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Ofoto fires DeCanio over web sites

Former Prime Alliance rider vows to continue fight against doping

By Neal Rogers

American racer Matt DeCanio, who created waves throughout the cycling community last summer by admitting he had used EPO during the 2003 domestic racing season, was released late last week by the California-based Ofoto-SierraNevada Professional Cycling Team without ever participating with the team.

DeCanio, 27, who raced with the European Linda McCartney team as well as Saturn and Prime Alliance domestically, sat out the 2004 season but hoped to return to racing in 2005 with Ofoto-Sierra Nevada. Though DeCanio had admitted last June to EPO use during the 2003 Tour of Connecticut stage race, he had not yet been sanctioned by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and hoped to return to racing, largely, he says, to spread his anti-doping message.

The primary reason for DeCanio’s release from the team stemmed from the content of his controversial, staunchly anti-doping Web sites, www.stolenunderground.com and www.mattdecanio.com. Content on DeCanio’s sites has varied from his own doping experiences to highly personal admissions of depression as well as specific accusations directed towards past and current professional riders, including Lance Armstrong.

According to team spokesman Josh Kadis, DeCanio and the team had a verbal agreement, as an addendum to his original contract, that his Web sites would not “become a forum for debate and accusations” on doping. When DeCanio refused to go along with the team’s policies, citing the First Amendment, he was asked to resign. DeCanio, however, has refused to resign, and the matter is now in the hands of the team’s attorneys.

“The main thing that I think is important to understand is that the reason we’ve asked Matt to leave the team is not because of his views,or his admission of doping,” Kadis said. “In the time since he’s been amember of the team there have been specific violations of team policies that Matt voluntarily made with team management. The First Amendment protects censorship from the government, but it doesn’t protect employees, or independent contractors in this case, from abiding by a contractual agreement”

DeCanio, who signed his contract with the team in November, said the team did not pressure him on his Web sites’ content until a month later, shortly before the team’s 2005 roster was announced.

“Right before the team announcement they said, ‘Everything’s got to go’ [from the Web sites],” DeCanio said. “My contract had already been signed, but they were threatening to fire me. I didn’t sign anything — it was a verbal agreement that the team couldn’t be used as a vehicle for my message. But what does that mean? They act like this is a porn site,but this is an anti-doping Web site aimed at teaching kids to stay away from drugs. How can you ban a rider from writing anti-doping journal entries?”

According to Kadis, the agreements — both verbal and via e-mail — clearly stated the team was not comfortable with DeCanio’s direct attacks on specific individuals.

“We made some ground rules with Matt before we announced the team,”Kadis said. “We went through the Web sites together and said, ‘Here’s what can stay up, and here’s what comes down. Then at a certain point, [controversial material] started reappearing on the Web site. Matt wasn’t willing to abide by his contractual written and verbal agreements.”

Kadis stressed that DeCanio wasn’t released solely because of the contenton his Web sites, but because, “There were also a number of agreements and policies that all team members have agreed to abide by and that Matt disregarded in his e-mails and phone conversations with team management.”

Another of those violations was centered on an interview DeCanio conducted with VeloNews on January 14 concerning his admissions of drug use and subsequent lack of sanctioning by USADA. (According to USADA’s director of legal affairs, Travis Tygart, an admission of doping is considered a punishable violation for up to eight years following the admission.) As part of his agreement with the team, DeCanio was instructed to first direct all media inquiries to Kadis.

On mattdecanio.com, DeCanio posted an e-mail written by Ofoto-SierraNevada operations manager Kurt Stockton and dated January 20. In the e-mail Stockton wrote, “Regarding media inquiries, when VeloNews contacted you, Josh [Kadis] initially found out about that by reading a posting onmattdecanio.com, while independently I forwarded an e-mail to him from you where you stated that VN wanted to do an interview and you wanted the cover. [DeCanio was never promised a cover, nor any editorial content,by VeloNews.]

“Not long after Josh contacted you regarding this you stated that you felt your freedom of speech was being threatened by the team and posted the ‘First Amendment’ on SU [Stolenunderground.com]. You also stated in correspondence with Josh that you would ‘not continue to abide by any rules the team has set forth’ and that you would ‘take the team to court and win’.”

