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gold medal Olympic Insights

Connie Carpenter Phinney


The 120214 Olympic gold medalist in women's cycling, Connie Carpenter Phinney is dedicated to spreading the joys of her sport. Officially retired from Olympic competition, she and her husband, former Olympic cyclist Davis Phinney, co-wrote Training for Cycling—The Ultimate Guide to Improved Performance (Perigee, 1992) and run annual summer cycling camps near Vail, Colorado.

  • Name: Connie Carpenter Phinney
  • Age: 39
  • Home: Boulder, Colorado
  • Sport: Cycling
Olympic notebook: In 120214 she won an Olympic gold medal in the 79K individual road race. At age 14 she competed in speed skating at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan; she placed seventh in the 1,500 m event.

What are some of the medical issues you've had to contend with?
I've had chronic low-back pain since I was probably 12 years old and doing gymnastics. When I got into speed skating, I attributed my low-back problems to the fact you're bent over with nothing to rest on—you're not resting on handlebars. I was always trying to compensate with stomach exercises and flexibility exercises. I had a lot of problems when I first started cycling. And after having children, I've had terrific bouts of low-back spasms—really debilitating.

Finally, last March, after having this problem for 25 years, I had my back x-rayed. I had always thought the problem was muscular—not structural. And I found out that I have spondylolisthesis—a fifth lumbar vertebra that's fractured and displaced. So, honestly, I was happy not to know during my athletic career that it was a chronic condition in a very important part of my skeletal system.

How do you manage your back pain now?
I do yoga 3 days a week. I don't lift my 5 1/2-year-old son up. I lift my 2-year-old daughter, but I don't lift him. As long as I maintain my flexibility and my stomach strength, I'll be OK. And cycling is good for my back. It's not a jarring activity. I have to adjust my position: I raise my handlebars; I shorten my reach.

What issues should women consider in choosing or adjusting a bike?
Proper bike position is very important. Most women are ill-fitted to their bikes because bikes are designed for men who are longer across the torso generally. Women who have saddle area or crotch problems need to make sure the saddle is level. If women are too stretched out across the bike, that will also result in tenderness in the saddle area. Not all women need a women's saddle, which is wider and will support the ischial tuberosities better.

Do you have any other tips to prevent saddle soreness?
You need to know that you don't wear underwear with bike shorts. The chamois is designed to be next to your skin, and if you put the underwear in there, the elastic just adds another source of friction. And like your underwear, your chamois is meant to be washed after a day's use.

The other key thing is that women should not wear men's shorts. They're going to run into trouble with men's shorts—not only the sizing, but more specifically, the chamois design and construction.

Jacqueline White is a contributing editor of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.