The Dopers Who Didn't

In a time of corruption and coercion, courage was not in short supply. A hidden cadre of men resisted doping, and they paid a heavy price. Here are their stories.

Adam Myerson racing in Europe.     Photo: E. Dronkert

Adam Bergman celebrates a victory back in 2003.

Matt DeCanio in 2003.

It all started on Twitter. Adam Myerson, a relatively unknown pro with a modest 4,704 followers, decided to tell a story. He couldn’t stop thinking about doping—not in the wake of Tyler Hamilton’s recent book. And certainly not after Jonathan Vaughters outed Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie—three of his own riders—for past doping.

“If you spend 20 to 30 hours a week alone, you need to turn the headphones up loud if you want to quiet the voices in your head,” he says.

In particular, he just couldn’t fathom how Tom Danielson came to use performance-enhancing drugs. Before the release of the Lance Armstrong dossier, it appeared that Danielson had started doping prior to meeting the seven-time Tour de France winner. Unlike with the other riders, the Postal Team wasn’t necessarily to blame. It appeared that he “came to it through his ‘support network,’ the people who were supposed to be there to help,” Myerson says.

So he made a quick call and soon started tweeting. By the end of the evening, one rider had appeared to sort of but not really admit to maybe considering doping (later to claim it was a case of Twitter miscommunication). One team director had been labeled a peddler. A well-respected collegiate team was put under the crosshairs. And one of the most decorated coaches in American cycling was tainted by association.

Myerson didn’t intend to uncover an underground doping network. He just wanted to vent. The tweets were part catharsis, part rant, and part admonition to everyone who said they were powerless (the coaches) or had no choice (the riders). He had proof: The story of Jason Williams, a rider he coached eight years ago.

EVEN AS OMERTA HAS crumbled, its ethical underpinnings have held. From Hamilton to Vaughters, they all say the same thing; the choice to dope wasn’t really a choice if you had any ambitions in the sport.

Most importantly, they imply the need to dope wasn’t apparent until you were on the verge of making it—after you’d already invested an incredible amount of time, training, money, and hope. At that point, riding clean was just a poor investment, something Vaughters makes clear in his New York Times come-clean: “Then, just short of finally living your childhood dreams, you are told, either straight out or implicitly, by some coaches, mentors, even the boss, that you aren’t going to make it, unless you cheat.”

And just like that, the naïve teenager who couldn’t discern extract of cortisone from EPO is forced to make a decision. He is, after all, madly and insanely chasing the dream. He rides thousands of miles per year. He wakes up early each and every day to train. He misses prom. Everything is for cycling. There is nothing—certainly no ethical line or fear of getting caught—he will let get in his way. The teenager has no choice but to choose the drugs.

Myerson disagrees. A number of riders, including some of the most promising talent the U.S. had to offer, chose not to dope when they very easily could have. They didn’t all make it to the very top of the international peloton. In fact, none of them did. But they did have their successes, and they rode clean—an antidote to the no-choice narrative. They also all had in common something that Vaughters and Hamilton both deny: early and frequent exposure to doping.

Before reaching Vaughters’ "you choose" moment, they saw what the sport required. They realized how dirty it was. Sure, they may have underestimated its prevalence and power, but they knew cycling had problems.

“I knew people were doping,” Myerson says. “We all knew. We knew who some of those people were. But we didn’t understand just how many people were doping and just how far down the doping went.”

This didn’t destroy his dream of racing pro, but it reframed it. Rather than aiming for Tour de France success, Myerson and his teammates focused on what was realistic: racing and winning in the U.S. They believed that “90 percent of the dudes in Europe were dirty,” but “only 10 percent” or so of the U.S. peloton was doping. They were wrong.

MYERSON IS NOW A successful coach and pro on the East Coast, winning cyclocross racer, and vocal anti-doping advocate. For the last 24 years of his life, he has been in and out of the sport—racing his way onto a variety of pro teams from a background in punk skateboarding.

