An interview with David Clinger, January 5, 2004
With Mario Cipollini's Midas Touch seemingly no longer at 36 years old, Californian David Clinger, 10 years his younger and new recruit to Domina Vacanze in 2004, may well be the one that fills the Lion King's shoes. He's got the legs, he's got the speed, he's got the confidence, but as Anthony Tan finds, he almost didn't make it.
BACK IN OCTOBER LAST YEAR, when established squads iBanesto and ONCE-Eroski appeared on the verge of collapse and American teams Prime Alliance and 7-Up also decided to call it quits, employment prospects for professional cyclists were looking particularly grim. So when David Clinger received a phone call from Health Net manager Greg Raifman, asking if he was interested in riding with them, he was more than grateful for the opportunity. There was a slight chance Mario Cipollini's Domina Vacanze team was also interested, but for the moment, Health Net was looking the better bet.
"They gave me a great opportunity at the time," he says. "I didn't have any communication with Domina Vacanze - I knew they were interested, but they still hadn't talked to me - so I accepted their [Health Net's] offer and I was real grateful for them to be talking to me, because everyone else was having a hard time finding a team."
"I never signed it - I wasn't gonna sign myself for two years at a shitty price." - A candid David Clinger on his tense negotiations with Health Net team manager Greg Raifman
What followed, however, took the 26 year-old Californian completely by surprise. It turns out Raifman was interested, but not that interested. According to Clinger, Raifman, also a lawyer, CEO and chairman of Momentum Sports Group and "a political giant" as Clinger describes him, was attempting to use his savvy negotiating skills to force the talented one-day rider into signing a two-year contract "at this shitty price that I didn't want to sign for". This was after he had already signed a contract sent to him earlier by Raifman, who refused to sign the original contract, instead faxing Clinger a second contract with changed stipulations less than an hour later.
"There were two contracts [from Health Net] that I had already, so I signed the one I wanted to sign and I sent it to him," Clinger says. "One fax confirms the contract I sent with my signature on it, then about half-hour later, there was another fax, saying: 'No, you signed the wrong contract, here's the correct contract - can you please sign this and send it back.' And I never signed it - I wasn't gonna sign myself for two years at a shitty price."
When negotiations stalled, Clinger went on holidays for two weeks, during which time he was courted by Vincenzo Santoni and Antonio Salutini from Italian Division I team Domina Vacanze - the team he wanted to sign for in the first place but who he believed weren't that interested. To further confuse matters, Raifman had already started announcing to the press the team had already signed Clinger for 2004 - despite not having countersigned the first contract Clinger faxed back to him.
When Cyclingnews' US correspondent Kristy Scrymgeour attempted to confirm with Raifman whether there was a legally binding contract in place or not, the lawyer was careful not to discuss the circumstances surrounding with Health Net and Clinger, refusing to comment on any of "their riders" or positions at the time.
"He jumped the gun by announcing to the press that I had signed on their team when the deal wasn't finished, so I saw him kind of squirming," remembers Clinger, proud to have held his own. "When I got back to America, he said: 'I can't believe what you're saying to me - my lawyers are going to contact you'. And that was it; Health Net's pissed because I had to call them up and tell them I wasn't going to sign. He [Raifman] knows as well, because the first thing he said when I called him when I got back to the US was: 'Let's finish up your contract.' I went, 'Nup, sorry, can't do it - I've got another offer.' They're just talking a lot of hot air, and they're just using it to gain press [coverage] for themselves so they can get Health Net and the Health Net name blasted out - just from me signing a contract that I agreed to, but one that he [Raifman] didn't agree to.
Despite the shemozzle and the inevitable bitterness that followed, Clinger is now living happily at his new European residence in northern Spain, "waiting for next year to come around". By signing with Domina Vacanze, he's managed to do what he set out to achieve at the start of the year - to make his return to Europe.
Clinger began his cycling career by chance. His father, a keen motorbike rider, suffered a serious accident when his son was around 14 years old, fracturing his foot and breaking his leg in fifteen places. To recover and rehabilitate his degenerated muscles, doctors told him to go to the gym and suggested riding a bike, the latter he and his son became very fond of, and the two would often be seen riding alongside one another on "century rides", 100 mile "fun rides" organised around the Los Angeles region. "I'd just kinda follow [my Dad] around," he says simply. "That was where I got to love the sport, just going out riding. Just being able to travel with your bike as well."
Not long after "just going out riding", Clinger joined his older brother and friend at the local velodrome, racing whenever he could. Today, he is known as a rider with plenty of speed and as much cunning, attributes he admits have much to do with his early beginnings: "I think the velodrome really helped with tactics in a controlled environment," he says.
