Cyclist Taylor Phinney puts the pieces together

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BOULDER, Colo. -- Afternoon light floods the second floor of Taylor Phinney's airy condo, bathing the unfinished canvases leaning against the wall and the paint cans with colors frozen in mid-drip. Blocks of seafoam green, cobalt blue, periwinkle and rust interrupt white space punctuated by word strings -- scientific terms, free-form thoughts -- written in neat block letters. In the upper right-hand corner of one canvas are the bold-faced words Act II.

Phinney's first act was packed with precocious cycling accomplishments, from a junior world championship on the track to stage wins in the U.S. and Europe, to national titles and world medals in his specialty, the time trial. By age 22, the son of two Olympic medalists had already made a pair of trips to the Summer Games.

Then, in May 2014 on the first loop of the national championship road race in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Phinney hurtled into a guardrail at more than 60 miles per hour on a descent, detoured off his usually impeccable line by an errant course motorcycle.

His friend Lucas Euser, who had latched onto Phinney's wheel to benefit from his vision, nerve and mighty draft, crashed himself but escaped injury. They were riding for different teams, but that construct vanished when Euser heard Phinney screaming.

Even in excruciating pain, Phinney had the presence of mind to know he shouldn't look at his lower body. But Euser couldn't avoid the gruesome sight of skin peeled back to reveal the shattered bones and severed patellar tendon in Phinney's left leg.

Euser waited until medics lifted Phinney into an ambulance, then rode downhill alone, weeping, coasting numbly around turns he normally would have swooped and skimmed along like a swallow.

Two years later, 25-year-old Phinney has willed his way back to the top. On May 27 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he recaptured the national time trial title he won before his devastating crash and all but cemented his bid to be one of two U.S. men who will be named to the Rio 2016 team in June. (He skipped the road race in Winston-Salem to attend his sister Kelsey's graduation from Middlebury College; he was invested in the occasion on every level, having paid her tuition.)

The Olympic Games are still the competition he values above all others, Phinney says.

"I grew up noticing the reaction [my parents] got from the world, basically, just knowing they had won an Olympic medal, not even knowing what the sport was,'' Phinney says. "It's like the Ph.D. of athletics. It's this thing that defines you. Having that kind of support from people you don't know and you'll never know -- for whatever reason, that feels most important to me.''

Phinney's time trial victory on the undulating 30-mile course in Winston-Salem was the latest evidence he is gaining on his former self. He won a dramatic stage at the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado in August and finished 12th in the world championship time trial last year in Richmond, Virginia, where he got a rock-star reception from fans eager to see him back in form. Yet, like many of the canvases that fill his home studio, Phinney is still a work in progress and needs frequent physical therapy for lingering issues.

"Personally, it'll stop being a comeback when I don't have any more pain in my left side, but I don't know if that's gonna happen any time soon,'' he says.

His words betray no anger. The accident forced Phinney to vector differently. His world narrowed in one sense as he channeled his energy into recovery, but his eyes and heart were propped open like stuck windows. That new, unobstructed worldview is reflected in a self-portrait on composition board in his home where his prominent eyes, nose and bearded jaw are outlined in stark black, fierce and vulnerable.

Phinney idly swiped a brush across a dropcloth early in his rehab and purpose smote him instantly. "I just thought, what have I been doing my whole life if I haven't been doing this?'' he says, with the tone of mild wonder that punctuates much of his speech.

"I go into every piece now knowing that it doesn't matter if anybody likes it. It's not like riding my bike or doing anything else where I feel like there's a lot of external pressure to perform or even pressure from myself to perform. All you have to do is be in love with the world and try to replicate what you love and put it on a canvas.''

Across town that same week, Euser, 32, sits on the couch in the home he shares with his wife, Rachel. He smiles when he talks about Phinney, one of only a few riders who still compel Euser to tune into a television broadcast or click on a livestream of a race, now that he's retired after an 11-year pro career.

