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VN Archives: Behind the Mask – David Clinger on his long, winding road

The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 48th birthday. With 48 years worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and…

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The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 48th birthday. With 48 years worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love.

In 2009 VeloNews News Editor Stephen Frothingham (now the editor at Bicycle Retailer and Industry News) interviewed American rider David Clinger at a drug treatment center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photographer Dan Campbell joined and snapped photos. One of the most controversial riders in the U.S. peloton, Clinger was known best for having a Polynesian tattoo on his face, and for being one of the first riders to join the Rock Racing squad in 2007. When Frothingham interviewed Clinger, he was seeking treatment for drug abuse, and admitted to having regularly used cocaine.

In the years after this story, Clinger’s problems continued. He tested positive for testosterone at the USA Cycling amateur road championships in 2009. He was then handed a lifetime ban after a second infraction in 2011.

Behind the Mask: David Clinger on his long, winding road

I’m sitting across from David Clinger in an office a counselor has loaned us, at a private drug treatment center outside Salt Lake City. The office is relaxing, decorated with Western and Native American art, and a pleasant mid-winter Utah sun shines in. Clinger, the former U.S. Postal, Festina and Rock Racing pro, is on the couch, looking comfortable in jeans and a camo sweatshirt.

Symbolism surrounds us. There was symbolism in Clinger’s decision four years ago to walk into a tattoo parlor in Mendoza, Argentina, and ask that his face be covered with ink. There is symbolism inherent in the tattoo’s Polynesian tribal design, of course, and in his decision this winter to start, for at least the second time, the painful and expensive process of removing the tattoo by laser, which will begin less than a day after this conversation.

There’s even a Native American rug hanging above the couch that contains, as Clinger points out with a shrug, the Freemason’s square and compasses symbol.

It’s taken a while to see his eyes without getting distracted and intrigued by the blueish design of the tattoo and what it means. Eventually I see his eyes are a bit sleepy, probably from the anti-depressive and anti-psychotic medicines he’s been prescribed here. His eyes and manner seem incapable of the intensity seen in the pictures and videos of Clinger, racing the Vuelta a España in 2000, or winning a stage of the Tour de Georgia in 2003, or chucking a spear at the camera on YouTube.

“Don’t worry, I’m all here,” he says quietly, with a small smile, when I probe him about his ability to decide what to share with me, as I sit with a notepad and tape recorder, asking him about schizophrenia, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, performance enhancing drugs and other intensely personal issues.

“David is fully competent,” says Gloria Boberg, the center’s director. “One of the things we are teaching him is that he is in control and that there is no shame [to his addictions and mental health diagnosis].”

A Rocky Start

At the start of the fourth stage of Oregon’s Mt. Hood Cycling Classic last year, Clinger rolled through an elementary school parking lot in his Rock Racing kit and flashy black and green team De Rosa.

A tot, barely knee high, held his father’s hand and looked up at Clinger with wide eyes. “Dad,” he said, “that guy’s face matches his bike!”

Last year was Clinger’s second year on Rock, and while his appearance and reputation might have matched the team’s bad boy image, his off-bike activities doomed the relationship.

Clinger, who grew up near Thousand Oaks, California, has been racing for nearly 20 years, winning multiple national titles on the road and track as a junior.

He turned pro in 1998 and raced for Mercury, then moved to Festina and U.S. Postal in Europe, and then did a domestic season with Prime Alliance before heading back to Europe with Mario Cipollini’s Domina Vacanze team in 2004.

He still counts his year at Festina as the high point of his career. His best day on the bike was during a stage at the 2000 Vuelta when he was well positioned on the final climb; he still thinks he could have won the stage if things had gone just a bit differently.

Clinger changed teams frequently and didn’t mesh well at Postal, where his personal ambitions and a mid-season sciatica problem clashed with what he saw as the team’s relentless focus on winning the Tour de France for Lance Armstrong.

But until the winter of 2004-2005, Clinger’s career path, while a bit bumpy, was similar to those of many scrappy, talented American racers in their mid 20s, still searching for a shot at stardom, not quite ready to settle for a domestique role.