Rapid progression led to several years on the national road team, and at the tender age of 20, Clinger had already signed his first professional contract with Mercury for the 1998 season. The disciplined environment on the US national team was the perfect breeding ground for his foray into the world of professional sport, with success coming almost instantly. In only his second year under the command of John Wordin, Clinger was one of Mercury's most successful recruits, clocking up eight big wins including the prologue at the Red Zinger Classic and Tour de Toona (as well as the overall), and stages of the Cascade Cycling Classic, Redlands and GP Cycliste de Beauce.
The next year, he found himself in Valencia riding for Festina. It had been almost two years since the infamous drugs scandal rocked the '98 Tour, with the whole team expelled after ampoules of EPO were found in the possession of their soigneur at the time, Willy Voet, but despite a change of directeurs, soigneurs and riders, the incident was still very raw - especially for the fans. Says Clinger about the team's eventual demise, "Yeah, it kinda sucked how the name was scarred with a such a bad image, and that pretty much put it under, I'm pretty sure of that. They changed all the directeurs and soigneurs on the team - but it was too much [to bear] for some people to even see that jersey riding [in the peloton].
"But I had a bunch of good team-mates; [Team manager] Juan Fernandez at the training camp was like: 'Help him out, he's a new kid and all, show him the ropes a little bit.' I just felt lucky to be stuck with a good group of guys like that. Jonathan Hall and Marcel Wust were good friends and they helped me along and encouraged me. When times got rough, they always had good attitudes, and it was nice to be around with people that really loved the sport. And Angel Casero was training up for the Vuelta that year  - I used to find it really motivating to sit around and watch him progress throughout the year and try and get ready for that."
Not only did Clinger do a great job at his first Grand Tour outing, helping Casero to a podium finish and finishing 71st overall himself, he also managed a handful of podium places, including his biggest win to date at the UCI 1.2 GP Villafranca de Ordizia one-day classic, two stage wins and thirteenth place at the San Sebastian World Cup. By the time Festina watch company announced the end of the team, Clinger was already set to join the might of US Postal Service in 2002.
"I had high expectations on what the team could achieve that year; I mean, I saw the team lacking motivation in every race other than [those races] George [Hincapie] or Lance [Armstrong] wanted to do, so I saw that as an opportunity to go out and win," Clinger recalls.
Team management, however, saw races other than the Spring Classics, the Tour de France and Vuelta a España as opportunities to gain form and practice their teamwork before the main event, not as windows to fulfil individual ambitions. Clinger says individual glory was not discouraged, but certainly never encouraged, and every member on the "Blue Train" was expected to ride as if they were going to the Tour de France - even when they knew from the beginning of the year they weren't going.
"So I had a bunch of other races I had in mind that I'd like to win, and I approached Johan Bruyneel about that, and he was like, 'Nope, don't want to hear about it - I want everybody to prep for the Tour'; you had to plan your whole year around the Tour even when you knew from the beginning of the year you weren't going to do the Tour. But just to focus on those two races, the Tour and the Vuelta... when you're looking to increase your payroll and get alternative results in some other races, it really wasn't a team for that," he says.
The Californian still managed an impressive win at the First Union Invitational, breaking away with Chris Wherry with two and half laps to go then soloing to victory, but for Clinger, the win was too few and far between. While he accepts the reasons behind Bruyneel's strategy of "all for one and one for all", his misgivings go deeper than simply a lack of opportunities to win. A high-speed crash at the HEW Cyclassics in Germany left him with an inflamed knee and nerve damage, though less than a week later, he was "asked" to race the Tour of Burgos; however Clinger was forced to withdraw when the pain in his sciatic nerve worsened. "That's pretty much when I knew I wasn't going to be riding for Postal anymore."
An ensuing knee operation ended his season prematurely, and with ill-feelings and just one win to his name, Clinger found himself back in California, riding for his former national team coach Roy Knickman, who had assumed the role of team manager at Prime Alliance. Reunited with a few of his ex-national squad team-mates, the familiar surroundings turned out to be exactly what he needed after a forgettable 2002.
Stage wins at the Tour of Georgia and Tour of Connecticut (as well as the overall classification) and third-best US rider at the USPRO Championships has seen a rejuvenated Clinger. He desperately wanted to win the national championships to catch the attention of a few European teams, but a broken bike in the closing moments of the race "mentally cracked" him and the team-mates who were working for him. However, the fiasco with Health Net has turned out to be a blessing in disguise; Clinger's set to begin his seventh season as a professional at Domina Vacanze.
Although renowned as a sprinter best suited to tough, one-day events, Clinger has already moved to Andorra on the border of the Spanish and French Pyrenees for one reason: to improve his climbing. Racing in the era of Greg Lemond's three Tour de France victories has left an indelible mark on his mind, and it's something the ambitious - if not a little overconfident - youngster believes he may be able to one day win.
"Some people say my style of riding doesn't suit to win the Tour de France, but y'know, it just takes a couple of changes to my physical appearance, and I might have a shot at [winning] it," he says.