He grew up poor in Brockton, Massachusetts, and had a rough start with drugs and drinking. But through sports and music, he transformed his life. Toward the start, it was speed-skating at the local roller-rink, and Myerson was riding his 10-speed Schwinn for training.

Soon, he fell into a group of guys at the local bike shop about 10 years older than himself. They took him out on group rides—informal races where new riders learn the esoteric etiquette of the sport and train. He’d ride in his cutoffs, Hawaiian shirt, and sneakers. They’d be in Lycra. At first, he didn’t fit in. But he was hooked. So he decided to buy a real bike, and he spent the next year riding three paper routes to pay it off.

That group of guys became his brothers—taking him to punk shows that would inform his straight-edge anti-doping ethics. And for his 16th birthday, one of the guys bought him a racing license. From there it was an organic jump to the top. Teams started paying for his entry fees, just like how the guys paid for gas and his license. The coaches and clubs were looking after him, and he soon began winning Pro/1/2 races (essentially local pro/amateur races) when he was 17. He finished second to George Hincapie at the Tour of Somerville. People took notice.

High school ended, and he was the first person in his family to go off to college. It was a big change for the better. “No one was going to turn the electricity off,” he says, “and there was always food.” He continued racing and training. By his sophomore year, he was taking one semester off to train, generally somewhere warm like Florida. When he was 20 years old and racing at Superweek, a high-level Midwest race series, his father committed suicide.

For the next six years, he raced at a high level before retiring at the age of 26, partly because of the doping that he witnessed. It was the first year he hadn’t improved, and he had just finished school. He found a “real job” and married. But one thing led to the next, and soon he was coaching. Racing had been his graduate degree.

IN 1990 KEVIN MONAHAN was one of Myerson’s competitors. While Myerson was winning his first local pro races and scaling back his dreams to focus on domestic racing, Monahan was preparing to compete in the junior world championships held in England for riders under the age of 18.

Several of Monahan’s teammates would later claim that three coaches—Rene Wenzel, Angus Fraser, and a third unnamed party (reportedly Chris Carmichael, who settled out-of-court)—tasked by the U.S. team to look after minors in Japan injected them with cortisone without their consent, later leading to heath problems. In 2006, USA Cycling paid Greg Strock and Erich Kaiter $250,000 to settle the suit.

Monahan was there, and the scene was his first introduction to syringes in the world of racing. While he wasn’t asked to join the lawsuit, he recalls the incident and an ensuing conversation with one of Wenzel’s lawyers.

“I got an injection a day or two before the race, and I just figured it was vitamins or minerals,” he says. In Europe, injectable vitamins are readily accessible and legal over-the-counter. Monahan says he finds it hard to believe Wenzel was administering anything more than that. “I don’t think that is what happened there,” he says.

After worlds and his introduction to what may have been doping, Monahan stayed clean. He, unlike the five other riders on the junior worlds team, was not invited back to the national team. So he went to school, continued racing, and finally decided to give Europe another go.

In his foray overseas, he learned many of the French amateur racers didn’t take drugs. Not because they had an ethical issue with it, but because they were waiting until they turned pro to start. They knew they’d need a boost and wanted to make sure that they had “that next level in reserve” once they became professionals, he says.

But some of the riders doped, and it made for tough going. “I got my head kicked in,” he says. “I could tell most of the French riders were OK with whatever. Europe wasn’t going to be a place I’d prosper.”

A year later, in 1996, Monahan gave it another shot, this time in Italy. Things were worse. “These guys were pretty much hooked up to IVs after every stage,” he says, “and there was no way I was going to be able to race in Europe clean.”

So he returned to the states to race. He didn’t think he’d amount to much more than pack fodder in Europe, drugs or not. Working toward a college degree, he wasn’t willing to risk so much shame for such little reward. “It would be really, really embarrassing if I got caught in this,” he says. “How would I tell my parents? How would I look at my friends? That was the deterrent for me. I saw it as a relatively simple choice.”

