Vincenzo Nibali, runaway leader of the Tour de France, insists that a “new generation” of Italian riders are trying to bring back credibility to a sport afflicted by past doping scandals. Some recent cases however suggest that some still succumb to the temptation to cheat.
The Astana rider took his third stage victory of the race at Chamrousse on Friday to tighten his hold on the yellow jersey as the Tour heads towards its final week, and finished second on yesterday’s Stage 14 to Risouls to extend his lead to nearly 5 minutes.
As race leader, it’s unsurprising that Nibali faces questions about doping, all the more so given the history of some of the personnel at his Astana team.
One of his key support riders at the race, Michele Scarponi, was handed a backdated three-month ban in 2012 for associating with the banned doctor Michele Ferrari.
Astana’s general manager Alexandre Vinokourov served a ban for an illegal blood transfusion while riding for them during the 2007 Tour de France – the entire team left the race at the invitation of organisers ASO.
Meanwhile, sports director Giuseppe Martinelli worked in the same role at Mercatone Uno at the peak of Marco Pantani’s career.
"I don't know what to say about Martinelli, I have a good relationship with him and it's also thanks to him that I joined Astana," Nibali told the press last week, reports SBS.
"Astana invested a lot in Italians because we have credibility and they have changed the make-up of the whole group.
"There were errors made in the past by many riders but it's best to leave all that in the past and go forward.
"We're a new generation, there are young riders coming through and we must make room for those young riders trying to change cycling.
"We also have the biological passport, surprise controls and controls at your home.
"You can't say cycling hasn't changed, it's in a better situation but you can't change cycling from one day to another.
"I also joined Astana because it's important for me to progress and because I could build a group to tackle important races such as the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta a Espana."
Nibali’s insistence that the current crop of Italian riders are different from their predecessors ignores the fact that some of them do fail anti-doping controls, including high-profile cases involving stage winners in the past two editions of the Giro d’Italia.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that Mauro Santambrogio – like the Astana rider, aged 29 – had been banned for two years after testing positive for EPO during last year’s race, when the Vini Fantini-Selle Italia rider won the snow-affected Stage 14 after attacking with Nibali.
Last month, it emerged that Lampre-Merida rider Diego Ulissi, winner of two Giro stages this year, had been provisionally suspended after a urine sample was found to have twice the permitted concentration of the anti-asthma drug, salbutamol. Both Ulissi and his team contest the findings, and the case continues.
Italian cycling is also currently overshadowed by ongoing investigations led by magistrates in Mantua and Padua into doping to which a number of past and present riders and team staff have been linked.
Nibali acknowledged why he should be subject to questions about doping, however.
"It's normal, it also happened last year during the Giro and in the past when I've been on training camps," he reflected.
"But I think it belongs to the past. There are a few isolated cases, [but] there always will be imbeciles.
"I can't be a spokesman for the whole peloton but I assure you there's a great desire to improve and do more [to fight doping]."
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.