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David Clinger's wife was fed up. She had been married to the champion cyclist for only a few months, and already the couple was on the verge of divorce. She called one day 2005 and asked if they could meet to try to work things out.
"You're not going to like what you see," Clinger said.
He was right and the marriage was soon over.
What she saw was a face full of ink — a tattooed mask hiding a complex set of emotions, feelings and a raging desire to reclaim control of a world that seemed to have been controlling him.
Now Clinger, a professional cyclist who has won multiple national championships, raced as Lance Armstrong's teammate in Europe and competed in many of the biggest races in the world, looks back on that decision as one of many he regrets. Today, the 31-year-old lives in Sandy with a family friend, where he is trying to piece together a career nearly lost to drug abuse and other self-destructive behaviors.
The journey from national champion cyclist to a drug treatment center in Sandy was not a quick one in many regards.
Growing up in Southern California in an active Mormon family, Clinger was taught from a young age to avoid using cocaine and other illegal drugs. But while a dominating junior cyclist in the mid-90s he saw friends and competitors using marijuana and seemingly not suffering adverse affects.
"They didn't die. They didn't get totally messed up," he said. "So I tried it, too."
A decade later, the once-promising athlete is trying to make sense of the world he created for himself while figuring out how to get back to the top.
"The whole idea is to not give in and not give up on the things that are good for me," he said. "I was living the Word of Wisdom and I was beating guys twice my age."
Now sober and working hard to stay that way, Clinger reflects daily on the steps he took preceding his fall and those he is taking to once again compete at the levels he did during the '90s and the early part of this decade.
Clinger said when he didn't see immediate negative effects from his drug use, it became easier to rationalize taking more and harder drugs — especially to help offset the physical punishment his body took as he trained and raced at his limits.
He is not alone in the sport when it comes to drugs.
Professional cyclists such at Tom Boonen and Chad Gerlach have also had widely publicized battles with drugs and addiction, and he said he sees parallels. Gerlach, a former pro with a similar career to Clinger's, was featured on the television show "Intervention" last year and has since returned to the peloton, finishing just behind Armstrong at the Nevada City Classic a week ago. Boonen, a recent world champion, three-time winner of Paris-Roubaix and one of the biggest stars in the sport, has twice tested positive for cocaine use in the past couple of years and may not get to race in the Tour de France next month as a result.
For Clinger, there's no doubt that drugs nearly ruined his career.
"When I don't regret it and dwell on it, I feel more sane," Clinger said. "It wracks my brain if I put too much attention on my mistakes."
"Free agency," he said of his LDS beliefs. "That's one of the things we believe in. We believe we are free to make choices and I had to test the waters and it happened — weird stuff happened."
Behind the mask
One failed marriage already in the past, Clinger was 27 years old and racing and training in Argentina in 2005, where his eventual second wife, Natalia, lived. He had three tattoos already on his legs and chest but nothing terribly dramatic.
After studying Polynesian and Maori culture and becoming enamored with the symbolism, he got an outline of the mask that began at his chin and swept over his cheeks, nose and forehead and across the scalp, which, when he shaved his head, gave him a fearsome look.
After marrying Natalia, he said he continued his drug use, continued his cycling and had the typical disagreements with his wife.
The time spent in Argentina was painful and Clinger said he does not like discussing the relationship or digging through those memories.
In his words, she "was toying with me."
Natalia eventually left after just four months of marriage and, after taking cocaine for the first time, he made a decision few can understand.
"I didn't handle it well," he said of the relationship's struggle. "Two days later I started getting the tattoo."
While tattoos are not unheard of in the peloton, a full facial mask is extreme and the reaction was strong.
"I thought it was just a rumor," Salt Lake City pro cyclist Burke Swindlehurst said. "I heard about him with a face full of tattoos, I didn't really want to believe it. Then when I saw him, I was like 'wow.' "
Clinger said looking in the mirror was never difficult. The mask, he has said, is a constant reminder to stay strong. He also figured his sponsors would enjoy the attention his face would bring to the logos and names on his jersey.
Clinger had a contract with U.S. based pro cycling team Webcor at the time but his sponsors were not happy. After beginning a removal process to appease his team owners, he decided the process was too expensive at an estimated $25,000 and too painful. Instead, he paid a tattoo artist a few hundred dollars to have the mask finished. In the time since, his cycling career has had more descents than summits.
Like many of the decisions he'd made, the tattoo was easy to justify in his mind.
For starters, it was something he was in control of.
The facial tattoo, he said, also provided layers of protection — both physical and psychological — as he battled the demons on and off his bike.
"I did it partly to make the face stronger," he said. "I would see other people in the races and their faces showed pain and weakness. They're sweating and the sun is in their eyes and they are squinting and in pain. I got the tattoo to hide that. I wanted people to see me and think I was strong."