At home, he stuck to his decision to race clean, and retired in 2003 after winning the U.S. Pro Criterium Championship.

MYERSON HEARD ABOUT JASON Williams long before they met. In 2000, Myerson had returned to the sport coaching and racing with a team of six U23 riders—talented riders under the age of 23 knocking on the doors of the pro ranks. Williams was winning races in the junior category in the Southeast.

Between directing the U23 team, coaching athletes, and racing in the Southeast during the winter, Myerson crossed paths with Williams. “When I got to see him, I was like, This kid was the real deal,” he says. “He was clearly gifted.”

In short time, Myerson invited Williams to spend the summer with him and helped him land a spot on HotTubes, the country’s premier team for junior racers with a clear pathway into the national team portfolio.

Things didn’t work out as planned. Williams tore his calf in half racing for HotTubes in Europe and had to work through physical therapy. He turned to weights and started jogging some. “I enjoyed pushing myself, and I needed an outlet because I couldn’t ride like I used to,” he says.

When Williams was given the green card to return to racing, he called up Myerson. By this point, he was in college and no longer a junior or the light-weight rider he once was. He had put on nearly 40 pounds in a sport where four can dramatically affect your ability to climb. He raced for a season, but the recovery fizzled out. Cycling appeared to be a part of Williams’ past until it would reemerge on Twitter eight years later.

THE YEAR MONAHAN RETIRED clean Adam Bergman and Matt DeCanio decided to dope. Their stories are not intertwined with one another in any conventional sense. Nor are they directly related to Williams’ story. But they both rattled the domestic racing scene and revealed how deep into the peloton doping ran.

Williams knew of Matt DeCanio and was “shocked to hear” that he confessed to doping. DeCanio was known as a clean rider who wasn’t afraid to call out dopers. But the Bergman positive was in many ways more damaging if less surprising. “It was a bit of a wake-up call,” Myerson said. “That one hit hard because he was at our level.

Bergman was 23 years old when he decided to dope, and he was very near to Myerson’s level. That’s not where he wanted to be. He yearned to live the life of a rock star, and that would require huge gains. “I wanted to jump through hurdles and become the best I possibly could and skip through a lot of steps on the way,” he says.

He didn’t know if doping was the norm or how many people were doing it. He says he came to the decision on his own. And the results followed. He finished 11th at the Tour de Georgia before his test came back positive.

After a two-year silence, Bergman came clean in 2006. It wasn’t a shock to Myerson. The teams he had raced on and riders he associated with had bad reputations. In a sport where doping can spread from teammate to teammate like a virus, the company you kept often spoke to your character. Regardless, the positive test came as a shock to many—it was one of the first for EPO in that class of rider.

That same year, DeCanio lost his job as a car-salesman after his pro contract was cancelled. It’s impossible to do justice to DeCanio’s story in a single article. But his experiences and the torturous road that led him to dope reveal that Vaughters was correct in saying doping can destroy dreams, people, and the finest of athletes.

Like Monahan, DeCanio was forcefully introduced to doping. He too had plenty of opportunities to escape—many of which he took—before finally succumbing to drugs after years of intense pressure on the part of team directors and his own lofty expectations.

DeCanio started racing at 15, and by 18 had won the junior national time trial. Unlike road races and criteriums, where luck and tactical acumen can determine results, time trials are essentially laboratory tests on the road. It’s man against the clock in an almost pure measure of talent.

From there, he made his way on to an Italian team after a strong performance at the first-ever U23 world championship race. His Italian team was using EPO and human growth hormone. It was a top-down operation, and he struggled to stay clean given the incredible boost the drugs provided his teammates. “When I would arrive in Italy, I was the best guy on my team,” he says. “After the guys used EPO, I couldn’t even see them on the climbs.”

