By Neal Rogers
Wow. File this week’s column under the “Stranger Than Fiction” heading. Or, following last week’s story about Matt DeCanio and the Ofoto-Sierra Nevada squad parting ways, maybe we should designate this as chapter 2 of “How to lose your job before ever toeing a start line with the team.”
So, where to begin?
When three-time NRC winner Chris Horner left the upstart domestic Webcor Builders squad to take his rightful place among the world’s elite in Europe, the first question many asked was, “What will happen to Webcor?”
That question seemed to have been answered when Webcor announced that it had re-signed Charles Dionne, the 2002 and 2004 San Francisco Grand Prix/T-Mobile International winner, once thought to be joining Horner at Saunier Duval, and also recruited 2002 U.S. Postal Service team member David Clinger to fill Horner’s shoes.
In 2003, riding for Prime Alliance, Clinger was the only non-Saturn rider to win a major stage race when he took stage 2 and the overall at the Tour of Connecticut. The strong all-rounder also won a stage at the inaugural Dodge Tour de Georgia, where he placed eighth overall.
Last year, Clinger crossed the pond to join Mario Cipollini’s Italian Domina Vacanze team, where he was mostly a non-factor. So his return stateside looked like a win-win situation for both Clinger and Webcor.
But now, it looks like – well, like something else altogether.
When Clinger showed up to the Webcor team camp last week — and this is a true story, folks — the 27-year-old stunned his new teammates with a fresh, full-face, Maori-warrior-style tattoo. Not a henna tattoo, not a temporary tattoo, but the real, this-is-for-life deal, covering every inch of his face.
The tattoo, only days old, presented a problem for Webcor’s team management, which felt it was too over the top to represent its sponsors.
“[The tattoo] is nothing that’s offensive,” explained Webcor team consultant Frank Scioscia. “It’s purely decorative. But it doesn’t matter. Clearly, from the team’s perspective, it doesn’t fit what we are representing. It’s not the team’s image. I can’t see it not impacting us in some way in a negative fashion.
“Our sponsors bring money into the sport to be associated with as positive of an image as possible. Our team is known as the working stiffs, the guys that have a nine-to-five job and come out to race on the weekends. On the women’s side, we have Christine Thorburn, who is a medical doctor that’s also an Olympian. That’s much more the image we’re striving for.”
Scioscia and rider-directors Ted Huang and Dario Falquier concluded that as much as they would like to have Clinger riding with the team, the possibility that his new look could scare away sponsors was too great. Citing a contractual provision that requires team members to execute their duties “with an appropriate level of professionalism,” the team told Clinger he could only race in a Webcor Builders jersey once the “situation had been remedied.”
“He’s not functioning as any part of this organization until he can remedy this situation,” Scioscia said. “I don’t want to see this harm the people who are innocents in the equation, impacting 12 guys unrelated to the action. Little things tip the scale for the sponsors. This is so outside of the arena of the sport, I’m just bummed with it to begin with. I keep thinking this is a dream we’ll all wake up from.”
Asked for a photo of the tattoo to run with this story, the team declined, explaining the less visibility the story gets, the better.
“It’s one thing for us to talk about it,” rider-director Ted Huang said. “It’s another thing for one of our subcontractors to see it online. We got the subcontractors interested in cycling – now they may be checking VeloNews.com on a daily basis.”
Scioscia added: “We addressed it with David and explained that [the tattoo] was sufficient for us to terminate the guy. But rather than just pissing him off, we told him that if he can take the steps to remedy the situation, there’s a place for him on the team.”
That remedy involves a series of expensive and painful laser tattoo-removal treatments, a step Clinger says he’s willing to take.
Reached at his parents’ home in Woodland Hills, California, Clinger spoke freely about his decision to get the tattoo, the Webcor’s reaction, and his willingness to accede to the team’s requests.
Clinger explained that he had the tattoo done in late January over a 12-hour session in Argentina, his fiancée’s homeland. Asked if he expected to get this type of reaction from his new team, Clinger replied, “I knew it would be controversial, but I kind of just did it… I needed it, and wanted it.”
Clinger described the tattoo as a “Polynesian face mask,” using Maori symbols. He explained it was something he’d considered for about two years.
“I have a lot of respect for the Polynesian lifestyle and culture,” he said. “They are very peaceful and welcoming, and I admire the way they protect their land, the way they use it and they don’t just lay concrete over it. They live in modest homes. I’ve always been interested in their lifestyle.”
Clinger said he hadn’t ever visited Polynesian communities, but had “seen documentaries, read a couple of books, and read a book on what the Maori symbols mean. I’m so competitive, racing bikes year after year, I felt it falls in line with being a warrior.”
