Tour de Dope

A Miami rider broke from the pack and admitted to drug use in cycling

The obsession began with the BMX fad of the mid-Eighties. It was about admiration for a world of little bikes with black-and-white checkered pads velcroed around their frames. It was clothing emblazoned with racing numbers, terry-cloth wristbands, and the cult movie Rad (tagline: "A hometown kid on his BMX against the best in the world. At Helltrack ... the heat is on."). At first, DeCanio admits, he was much more interested in the race than the vehicle — motocross and four-wheelers earned more respect than touring bikes in rural central Virginia, where he grew up.

But with the arrival of the mountain bike, at the dawn of the era of inline skates and snowboards, DeCanio's obsession became bicycling. His mom, an elementary school teacher, bought a couple of the fat-tire rides for the family, and they began taking long treks through the Blue Ridge Mountains. At age fourteen, DeCanio met another teen, Alex Gilliam, who rode for a cycling club in nearby Charlottesville. Gilliam invited DeCanio to give road-racing a try.

Gilliam, who now works as an architect in New York City, remembers DeCanio as a skinny teenager who showed up for training with the Monticello Velo Club wearing soccer shorts over his bike shorts. The older cyclist had to remind DeCanio to switch gears on hills. University of Virginia professor Ruth Stornetta, who trained the club's junior riders, remembers something else: From the beginning, DeCanio possessed an almost freakish physical endurance.

Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini

"When he started out, he wasn't doing all that well," she remembers. "Most of the local races were criterium races, which are held on a short course that favors sprinters. He was a climber." Stornetta took DeCanio to the state time-trial championships in spring 1993. The ten-mile individual race against the clock favored the teenager's endurance, and he had one of the fastest times of the day. Stornetta encouraged DeCanio to travel to Baltimore for physiological testing. The evaluation revealed his aerobic capacity was world-class.

DeCanio doesn't spare any modesty: "I was a natural."

Stornetta pushed him to do more national races, hoping he would be recruited for the U.S. team. Unfortunately the sixteen-year-old took a wrong turn at the 1993 national championships, making a strong finish impossible. But at the Killington Stage Race in Vermont, the last national event of the season, DeCanio won. He rode faster than seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds — earning sponsorship by a bicycle manufacturer that ran one of the nation's most prestigious youth teams. U.S. Olympic coaches invited him to training camps in Colorado Springs and San Diego.

Soon everything — school, social life — came second to cycling. His parents purchased equipment, drove him to practice, and cheered him on. Peers at his rural high school, where football reigned, regarded DeCanio, with his biking caps and shorts, as an oddity. It was there the young man laid the foundation for a lifetime of ignoring others' opinions of him.

He continued to win on the junior circuit, finishing first at the National Time Trial Championships in 1995. The following year he made the U.S. team and traveled the world, biking the Tour of Japan, the Tour of Malaysia, and a number of European competitions.

There was little education about drug use in pro sports, which DeCanio now sees as an implicit acceptance of the practice. "I believed in everything," he says. "The Olympics, my dreams, the future — that it'd be good.... When you find out the reality of the situation, it fucks you up."

It wasn't that doping controversies were unheard of: Scandals like that of steroid-using U.S. sprinter Ben Johnson were well known, but DeCanio assumed users were pockmarked, muscle-bound hulks with shrunken testicles — not people like him.

In 1996, at the Under-23 World Championships in Switzerland, the then-nineteen-year-old was surprised by the syringes painted all over the road. The graffiti was labeled in Italian: "Vai EPO!" (Go EPO!), a sarcastic reference by protesters of erythropoietin, the red-blood-cell-producing performance enhancer of choice among cyclists. The race was also rife with rumors: who was doping, who wasn't, what they were taking, the difference drugs could make.

DeCanio placed seventeenth in the world for U-23, with the fastest time on the U.S. team. The next year, G.S. Filati Alessandro, a top team in Tuscany, drafted him to race in the Italian amateur league. It was the cycling equivalent of playing football for Florida State. "Every world champion comes out of Tuscany," DeCanio explains. "It's a feeder for the pros."

But the young cyclist was soon dismayed. "The first time I walked in the building, there were needles everywhere," he remembers. "It was like a crackhouse. I got the picture pretty fast that all the things I'd heard about were true."

As early as the 1890s, cyclists were known to mix heroin and cocaine to improve endurance (hence the nickname "speedball"). According to sports historian Simon Craig, flakes of cocaine or strychnine dissolved in coffee comprised early racers' Gatorade. Alcohol, morphine, and other narcotics eased muscle pain. Nitroglycerin increased the heart rate and opened airways.

The Twenties brought to sports the energy-producing magic of Benzedrine and other amphetamines — a love affair that has yet to end. In the Thirties and Forties, the medical anesthetic ether became the drug of choice. Long-favored by Belgians, who sucked ether-soaked sugar cubes during races, it masked pain. "There were reports of cyclists wobbling around and bumping into each other, of racers simply leaving the road and wandering off into the fields," says Miami cycling guru Steve Tannenbaum. Then came steroids.

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