Management wanted him to dope so he could get results, and the pressure was intense, even brutal. “The team would do things to try to break me and break all the riders into using injections and EPO and growth hormone,” he says. The team would go out for a tough training ride, and they come back to hardly any food. Some riders took to scouring for sugar packs they became so hungry.

DeCanio’s results showed the stress he was under. He regularly underperformed when racing for the team. But there were bright spots. The coach of the U.S. National Team, Roy Knickman, cautioned riders against doping. He inspired DeCanio to race without drugs, convincing him that good results were still possible. They were; he finished second in the U23 category of the Peace Race, a major event with European pros.

But things didn’t go as well in the U23-only races. So in 1998, feeling cornered, he quit the sport. But the love of racing brought him back the following year, and he placed 17th in the U23 worlds. Based on that result, DeCanio had the chance to compete at the 2000 Giro d’Italia, one of the sport’s most prestigious races, but lost his spot to two riders who were doping. They quit the race under mysterious circumstances after being told they’d tested positive. He felt cheated. “These guys stole my opportunity to do the Giro and threw it away with doping,” he says.

The riders officially withdrew after “taking ill.” According to a tell-all book published by an insider on the team, the riders were forced to withdraw after a team doctor discovered a supplement they were taking contained banned substances.

Eventually, he made his way back stateside to Knickman, who was the general manager of the Prime Alliance team in 2002. Racing clean, DeCanio became one of only a handful of Americans to take the leaders jersey at a UCI pro race in 2002. That’s when things began to fall apart. He lost the lead to Michael Rogers—a rider currently racing as a teammate of 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins on Team Sky—in the time trial and confronted the rider, saying, I’m racing clean, how about you? “He didn’t answer,” DeCanio says.

Rogers has never tested positive. But he has been linked with Dr. Michele Ferrari in the files released by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, was listed on the UCI’s “secret list” of possible dopers, and has been on teams with entrenched doping programs.

Regardless of what Rogers was or wasn’t taking, the damage was done. “The next day in the race, all of the pro riders came out and said, You shouldn’t have said that,” DeCanio says. “I started to panic. I bought them a bottle of Chianti wine” to make things right, but they only shook their heads. He felt like he had just ruined his career.

The following year, he tried to secure a contract with Armstrong’s Postal team, but failed. That’s when he really started thinking about the drugs. He claims it was because of his stance on doping. A source close to the negotiations casts doubt on that. Regardless, something snapped. “All of the sudden, like. man, I’m going to have to dope,” DeCanio recalls thinking. “Because I have to prove to them now that I’m part of their group so I can live my dreams.”

He conferred with a rider and close friend on Postal who confirmed that riders there were doping. With that knowledge in mind, DeCanio started using testosterone patches. The results were immediate, so he started looking into other more powerful options. And he found EPO.

Surprisingly, the results didn’t follow. He’d pull himself out of contention rather than win dirty. The guilt was too much, so he quit the sport for a second time. But he couldn’t stay away, and returned in 2005. It was short-lived. Following a complex dispute involving doping accusations he was publishing on his website StolenUnderground.com, his career was again in jeopardy.

“They said, You cannot talk about doping if you want to race,” DeCanio says. “I said, I’m an American and my grandfather was a colonel in the Air Force and my father a Captain in the Marine Corp. My family has fought for freedom—my freedom of speech. I’m going to use it.”

He was released from the team and widely ridiculed online. His accusations were deemed baseless. He was called crazy. While both may be true in part, history has proven him—overall—to be right.

UNLIKE DECANIO, JASON WILLIAMS never doped. There are a variety of reasons: he had the right coaching, good parenting, and a sturdy moral compass. A lot of it is economic—he had a business to go into. His dad explicitly “gave me the facts that I didn’t have to because I could come work” for the family, he says. His father told him that “you don’t have to do it to pay your bills.”

