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There was something fishy about the skinny, long-limb, shaved-head stranger who appeared in the parking lot of Macy's at Aventura Mall one steamy Sunday last summer. It wasn't simply that he was younger than the other weekend warriors who bike to Key Biscayne and back every week. Most of the 30 or so cyclists are middle-age professionals. But this guy looked, well, scrappy.
For starters he wasn't wearing a helmet, a hazard most of the cyclists wouldn't risk outside their driveways. He was also shirtless no state-of-the-art sweat-wicking garment adorned with zippers and pockets to store energy bars (or cover his many tattoos).
Then there was his ride: a creaky-looking wreck spray-painted black. "His bike was cheap and old, but on purpose, like he had made it look even cheaper and older," says Steve Tannenbaum, a 40-year-old urologist and cycling enthusiast who was with the group that day. "It was like a bike a guy who delivers Chinese food would ride, but without the basket."
The urologist and his friends were appalled. They wore breathable, padded, no-chafe Lycra shorts and aerodynamic helmets. They straddled gel-infused seats mounted on titanium frames and emptied high-tech energy powders into insulated water bottles. Resetting digital heart-rate monitors/mileage counters, they polished their anti-glare, solar-radiation-resistant sunglasses with chamois cloths. "I mean ..." sputters Tannenbaum, still slightly scandalized, "buying the equipment is like half the fun of doing this."
With a mass clicking of shoes to pedals, the ride began. Leaning over their triathlon handlebars, riding down A1A, the regulars warily eyed the stranger through polycarbonate lenses. Who the hell was this guy? He wasn't just incongruous in appearance. The stranger was skilled, practiced, like he had been trained. He was fast.
A few Sundays later, 21-year-old Giancarlo Bianchi saw the oddly attired cyclist cruise by him at the summit of the Rickenbacker Causeway. I've seen that guy somewhere, he thought.
He squinted at the black bike and its pale rider in the glaring sunlight. Then he remembered: the Orlando Festival of Speed, 2002. His father took him to see the pro cycling race. Bianchi was just a teenage racer matching names with numbers in the festival program. He remembered watching a rider at full speed lead the peleton over a rough patch of potholed concrete a face grinning, a pair of eyes gleaming maniacally.
Bianchi would have recognized him anywhere.
When the helmetless rider braked after descending the causeway, Bianchi pulled up alongside him. "Did you used to race for Prime Alliance?" the young cyclist asked, referring to a pro bike team.
Taking off his gloves, sweaty and out of breath, the other rider nodded.
"Is your name Matt DeCanio?"
There was a time when DeCanio was one of this country's most promising young cyclists. A member of the U.S. national team for six years, he was the fastest American at the Under-23 World Championships in 1996 and 1999. He trained and raced in 22 countries as a member of a top-level Italian amateur team and later as a pro on the European circuit. He wore yellow jerseys in some of North America's biggest races.
These days the 29-year-old rides on the weekends and at night, when he has time. Since South Florida's landscape is basically planar, it doesn't quite count as training. For a year he sold BMWs at the Braman dealership on Biscayne Boulevard. They fired him a couple of weeks ago.
DeCanio blames his decline on a drug-based, win-at-all-costs culture that dominates professional bicycling. Indeed, in late May, Spanish police raided the Madrid apartment and office of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes and found nearly 200 bags of frozen blood, 39 bags of frozen plasma, testosterone patches, human growth hormone, erythropoietin (EPO), and dozens of other drugs. After authorities submitted Fuentes's suspected client list to the organizers of the Tour de France (which concluded this past Sunday), the riders who finished second, third, fourth, and fifth in last year's race were disqualified, including 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich.
He's not the first rider to be busted after ascending the podium. Italian Marco Pantani tested positive a year after his 1998 Tour de France win, and Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton is serving a sanction for a positive test in 2004, to name only two. Critics of Lance Armstrong say he, too, is guilty, citing a seven-year-old urine sample they claim is tainted.
DeCanio is perhaps the nation's most outspoken (and off-kilter) critic of doping and drug use. He claims drugs were epidemic during his time on the circuit, though he used them only once before beginning his crusade to educate younger riders. Through his Website Stolenunderground.com, where often-valid points about sports and drugs are expressed with grammar and spelling that would make a composition teacher weep) he has made dozens of enemies by publishing unsubstantiated rumors about cyclists who dope.
His critics say he is unbalanced and lacks talent. They characterize his campaign as a bitter tirade by a failed athlete. But they are wrong about at least one thing: Matt DeCanio didn't end up unemployed and on a creaky bike because he wasn't fast enough. He got there by coming clean.