But that winter things started to go seriously sideways. Clinger was raised a Mormon, and as a youngster avoided caffeine and other drugs. But returning from an overseas trip with the national team in 1994, he found that a few friends at high school were getting into marijuana.

“I thought, what’s up with that? And when they didn’t get instantly retarded, I tried it and I enjoyed it, it was a way to socialize,” he remembered. Since he was about 18, he had used pot and beer to relax and distract himself, especially in the off season. Domina Vacanze folded the same year his first marriage ended, and, at 27, Clinger wanted to take his racing to the next level.

“I felt like I was right on the verge of riding with Levi, Bobby Julich and Lance,” he said. He was searching for advantages at the same time he was looking for a new team. “I thought, ‘I need to change something to beat these guys.’ And I thought I needed to relax more in the off season, and that’s when I got into cocaine, and that’s what really got me into trouble.”

“For a little while it helped me through the off season, when there is so much downtime,” he said.

Clinger says he tried cocaine for the first time on the same day he started getting his facial tattoo in Argentina, in early 2005. He had signed a contract with the domestic Webcor squad, but when he returned to the U.S. with the unfinished face and scalp tattoo and a newfound interest in cocaine, that deal soon fell apart. He made a half-hearted effort to remove the tattoo, before deciding it was too expensive and time consuming.

So instead of removing it, he paid a tattoo artist $200 to finish it. The next several years are a bit of a blur. He raced for several local teams. He worked odd jobs. In 2006, while in Pennsylvania training and racing at the Trexlertown velodrome, he was arrested after a bar fight. Although more serious charges were dropped, Clinger eventually served some time in jail on trespassing charges, for staying in the bar after the bartender ordered him out.

He started the 2007 season as an amateur with Rock Racing, but had few results to show and soon left the team. Later in the year he was riding his bike to a job in California when a cop tried to ask him some questions. He sped off and was caught and arrested and eventually ordered to enter a drug rehab center for 60 days. That got him clean for ten months, he said, and he rejoined Rock Racing for the 2008 season.

His sober period included a third place at the Sea Otter circuit race and his appearance at Mount Hood, where he finished 22nd, six minutes behind winner Rory Sutherland, and just a bit off the pace on the tough stage 4 mountain top finish.

But Clinger said his understanding with Rock Racing was that he would start the season as an amateur and move onto the pro team mid-season. In July, he found out the team had filled out his license as an amateur.

“They said, ‘we’re punishing you for taking drugs last year,’ but I had stopped (doing drugs). But two weeks later I was smoking crack again. I said, if you are not going to make me pro, I’m gonna party.”

Rock Racing has declined to talk about Clinger and his departure from the team. Clinger skipped the start of a criterium in Austin, Texas, (he said he hates crits and his bike didn’t fit him) and the team gave him the boot. He raced August’s national road race and time trial championships for Van Dessel, dropping out of the road race with cramps and getting disqualified from the time trial for a yellow line violation.

Last fall, with some help from his family, he entered The Ark of Little Cottonwood drug treatment center in Sandy, Utah, for a 90-day program.

The Ark specializes in treating dual-diagnosis addicts; Clinger is being treated for his addictions and for schizophrenia, which he’s never been diagnosed with before.

It may be a bit glib to say that Clinger has an addictive personality, and to include tattooing, exercise and bike racing among his habits, but Clinger sees how his traits work for and against him. “They say that might be why I’m so good at athletics, because I get that feeling that I love and I want more,” he said.

The Ark’s Gloria Boberg said exercise addiction is no joke; the center restricts exercise time for recovering clients. As a junior racer, Clinger got accustomed to winning nearly everything, and that’s a high he still craves. Clinger lacks some of the fervor common in newly recovering addicts; in fact he sounds nearly ambivalent about it, sounding like any other top athlete talking about a new diet or training plan that he hopes will give him an edge.

Clinger says he never raced while under the influence of recreational drugs or alcohol, and he never used performance enhancing drugs, although he did use over the counter amino acids and was prescribed EPO to help rebuild his blood after the 2000 Vuelta.

