It began as a 1,300-mile bike trip to promote pizza and exercise.
St. Petersburg pizzeria owner Matt McClellan left June 5 to spread the word about the healthy benefits of pizza by eating at pizzerias across the East Coast. He planned to finish in New York City for the Fourth of July festivities.
But not long into the trip, conflicts arose between McClellan and his training partner, Shayne Murphy, a 17-year-old from Admiral Farragut Academy who joined the tour to raise awareness about childhood obesity.
Now, what began as a healthy partnership has spiraled into a nasty dispute between the well-known owner of Tour de Pizza and the teenage triathlon star with aspirations of attending the U.S. Naval Academy.
Shayne's mother, Toni Ray, has accused McClellan of mistreating her son and has blasted McClellan's behavior, which she says included "nightclubs, strip clubs, alcohol, adultery, foul language, racist remarks and deceit." She also says McClellan is not biking the entire route, as advertised.
"Shayne never saw any bad qualities in Matt until the TV cameras and the lights and they started this trip,'' she said. "He told me, 'Mom, I don't know who he is anymore. He really scares me.' ''
McClellan, 34, has vehemently defended the tour, saying it was Shayne who caused the problems. He vowed to finish the trip as intended but acknowledged the controversy has been a distraction and plans to sue for slander.
"He's a disrespectful person, and he's trying to sabotage this trip,'' McClellan said during a break this week in Washington, D.C. "He got mad because I asked him to leave the tour.''
McClellan said he has delivered on all of his promises, including riding 50 miles a day in between cities. He said any accusations from Shayne's mother are based on her son's erroneous and unprovable account.
Citing advice from her lawyer, Ray has declined to let Shayne speak publicly about the trip because he's a minor. On June 22, Shayne wrote this on Twitter: "I will be so glad when this ride is over. You couldn't imagine what I have been experiencing.''
The situation exploded on June 24, when the tour left Teddy's Pizza in Raleigh, N.C. Ray says McClellan abandoned Shayne in the middle of nowhere with just his bike, a dying cell phone and $5. He called her crying and had to pedal several miles back to the La Quinta Inn in nearby Cary, N.C.
Ray, of St. Petersburg, called Cary police, who met Shayne at the hotel and helped him get his own room. Cary police say Shayne told them that McClellan was tired of babysitting him and left him on the road. He also said McClellan had left him outside a nightclub for several hours one night.
Police left the hotel before McClellan returned. No charges were filed, and the case was closed. Police in Raleigh, where Shayne allegedly was abandoned, are investigating.
The controversy became public last week when Ray sent an e-mail to Tour de Pizza sponsors and supporters stating that McClellan had endangered a minor and behaved inappropriately.
"I wanted to let the sponsors know that this is the type of individual they're dealing with,'' she said this week in an interview. "He is not the man he says he is.''
McClellan responded with an e-mail, which he also sent to officials at Admiral Farragut, a military-style prep school in St. Petersburg. He denied doing anything disrespectful and stated that it would have been physically impossible to leave behind a strong cyclist such as Shayne.
"These are false statements made in anger by a immature teenager and his mother who was given limited information from her son,'' he wrote.
McClellan attached photos of a smiling Shayne standing in front of sexually explicit drawings on a hotel door. He had a marker in his hand and was wearing a T-shirt from Admiral Farragut.
"This young man is perceived to be a leader, role model and upstanding gentleman, however these photos and his actions on this trip show otherwise,'' McClellan wrote.
He thinks Shayne should be expelled from Farragut.
Shayne's mother says he was coerced into drawing the pictures and was unaware that the trip's videographer was documenting it. She was appalled that McClellan, a trusted friend just weeks ago, would send such offensive photos involving a teenager. She hopes it doesn't hurt his dream of getting into the Naval Academy.
Farragut officials had few comments on the dispute given that it happened outside of school. He's been a student there since 2005 and is active in Junior ROTC.
"He's a very good kid and a solid academic student,'' Farragut spokeswoman Alison Lescarbeau said. His GPA was over 3.0.
She declined to discuss the explicit photos, except to say that sending them was inappropriate. The school had not been in touch with McClellan directly and knew nothing about McClellan's call for Shayne's expulsion.
The dispute comes at an unfortunate time for both parties, and who stands to gain from the character attacks isn't immediately clear.
Shayne, an upcoming senior at Farragut, is well-known among local triathletes and in April finished the St. Anthony's Triathlon in 2:18:15. His website, shaynemurphy.com, has a photo of him in school uniform standing next to Gov. Charlie Crist.
McClellan kicked off the bike tour to gain nationwide publicity for his all-pizza diet, which resulted in him losing 24 pounds during last year's 30-day challenge. He's still planning to finish his tour in New York on Sunday. He appeared on the May cover of Pizza Marketing Quarterly and is scheduled to speak during a pizza industry cruise to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada, later this month.
McClellan has hired St. Petersburg attorney Cary Cash to pursue civil charges against Ray.
Ray says she only made the accusations after she felt her son was in danger. She regrets letting her son get involved with the tour in the first place.
So does McClellan.