters, I was out of the race. I learned early on that I needed to do anything and everything to be great. I didn’t have the raw talent of Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong. I had to be better trained and better prepared than the other guys.”
One time the national team was racing in Mexico. Phinney, of course, had packed meticulously and gone over his check list over and over again. Greg LeMond? He just grabbed a duffle bag and threw everything in it. Except his bike shoes.
Yep. They were in Mexico during the era where your cleats were hammered into the bottom of the shoes and your shoes really weren’t meant to fit anyone else. Greg LeMond borrowed Davis Phinney’s spare pair, shoved toilet paper into the toe box so that they could sort of fit, and then went off the front and killed everyone. “That was Greg,” Phinney continues. “He could drink out of the tap in Mexico and never get sick. Me? All I had to do was look at some lettuce and I had stomach issues.”
Alexi Grewal was the wild one, the guy who grew up riding a horse in Wyoming and loving the feeling of freedom and the exhilaration he got from that. When the family moved to Aspen, Colorado, the only thing that changed was the mode of transportation. Instead of cruising around on Mr. Ed, Grewal started riding and loving his bike. Independence was his. All he needed to do was be willing to turn the pedals. When he rode up, ironically enough, Independence Pass in under two hours, it was obvious he could compete with the best.
Being the rebel, it was only a matter of time until he butted heads with the Polish-born coach of the US team, the legendary Eddie Borysewicz, known to everyone as Eddie B.
Grewal won the Olympic Trials, so he was guaranteed a spot on the four person team that would race on the 12 lap, 118.2 mile course with 300,000 screaming spectators lining the streets of Mission Viejo on July 29, 1984. Ron Kiefel, Thurlow Rogers, and Davis Phinney were the other three. Rogers and Kiefel were under orders to work for Phinney during the race. Grewal, who hadn’t seen nor heard from Eddie B in three or four months, was on his own program. “I couldn’t stand Eddie and Eddie couldn’t stand me,” Grewal insists. For the six days leading into the road race, Grewal had been living in a home three miles from the course and riding the circuit a number of times every single day. He knew every climb, every downhill, every turn, by heart. “I ran into Eddie 20 minutes before the start of the race,” he recalls. “He told me we would be working for Davis Phinney that day. I knew I had been riding well and I told my personal coach that there was no way I could lose.”
To make sure of that, he had a buddy stationed on the course so that he had his own personal feed zone for race day. “Yeah, I knew it was totally illegal,” he laughs, “but that’s life!”
His thought was that he could hit the US team feed zone and, if he missed it, he had his own to fall back on. “Hey, it would be easier for them to have to feed three rather than four,” he says. “I had it coming and going!”
He knew that his chief rivals that day were his teammate Davis Phinney and Steve Bauer of Canada. Early on Grewal attempted to take a little something out of everyone’s legs. “I would do little surges and Bauer would go,” he says. “I drew Bauer out and had him turn out that locomotive and really pick up the pace.”
Phinney had watched on a small black and white TV as his wife-to-be Connie Carpenter won the Gold Medal in a sprint finish with Rebecca Twigg that morning. The stage was set for the couple to both win Gold Medals that day.
“I was so prepared and so focused,” Phinney continues. “I had the best day physically that I ever had on a bike. I felt too good.”
Too good? That’s right. Phinney chased down every attack and reeled it in. “I was so strong, I led half the darn race,” he admits.
Which is exactly what Alexi Grewal wanted him to do. While Phinney was going hard and having problems getting fuel from the untrained helpers at the feed zone, Grewal was loading up at the US feed zone and at his own. His bike jersey pockets were jammed with food. “I asked Alexi if I could have something to eat late in the race and there was stuff coming out of his pockets,” remembers Phinney. “He looked straight ahead and said no. I knew he was on his own mission.”
Davis Phinney had dug himself a hole, and Alexi Grewal was more than happy to watch Phinney crawl into it and then cover him up. “I’m into personal responsibility,” says Phinney. “I don’t blame Alexi. My job was to win the race and I made too many mistakes. I wasted too much energy.”
“It was the best day I ever saw Davis have,” admits Grewal.” His problem was that he didn’t ration himself. My job was to stretch him and make him go too hard too often.”
With about 18 miles to go Grewal took off. The ABC cameramen were sitting on motorcycles right in front of Thurlow Rogers and Davis Phinney when the break happened. “Thurlow asked me what we should do,” remembers Phinney. “I told him that we couldn’t chase down our own teammate on national television. We had to block and keep the others from chasing Alexi down.”
Grewal had a minute on the field. Little did Phinney and Rogers know that the ABC cameras were not even rolling at the time. “If I had known that, I would have chased his ass down,” insists Phinney.
At that point there was about one lap left and Phinney was desperate for food and water. “I was dying,” he admits. Just as Phinney was grabbing a bag from the last feed zone, Steve Bauer attacked. “I had to throw down my bag and try and chase him,” he says. “Steve was 20 meters ahead when I exploded. It was over. I can still see myself grabbing that bag and watching Steve sprint up the road. My legs froze and the two Norwegians went by me. They didn’t even need to accelerate.”
What people forget is that back in 1984 there were pro and amateur cyclists. Pros raced in Europe and competed in events like the Tour de France for money. That’s where Greg LeMond made his name. Pros could not compete in the Olympics.
For Davis Phinney and Alexi Grewal , the Olympics was everything. “The Gold Medal was the Holy Grail,” says Grewal. “It’s like being a drug addict and the Gold Medal is the biggest dose you are ever going to get.”
Alexi Grewal nosed out a hard charging Steve Bauer for the Holy Grail and, 25 years later, it is something he thinks about a lot. “At the time I had no idea how much it meant,” he says. “It’s interesting. When I crossed the finish line I felt like I went from the physical to the non-physical and back again. It was a trippy experience. Winning the Gold Medal was special. I have never been so honored in my life.”
For Phinney, taking fifth place did little to console him. “It was the most bitter loss of my life,” he insists. “It took me years to get over it. When you want something that bad…….”
Davis Phinney’s voice tails off to a whisper. His career took off after the Olympics. He was one of the early members of Team 7 Eleven and actually won 300 national and international races in his career including a stage of the Tour de France, an Olympic bronze in the team time trial, four national championships, a US Pro title in 1991, and the Pan American Gold Medal. His wife Connie retired after winning her Gold Medal and their son Taylor is now 18 years old and was an Olympian cycling on the track in Beijing. Davis has been battling Parkinson’s Disease since 2000 and launched the Davis Phinney Foundation to help find a cure.
Alexi Grewal’s career tapered off over the next ten years with no achievement ever coming close to his Gold Medal ride through Mission Viejo.
After retiring, Grewal knew he would have a hard time finding something to replace cycling in his life. “It’s hard to find anything as exciting and meaningful as cycling was for me,” he says.
“You make your own schedule, you make good money and you have the freedom to just close your eyes and pedal. What could be better than that?”
Enjoy this Classics Interview Series recording with the legendary Davis Phinney from 2004. Davis takes us through his amazing career, including how he would look for Ron Kiefel’s wheel when it came to the last lap of a race, and as they say, the rest was history. LISTEN HERE
In this Babbittville Radio interview, we chat with Ron Kiefel, who shares great insight into Davis Phinney, Alexi Grewal, and more. LISTEN HERE