Instead, Clinger reinforced the notion he was a talented, but ultimately troubled cyclist.
He has since added more tattoos, such as the cobras sweeping up to strike on both sides of his neck.
"I ended up attracting the wrong people," he said. "People that didn't have my best interests in mind."
After being dismissed from the Webcor team, Clinger bounced from team to team.
Clean for periods of time, he'd suffer an emotional setback and begin using drugs again.
In 2006, training for an indoor track race in Pennsylvania, Clinger was arrested after a bar fight on charges of trespassing because he refused to leave the bar.
His reputation in tatters in 2007, he signed with the upstart Rock Racing team — a squad that relished its bad-boy image — and struggled for results before suddenly disappearing from the racing scene again.
But even Rock Racing, a domestic team filled with international cyclists who had doping violations and past suspensions, grew tired of Clinger's unpredictable lifestyle.
Instead of adding him to its professional roster, Clinger said, Rock Racing licensed him as a Cat 1 amateur and hoped he'd prove himself in lower-level races and he quit the team.
An arrest for driving under the influence was followed by a two-month stay in a rehab center. He got himself sober, rejoined Rock Racing in 2008.
Despite being sober for nearly a year, it didn't take long before he fell back into drug addiction. Before long, he said he was smoking crack, drinking heavily. Once again, he was without a team and his career seemed finished.
"I never tested positive on the bike," he said, insisting he has never used performance-enhancing drugs. "I did those stupid mistakes and got arrested. That right there was the downfall. The downfall definitely wasn't the tattoo. It was my actions off the bike."
Instead of using steroids, EPO or other performance-enhancing drugs, Clinger said, he turned to illegal drugs and alcohol to cope with the torture he put his body through.
With his family growing increasingly worried, Clinger was convinced to enter a drug treatment program in Utah where he could distance himself from some of the bad influences in California, where he had been living and training, while also having a support system of relatives who lived in the state.
Focused on getting and staying sober, Clinger lost much of his fitness and gained weight. In a sport where athletes, bikes and gear are compared in not pounds but grams, Clinger said he topped out at 215 pounds — 45 more than his ideal cycling weight.
"I didn't train," he said. "Getting clean was my biggest priority."
Knowing his cycling was something that could help, he soon got back on the bike and joined the Park City-based Cole Sports racing team.
While trying to find a job to help offset the cost of his treatment at The Ark of Little Cottonwood — a residential treatment center — and fill the hours with positive activities, Clinger is seeking to return to the ranks of professional cycling. He has moved on to a transitional home and he trains relentlessly, often joining local pros such as Jeff Louder, Darren Lill and Swindlehurst for long rides in Utah's canyons.
"I haven't seen much of a difference in him as far as his personality goes," said Swindlehurst, who said he first raced with Clinger more than a decade ago when the tattoos and drug use were far in the future. "The David Clinger I saw 10, 12 years ago was a quiet and reserved guy. That's the same guy I see now."
A couple of weeks ago, Clinger placed second in the state road race championship in a sprint to the line and has top 10 finishes at the state time trial and criterium championships as well. He is a frequent participant in the local criterium series and has three victories there as he continues his comeback.
Recently, his Cole Sport team was invited to participate in August's Tour of Utah — one of the biggest professional races on the National Racing Calendar.
"My body just wouldn't handle 215 pounds. ... but the form is coming back. That makes me feel confident than I can win. And that's huge for me," he said. "I'm riding fast. Maybe after the Tour of Utah I'll contact some teams and see if they have a spot for me."
Clinger is also having his facial tattoos removed — this time for good, he said. The ink used to mask his face, he said, is easier to remove than other kinds used for tatoos.
The visits to the clinic where his facial tattoos are being slowly removed leave his face swollen and sore. There is no guarantee the tattoos disappear completely; some of the darker lines may always be with him.
Finding work outside of cycling has proven difficult. Aside from the tough economy — "I call people and they tell me they're firing, not hiring" — his appearance scares off other potential employers.
"Tattoos and drugs on the background check," he said. "That will do it."
He spends his days helping around the house, reading and trying to keep positive thoughts in his mind.
"Being exhausted all the time and not being able to lead a normal life, you end up making a lot of sacrifices in your life and sometimes you make bad decisions to try and compensate. Cycling is about suffering and pain," Swindlehurst said. "I want nothing more than to see David Clinger come back to the sport. I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing guys like Chad Gerlach and David turn (their lives) around."
Clean again, riding again and filled with optimism, Clinger hopes he is beginning a new race in his life.
"I pretty much hit bottom," he said. "But as long as I'm honest with myself and with the people who care about me, I'll be OK. I just have to turn around and ride the bike back up that hill."
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