Asked if the tattoo had any religious significance, Clinger answered, “I was raised Mormon, but I don’t go to church. I don’t follow any religion. I have a ‘Polynesian necktie’ tattoo, which is on the top of one shoulder to the other shoulder. It’s supposed to protect the body and whatnot.… I’ve crashed so many times, I’m lucky to be alive.”
Clinger said his fiancée didn’t want him to get the facial tattoo, but vowed to stand by him. He added that during the tattooing process he “took more of an acupuncture effect to it,” explaining that it helped relax his facial muscles. “The first hour I was stinging in pain, but it felt good after I did it.”
“It’s somewhat of a publicity stunt as well,” he added. “Nobody in the cycling community has a facial tattoo.”
Of the team’s initial reaction and request to have the tattoo removed, Clinger explained that he was ready to “walk in there and have them fire me if they wanted to.”
He added that the lower half of his tattooing had not been finished, because his face would have been too swollen, and that, per the team’s request, it would be removed through laser surgery.
“We’re looking at getting the bottom half removed,” Clinger said. “The top half will mostly be under my helmet and glasses. I looked into removal before I even got it. There are creams, and there’s laser surgery. You can just spend a lot of time in the sun right after you get it, and that will fade away some of it. I’m not fighting [the team] too much. I’m sure I could fight it with a lawyer if I really wanted to.”
Clinger said he saw a doctor on February 3, and the prognosis is that fully removing the ink from the lower half of his face could require upwards of three months of painful laser treatments, meaning he likely wouldn’t be ready to race for Webcor until May.
“I’ll take the first half of the season easy,” Clinger said. “I’ve never taken the beginning of the season off. I’ve never focused on June and July, and this year I’ll do that.”
While Webcor’s team management felt strongly enough about the tattoo to require Clinger to have it removed, at least one team sponsor took a more relaxed approach.
Kevin Franks, global marketing manager for Specialized, the team’s bike sponsor, said of Webcor’s decision, “It’s their prerogative; it’s their team, so there’s not much to comment on that. [The tattoo] is an interesting choice of creative expression. From our perspective it doesn’t go much further than that. For sure it’s controversial, it’s out of the blue. He’s sure to wind up in a few more photos than he would have. I think it’s a total shame if he doesn’t race at all. Granted, he put himself into this situation, but I don’t think he anticipated this.”
Asked how he would react in a similar situation, Roy Knickman, Clinger’s general manager at Prime Alliance in 2003, said, “As a general manager there are a number of issues. There is a professional image, so I’d have to go to the sponsors and talk to them. At the same time, I feel a loyalty to the riders. The general manager is always in the middle, trying to make the sponsors happy, and also making sure there is team cohesion. My personal feeling is that it’s not for me, but it’s people’s right to have a tattoo as long as it’s not offensive in what its saying. That’s a unique situation, it’s seems so over the top. I suppose I’d be concerned as to what’s going on. What is connected with it: How is his behavior? What is his attitude?”
As for Clinger’s attitude, Huang reiterated that it’s not been an issue.
“On a personal level the team gets along with him well in every way except the facial tattoo,” Huang said. “He’s a great guy, everyone likes him. We’ve done everything we can to make him feel at home, and without any prompting, David said he was willing to look into what it takes to take it off. We could be blowing it out of proportion, but the sponsor has a certain image to maintain, and for a pretty conservative company, it’s not a conservative look.”
As for Scioscia’s concerns that the tattoo might affect the team’s title sponsorship, Webcor president and cycling enthusiast Andy Ball said it wouldn’t. Asked how he felt about the situation, Ball explained that though he hadn’t seen Clinger’s tattoo firsthand, he trusted his team management.
“I haven’t seen Clinger yet,” Ball said. “I got a call from Ted, he described it to me. I said, ‘You and Frank have talked about it, what do you think?’ Ted told me, ‘We don’t think that’ s the look we want to see on the team.’ I told them, ‘I rely on you guys to give me the feedback.’”
‘It’s not just an edict that I’m handing down. All of us saw it the same way. To summarize that from my viewpoint, David Clinger is a great athlete. Some people would describe him as being an individual. That‘s fine with me. I encourage people to be individuals. But as a pro athlete you are a representative of your sport. You are a paid professional athlete representing the company; you need to fit with in the culture of that and not break the professional manner. There are certain limitations on what you can do or say.”
Face it – management and labor are bound to disagree from time to time about what constitutes “professional” behavior. Whose side are you on? Drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.