They don't see each other often, but they remain fused by that one searing moment. Euser glances at his wrist and taps the Tudor watch Phinney gave him a month after the crash, when Euser had no clue how irrevocably the accident had altered him.

"Sometimes the physical injury is easier to get over because there's clear-cut goals and measurements -- bones healing, pedal strokes on the bike and wattage numbers,'' says Euser, who worked his way back from a couple of serious crashes during his career, as have most professional cyclists.

"I'm curious not how he's going to perform as an athlete, but how big of a human being he's going to be, 'cause he has a lot of power in him, and a lot of intuition and a lot of grace,'' Euser says.

It was a career-ending crash for one man -- just not the one who appeared to be most at risk at the time. And it turned out each needed a little rescuing from the other.

PHINNEY, WHOSE PARENTS are Olympic gold medalist (and artist) Connie Carpenter-Phinney and bronze medalist and Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney, was a teenager with obvious and seemingly limitless athletic potential when Euser first met him. They were both part of Boulder's sizeable resident peloton, but didn't really get acquainted until the Phinneys recruited Euser for a group assembled to help Taylor Phinney train for the 2012 London Games.

Euser, at 5-foot-7 and 128 pounds, was a climber who provided a perfect foil for the 6-foot-5, 180-pound Phinney. He could push him in ascents, yet was able to stay on his wheel when they came over the top. That was trickier than it might seem. When Phinney, one of the most skilled descenders in the game, folds himself into a super-tuck, his slipstream is so compressed that many riders are too big to hitch on and stick.

When Euser managed it, he entered a state that was equal parts hyperfocused and meditative, trusting his trajectory to Phinney's vision and balance, getting a rocket ride that would sometimes induce him to laugh out loud. He also learned not to hesitate or Phinney would solo away.

Two years ago on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Euser, then riding for the UnitedHealthcare team, saw the red blur of Phinney's BMC kit streak by him. There was a breakaway ahead and Euser knew Phinney was capable of bridging up to it. Euser jumped into Phinney's draft. They both knew what lay ahead on the course: a sweeping right-hand turn, then a tighter left-hander that required judicious braking.

A motorcycle appeared in their line of sight, in their way. Phinney went inside. Euser swung wide and felt himself leaning past the point of no return. He put a foot down and slid. His bike crumpled into a low concrete wall and magically absorbed most of the impact. But even as Euser fought for self-preservation, he saw Phinney lose control and all thoughts of his own race evaporated.

Euser ran to Phinney, ducked under the rail and hugged him, trying to keep him from moving, mindful of the blood pooling next to his friend's leg. He cradled the back of Phinney's head and calmly told him he was going to be OK.

As Phinney was about to be loaded into an ambulance, the two clasped hands. Then, with the rest of the peloton and accompanying support vehicles long gone, Euser remounted his battered bike, whose rear wheel had been replaced by a BMC mechanic.

"All of a sudden I was just alone on the road,'' he says. "It was a stark contrast to where I had been just 10 minutes earlier. Looking back on it now, that was the beginning of the end of my career.''

Euser bailed out of his next race, citing an injury, but was unwilling to face the real source of his growing malaise. He began feuding with his team and felt increasingly physically depleted.

His life was not without its respites. Euser met his future wife in a chance encounter in Boulder not long after the crash. A few months later, he received the U.S. Olympic Committee's Jack Kelly Fair Play Award for abandoning his own race to come to Taylor's aid -- an honor for which the Phinneys nominated him. Euser wore a suit and a pair of Yves Saint Laurent boots the fashion-conscious Taylor Phinney gave him for the September 2014 gala dinner, and took home a heavy, engraved crystal trophy.

Nothing could make up for the edge he'd lost. The physical risks Euser once found exhilarating now seemed frightening and pointless to him.