Further in his e-mail to DeCanio, Stockton wrote, “You have chosen to put your own agenda above that of the team, which is fine for an individual but not for a team. The first time that you and I spoke regarding you racing in 2005, my main concern was that you not use the team as a forum to promote your own agenda and you agreed that you would not do so. The fact that we do not wish our program to be a forum for accusations and debate does not mean we are any less committed to ridding cycling of doping.”

According to DeCanio, he simply could not allow to have his personal anti-doping sentiments censored by team personnel.

“Ofoto-Sierra got nervous,” he said. “They are nervous that they aregoing to be negatively affected by my site, that they’re not going to get race starts or they might not get sponsors. I don’t want to talk negatively about Kurt Stockton or [team director] Robin Zellner, because they signed me when I needed a team, but I don’t think it’s right to fire me because I have an anti-doping Web site. They are bending at the will of the corrupt, and they lack the courage to make a stand.”

Asked if the team recognizes that some may view its having distanced itself from DeCanio as a less-than-aggressive anti-doping stance, Kadis replied, “We have a very strong anti-doping stance, but we also have a strong stance on how our program should be represented. When you are a part of a team, in any sport, as in cycling, every day you wake up in the morning you represent the program, not just when you are on the road between the start line and the finish line.”

But DeCanio sees it otherwise. “I told them, ‘If you go against me, you’re siding with the dopers,’” he said. “I guarantee it’s better for the sport to have me out there racing. I want to reach as many kids as possible. I honestly think I can change sport. I don’t want to be in an organization that is going to undermine my desire to clean up the sport.”

Neither Stockton nor Zellner wished to comment on the details concerning DeCanio’s release, but in a January 13 interview with VeloNews, regarding the team’s decision to bring aboard a rider possibly facing sanctioning from USADA, Stockton said, “The fact that Matt is so anti-doping doesn’t change the fact of what he admitted to, but he is trying to get across a positive message.”

Stockton also stated in that interview that the team wasn’t overly concerned with the possibility that DeCanio might face sanctioning for his voluntary admission of EPO use. “It may very well be a possibility that “[a USADA sanction] could happen,” Stockton said. “If that’s the case, we’ll deal with it when it happens. I could worry about all kinds of scenarios thatcould happen in my life, and it would drive me nuts. If a ruling states that he should be sanctioned, then he should be. We’ll cross that bridge if we get to it.”

Since that January 13 interview, however, relations between DeCanio and team management have worsened day by day, largely due to the contentof DeCanio’s Web sites.

DeCanio has, in many ways, polarized the domestic peloton since StolenUnderground.com began heating up with admissions and accusations last summer. Many see his over-the-top online diary ramblings and unsubstantiated allegations as akin to libel, and more than one rider that DeCanio accused of using performance-enhancing drugs has, off the record, promised this reporter that he intended to inflict physical harm upon DeCanio should he show up to race on the pro circuit.

“We thought it best that Matt directed media inquires to me for the time being, in part because we thought it best to ease him back into his return to pro cycling based on threats other riders had made to Matt,” Kadis said.

Some riders that know DeCanio have gone so far as to question whether he ever used EPO or may have made the whole story up. Others, however,point out that DeCanio is the first rider in the U.S. to come out and openly admit to his own drug use, and the only rider with the courage to suggest that within the pro peloton, the emperor, in fact, might not be wearing any clothes.

“Matt’s pretty confrontational and makes a lot of people angry,” one high-profile professional said, asking to remain anonymous, “but there’s a lot of truth in what he writes on his Web sites.”

Kadis added that within Ofoto-Sierra Nevada, the feeling is that DeCanio is a “talented rider who is passionate and committed not only to racing, but to his cause.” But, Kadis added, “As a team we have a contractual right to specify how we want our team to be represented, and ultimately he wasn’tcommitted to being a part of the team and that’s a major part of being a professional in the sport.”

As for DeCanio, he is without a team for 2005 and still faces a possible sanction for admitting to the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

“It is a battle,” he said. “Everyone is trying to silence me. Everybody in cycling wants me gone — it’s bad for business. They don’t give a sh*t about the kids. I’ve seen way too many talented kids quit the sport because of the drug problem.

“My career is over; it’s been over since I spoke out. The only way forme now is to find a drug-free sponsor, somebody who won’t tell me I’m an idiot because I want to save kids from going through what I’ve had to go through.”

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