He slowly earned the privilege of exercising in The Ark’s gym and riding up the nearby canyons with a friend on weekends, and lined up a position on a regional team, Park City-based Cole Sport.

After he completed his 90 days at The Ark, Clinger moved into a halfway house, where he is monitored for drug and alcohol use and meets with his counselors weekly.

He’s looking for a job and hoping to get results to earn him a berth on a bigger team, and eventually get him back to the European peloton, where he has some unfinished business. After all, he notes, he’s just 31, far younger than U.S. road champion Tyler Hamilton or his former teammate Lance Armstrong.

“I’d like to race for ten or 12 more years,” he said.


Back to the symbols

The thing about symbols that I missed in 9th grade English is this: it’s not merely that Symbol A equals Abstract B. It’s that the whole world, universe and humanity pours into that Abstract, simultaneously making symbols immensely powerful and somewhat lame, because you can see whatever you want to see. As distracting, intriguing and symbolic as Clinger’s face tats are, why would you waste time looking at them when you could be looking at his eyes, and his life?

In that crazy winter of 2005, Clinger, depressed, between contracts and recently divorced, was training in Argentina. He likes to train at altitude and he was visiting his Argentinean girlfriend Natalia, whom he had met in Spain, and was also meeting her parents.

Since a girl he picked up hitchhiking in Spain had turned him on to tattoos, he had got some on his chest and legs. He had looked at books on Polynesian art at tattoo parlors in Europe and the U.S., and he had talked about getting a face tattoo. Natalia said she’d dump him if he did.

He started getting it anyway, and, on the same day, he ran into some acquaintances in a Mendoza park and wound up using cocaine for what he says was the first time ever.

And soon, he found himself married to Natalia (they are now divorced). If the story suggests some ambiguity about Clinger’s motivation to get the tattoo, just sit with him and listen to him suggest its various practical advantages:

• It signaled a new era in his career, something that would give him that last fraction of a percent advantage to make him a European racing star.

• It scares people off — especially women (he usually calls them ‘girls’) — who might distract him from racing.

• The 40-hour process of getting the tattoo inked relieved muscle tension in his face, much like acupuncture.

• The inking process was mind altering. “I would never have thought those thoughts [if I hadn’t had the tattoo].”

• The ink beneath his skin acts as a shield from the heat, cold and wind on the bike.

• “It’s like a bow you tie on your finger to keep from forgetting something … it reminded me not to forget my mindset: that I battle like a warrior and don’t fold over for other people’s opinions.”

• It brought attention to himself, and thus his team sponsors. “It made me feel like I was doing my job better,” he said.

• “I just wanted to see what kind of reaction it got.” There are some things that Clinger did not intend.

• Although he is often mistaken for one, he is not a Pagan and never has been. He remains a Mormon, although he is uncomfortable going to church with his tattoos.

• He is not a tribal warrior and he seemed confused by a filmmaker’s documentary on him. The trailer for the unfinished film, “Road Bike Warrior,” is popular on YouTube and shows Clinger running out of the surf and throwing a spear at the camera. It also shows several people talking about how crazy Clinger is. “I thought it was going to be a documentary, but it was more like skits,” Clinger said.

• The tattoo seems to attract exactly the kind of folks he is trying to stay away from to remain sober; he never intended it as an illicit drug advertisement. “People come up to me and ask if I can sell them drugs — no one ever did that before; I’ve never sold drugs,” he said.

The Ark’s Boberg said the tattoos were “just David acting out.” His counselors support the decision to remove the tattoos, but Boberg said they didn’t urge it. In some ways the ink is the least of his problems; it’s more critical that he remain sober. I did say, ‘it would be great to see who you are, you have a mask to keep people away’ … I think he feels like, ‘it’s safe now and I can come out.’”

Clinger is going to a Salt Lake tattoo removal business every week on Thursday. Each time, they give him a light sedative and a topical anesthetic. His face is so swollen afterward he can’t ride for two or three days. The process could take two to three months.

For the peloton’s rolling symbol of unintended abstractions, the removal is purely practical — as was the inking itself. “It was a long shot,” he shrugs. “Now it’s time to try something else.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.