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In 1998, after turning 21 in Florence, DeCanio went home. Demoralized by the drug use, he enrolled in college, intending to study philosophy and religion and quit cycling. Within months, however, he joined the college team and began competing. ("I couldn't help it," he sighs.) In 1999 he won second in the U-23 U.S. nationals and then was the highest-ranking American at the world championships for a second time. Months later he was back in Europe to race as a pro for a British team sponsored by Linda McCartney Foods (a frozen-food company started by Paul McCartney's first wife). The team trained in France, in a small village outside Toulouse. By this point, DeCanio knew what to expect. After police caught a masseuse from Team Festina traveling to the 1998 Tour de France with a trunk full of drugs, many teams stopped operating so openly, says DeCanio. But for most riders, drugs were simply the way it was.
"It was just something that people did, that everybody accepted," he says. "Everybody knew that either you take the drugs and you're in the lead group with Marco Pantani, or you don't and you ride in the back. If the testers caught you, you were kicked off the team immediately. But if not, nobody was going to say something."
EPO is a tricky drug, particularly when one is trying to prevent its detection. The vampires (as the officials who draw blood for testing are known) usually consider the percentage of a blood sample that consists of red blood cells, called the hematocrit level. It can't be higher than 50 for a clean test. Excepting men who live at very high altitudes, the average male hematocrit is between 38 and 44 percent. Cyclists, in other words, have room to cheat.
In Europe, DeCanio says, he had to get used to his roommates and team members constantly testing their blood. Many carried portable kits to check their levels.
The danger of EPO is that at a high hematocrit level, blood thickens to the point that it literally clogs the heart. In February 2004, the BBC reported eight elite cyclists had died of heart attacks in the preceding thirteen months, half under the age of 24.
Soon the European pro circuit became too much for DeCanio. "They ride really hard races," he says of European cyclists. "In the States you're riding 30 miles per hour on flat roads; there they ride 40." His contract with Linda McCartney Foods wasn't renewed. Back in the United States, he easily secured a contract with car company Saturn's pro team for 2001. In 2002 he switched to a team sponsored by Prime Alliance, a plastics manufacturer. It was good to be back home, DeCanio says. A lot more riders were biking clean.
The 2002 season was DeCanio's most successful. The highlight was winning the yellow jersey for one stage of the Grand Prix de Beauce in Montreal; the low point was losing the overall race to an Australian rider named Michael Rogers. It was after crossing the finish line in second place that DeCanio says he made the biggest mistake of his career. He yelled over to Rogers: "I'm racing here clean. How about you?"
The comment was unfounded. DeCanio acknowledges he had never seen Rogers use drugs, and the other rider hadn't tested positive.
At the end of the season, DeCanio's sports agent told him he most likely hadn't been selected for the U.S. Postal Service team the A-list of pro cycling because of his snipe. "They said they weren't interested because I was running my mouth at a race. At that point I said, öThat's it. I'm taking drugs.'" (Michael Rogers has since won the world championship for the past three years. He finished tenth in this year's Tour de France.)
DeCanio's success was always sporadic. He suggests that his performance follows his moods, which tend to oscillate from one extreme to the other. When a girlfriend broke up with him at the end of the 2002 season, he slid into a self-destructive depression. Alex Candelario, a former teammate on Prime Alliance, says he and DeCanio were really close that first season, but the following year DeCanio changed.
"He ended up hanging out with a guy on the team who was a totally negative influence," Candelario says.
The guy was a new arrival named David Clinger, a cyclist whose bad-boy reputation had just begun to eclipse his indisputable talent. Clinger and DeCanio were the same age. "I think Clinger led," posits Candelario. "Matt was more just accepting of things. He was just this really nice guy from a small town."
Clinger, a former Eagle Scout raised in a Mormon family in California, had strayed from the flock. He turned pro at age twenty and racked up wins at major races in both the States and Europe. In 2002 he raced with U.S. Postal but the next year switched to Prime Alliance. "Lance didn't like him," DeCanio says. "But Lance is a fucking asshole. I hate Lance."
DeCanio and Clinger moved to Los Angeles after the 2002 season. The two started smoking marijuana and drinking heavily. "We stopped training," DeCanio says. "We just wanted to party, take drugs, and get laced. Sometimes David would get prostitutes."