Controversial Vacansoleil rider Riccardo Riccò insists that he is older, wiser and most importantly riding clean as he prepares for the 2011 season which marks his re-entry to the top ranks of the peloton following his 20-month ban for doping.
Riccò signed to the Dutch outfit, then a Professional Continental team but now racing under a ProTeam licence, last August from Ceramica Flaminia, the Italian team he joined in March 2010 when his ban expired.
Vacansoleil, which controversially missed out on a wild card invitation to last year’s Tour de France which started in The Netherlands, is guaranteed entry to this year’s race due to its new status among cycling’s elite teams, its place confirmed yesterday by race organisers ASO.
However, it’s unlikely that ASO will countenance Riccò’s participation in the race following the former Saunier-Duval Prodir rider’s positive test for CERA during the 2008 edition, when he won Stages 6 and 9.
It was subsequently revealed that France’s antidoping agency, the AFLD, had decided to target Riccò, who had finished second in that year’s Giro d’Italia, for testing following every stage of the race after he unsuccessfully tried to evade testers after Stage 4, only to get caught in a traffic jam.
Eventually, Riccò received a two-year ban from the Italian authorities, later reduced to 20 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for his admission of doping and co-operation in the enquiry.
For now, however, Riccò is training in Benidorm where he is firmly focused on May’s Giro d’Italia, a race in which he, along with Vuelta champion Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Doimo and Lampre-ISD rider Michele Scarponi, are favourites to win the maglia rosa, and is also targeting a strong showing in the Spring Classics.
The 27-year-old insists that he is a reformed character, having come under the wing of the renowned coach Aldo Sassi, known for his anti-doping stance, in the months before the latter’s death from a brain tumour shortly before Christmas.
Riccò is continuing to train at the Mapei coaching and training facilty near Varese in Northern Italy that Sassi founded with the backing of Giorgio Squinzi, owner of the company that bears his name, and claims in an interview published in today’s print edition of Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that his efforts there are bearing fruit.
“It seems that I’m going better than in previous years,” he says, referring to his pre-season training. “I train according to how I feel, but they have a very specific methodology. With Andrea Morelli, Aldo Sassi’s pupil, I’m trying to improve my strength and ability to pedal while sitting in the saddle, even though standing up on the pedals and unleashing myself remains my strong point.”
Riccò was one of many from across the cycling world who gathered at Sassi’s funeral – one notable absentee was Cadel Evans, the man the coach led to the World Championship, who couldn’t make it back from Australia in time – and says he had mixed feelings about his death.
“On the one hand, relief, because he suffered as little as possible, but on the other, sorrow, because it’s shocking to die at 51 years of age. We lost a great trainer and a passionate fan of cycling. The evening of my first test at the Mapei Centre he sent me a message in which he said he was happy with me. He taught me that family comes first before anything else.”
The reference to his family is a particularly pertinent one. This time last year, Riccò hit the headlines once again after his partner, Vania Rossi, with whom he has a son, failed a test for CERA following her second-place finish in the Italian cyclocross championship.
The test was later found to be a false positive – Rossi returned to win the 2011 championship earlier this month – but in the wake of those suspicions that she, too, had doped, Riccò very publicly broke up with her, vowing that there could be no rapprochement between them until she demonstrated that she was clean.
The pair are now back together, but his comments brought him widespread criticism from the public, press and fellow riders. One, the Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen, used his Twitter account to make his feelings abundantly clear: “Ricco – what a f*cking hypocrite," he said. “Just don't come back piece of sh*t."
Earlier, HTC-Highroad sprinter Mark Cavendish had condemned the prospect of Riccò’s return to the peloton, saying: “It's like a parasite coming back into the sport. It's not the fact of what he did, because everyone can make a mistake. But he doesn't see it as a mistake. He's not even sorry about it."
Riccò for his part finds it hard to understand the vitriol directed at him when, as he points out, other cyclists such as Danilo Di Luca can return from a ban without attracting that level of condemnation for their past transgressions.
Although in the close-knit world of professional cycling, with teams often housed in the same hotels during races, he will clearly regularly cross paths with McEwen and Cavendish off the bike, let alone while racing, Riccò says there is no chance of reconciliation.
“I won’t go out to dinner [with them] and I’m not even interested in doing so,” he insists. “Instead I’d like to win back the public, a little bit at a time. I have to work seriously, and get results.”
Perhaps revealingly, he cites among the riders he appreciates Alejandro Valverde, another cyclist vilified for his links to doping, the Spaniard currently banned as a result of his ties to Operacion Puerto following a long-drawn out saga that ended up at he Court of Arbitration for Sport; the former Caisse d’Epargne rider is said to be considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in a final effort to clear his name.
Riccò maintains, however, that whatever others may think of him, for his part there is no-one in the sport whom he detests. “I don’t have dislikes,” he says. “Everyone should be respected for their character. I’ve learnt that you need to know people well before judging them.”
It’s likely that Riccò will win some big races this season. It’s also highly possible that the man who was once one of the most exciting young talents in Italian cycling will win the Giro d’Italia.
But for all his protestations that he is now riding clean, one certainty is that for many fans of the sport, as well as fellow riders within the peloton, Riccò will forever be tainted goods.
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.