Williams, however, knew doping was part of the sport, and he understands why some people—especially those from poor backgrounds or other countries with fewer opportunities—would choose to take drugs. When he decided to make his comeback to collegiate racing, he knew what was going on. Myerson did too, so they had a conversation about it.

Eight years later, it was retold on Twitter. First, Myerson called him up to make sure he was near a computer. Then, he started tweeting:

Myerson: We hadn’t talked in a while, but he said he felt like he was finally ready to give 100% to be a pro. He knew he had the talent (and he did).

Myerson: And so on this conversation, he said to me, “I’m ready to do whatever it takes. I understand what that means.” And it took me a second.

Myerson: At first, I didn’t get what Williams was telling me. And then it hit me. He means EVERYTHING.

Myerson: Do you remember, Williams, what I told you when we had that conversation? Do you remember my response? How we were going to do things?

Williams: Yea, clean no drugs what do ever  [whatsoever] or couldn’t be on nerac [Adam’s team] or work with you.

Myerson: And from that day on, I took Williams back under my wing. Not just to make him a better bike racer, but also a better person.

What’s fascinating about the interaction is how differently both Myerson and Williams understood the conversation, and the context that could create such confusion. Williams was looking to get back into the sport, and he wanted a clean coach’s help. According to him, “EVERYTHING” simply meant total dedication—mostly losing the weight he had put on. He was happy to hear his comeback could be done clean, but he wasn’t at all considering doping drugs.

Myerson understood it differently. For him “EVERYTHING” included the possibility of doping. The conversation they had—the one where Williams said he’d race clean—was pivotal; he had helped prevent a rider from doping.

Until we three spoke, there was no hint of misunderstanding. And even now, there is room for overlap. Myerson is open to their being different truths to the story—Williams may have meant one thing and Myerson understood another. But Williams is absolutely adamant he wasn’t opening the door to doping. After all, why would he go to Myerson for such help—someone known to be a clean coach?

Regardless of the confusion, their conversation again calls into question the standard narrative of helplessness. Riders and coaches both knew about doping, sometimes discussed it; some coaches were considered clean, others enablers, and some peddlers. Likewise with the riders. Clean athletes like Williams had the opportunity to seek out clean coaches like Myerson. And coaches like Myerson could make a difference to riders like Williams—showing them that racing clean was not just a possibility, but a responsibility.

THE REST OF THE story about the team director, collegiate team, and well-respected coach is harder to pin down. Williams says he was obliquely offered PEDs by the director of his collegiate team but instantly declined the proposition. It wasn’t ever brought up again. The coach disagrees, and there is no proof otherwise—only one man’s word. Doping in the collegiate ranks is unheard of. It may have been another example of poor communication.

But what about the coach that many blame for what happened to Danielson? Again, it’s hard to say. Yes, a large number of his athletes have tested positive. Plenty of unfounded rumors circulate—about him getting stopped at the Mexican border with EPO, etc. He has admitted to advising his riders to purchase blood spinners (which can be used for legal purposes, but also for blood doping). A pro cyclist has accused him of running a doping operation. And he’s considered an enabler by some in the community. But the USADA report seems to deflect some of the blame. It was Armstrong and Ferrari who introduced Danielson to doping, not his coach.

If the story started on Twitter, it ends with a study. Doping endures because the culture permits it. Specifically, former riders and coaches perpetuate old legacies. According to a 2008 study on junior racing, young riders view doping in the amateur ranks as unacceptable. But something changes when they become professional. With a contract in hand and managers whispering in their ears, even the DeCanios of the world dope.

Like with Bergman, it happens by association. Perhaps a teammate goes to Europe and comes back with some extra knowledge. Or a coach talks you into getting blood tests and then purchasing some centrifuges. A team director might even suggest trying something a little stronger than supplements.

But you cannot prove guilt based on one man’s word. Reporters hit walls, and investigations end. So in the end, the names go unrevealed. The coaches keep enabling. The directors secretly whispering. The riders always racing.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Comments