"I wasn't fully committed, and I knew it,'' Euser says. He felt it most keenly and predictably on descents. "I just didn't have it. I had this drive to go really fast and be really competitive before the crash, and after, it was gone. I just couldn't do it. I mean, I wanted to, but I was so hesitant. It was almost like I was putting on mental brakes.''

While Phinney endured two surgeries, grew accustomed to the massive zipper scars along his knee and shin, and rebuilt his strength and endurance, Euser found himself mired in debilitating doubt, sinking slowly into depression. He spent weeks feeling ill, sapped by a tooth infection and stomach issues. The senior Phinneys introduced him to a psychologist and Euser found the sessions helpful, but re-isolated himself when he returned to racing at the start of the 2015 season.

By the summer of 2015, holed up in his fourth-floor apartment in his seasonal home base of Girona, Spain, Euser was sleeping away his days and fighting self-destructive thoughts during his few waking hours. Without a couple of extended visits by Rachel, then his fiancée, "I probably would have hurt myself in some way,'' Euser says.

"The thought of giving up was much easier than continuing forward, because I felt I had failed. I felt I had done everything wrong because the only thing I was being measured by was results.''

Euser crashed -- without serious injury -- in his final professional race in October 2015. After his contract expired in December, he began speaking out more freely about riders' rights (Euser serves on the board of directors of the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists) and the need for a better safety net for athletes' mental health.

USA Cycling's internal review of the circumstances of the crash was not made public. Derek Bouchard-Hall, hired from the outside as CEO of the governing body in 2015, told ESPN.com in an email that "[The review] was not designed to attribute fault, but to gather information on the incident ... as a matter of policy, we do not release such internal inquiries." Euser would like to see more transparency and, like many riders, believes rules governing in-race motorcycles and vehicles need revisiting.

He and Rachel, who owns a film and event production company, married this spring. Euser is in therapy and says he feels more sound than he has for two years. He is considering a number of options for what's next.

"Honestly I think the accident was more traumatic for Lucas than it was for me because he was the witness,'' Phinney says. "He saw the worst of the worst that could happen, that could have happened to him that day. I was blinded by the whole experience. All he has is that one pocket, that one memory. With all that said, I think he realized that maybe he hadn't been wanting to do what he was doing for a while.

"We don't hang out all the time, but we're very much brothers in that sense, that we lived through this experience together. He was holding my hand when I was in the most pain I've ever experienced in my life. So obviously, we're going to be connected for the rest of our lives.''

Euser and Phinney met for a drink late last year in Boulder. They didn't explicitly discuss the crash that binds them. But it gave Phinney the authority to say something Euser needed to hear, something that brought him clarity and peace of mind about retiring.

"He said, 'Every time I hear you talk about cycling, whether it's about the Tour de France or the Olympics, it doesn't sound like you, it sounds like a script,'" Euser recalls. "It was the first time I admitted that cycling was not me. My whole career was me listening to other people tell me what I'm good at, and not focusing on what I thought I was good at.

"Cycling kept me out of trouble as a kid, it carried me through high school, it was my focal point in college, it gave me freedom and took me around the world. Now it's not serving me anymore.

"My biggest revelation is, it's OK to ask for help.''

Phinney's inner skirmishes are different. He wants the psychic payoff for the arduous work he did to get back to racing, but he also craves life balance and the kind of growth that can't be timed or quantified. He's seen the way the world appears in natural light as opposed to the spotlight that follows an elite athlete. He can't forget that any more than Euser can obliterate the graphic moment of the crash.

"It hasn't been easy diving back into the bubble of a professional sport,'' Phinney says. "I've been trying to figure out how I can take this new perspective, this more open mind, and put it into practice with what I'm doing and the places that I'm going. That's something I'm working on.''

In the meantime, he paints when he can. One of his inspirations is the late neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose influence shines out of several of Phinney's compositions. Phinney keeps a children's book close at hand, one that combines Basquiat's illustrations with a poem by Maya Angelou.

Its title is "Life Doesn't Frighten Me.''

It can take a terrible collision to truly embrace that.