The head of the Italian cycling federation has described Riccardo Riccò as “a young man who is ill on the inside,” consumed by the pursuit of “fame and success at all costs and by any means possible,” making him “lose touch with reality” after it emerged that the Vacansoleil rider’s admission to hospital in a critical condition on Sunday was, reportedly by his own confession, due to a self-administered blood transfusion that went wrong.
FCI President Renato Di Rocco urged Riccò to give up competitive sport immediately, but any prospect of the 27-year-old having a future in cycling could already be in tatters, with the Italian Olympic committee, CONI, confirming this evening that disciplinary proceedings have immediately been opened against the rider.
A separate criminal investigation by state prosecutors is also under way into Riccò, who was said by medical staff to be continuing his recovery.
According to the Gazzetta dello Sport, Riccò made his confession to the doctor who treated him upon his arrival, in critical condition, at a hospital in Pavullo on Sunday morning with what were initially described as kidney problems. His condition was so serious that he would subsequently be transferred to a larger hospital in his home city, Modena.
The sports daily reports the doctor as saying that Riccò, who was in a state of shock, and “in the presence of his wife [his girlfriend Vania Rossi, herself suspended but later cleared of doping charges last year]” confessed “to having performed, alone, a self-transfusion of blood kept in the fridge of his home for 25 days,” and that he was worried due to “the poor conservation of the blood that he had newly injected.”
It is less than a year since Riccò returned to racing following a 20-month ban – reduced from two years due to his co-operation with the authorities – imposed on him following his positive test for CERA during the 2008 Tour de France, a race in which he won two stages. Should the new investigation run its course and Riccò be found guilty, he could be looking at a lifetime ban.
Joining Vacansoleil from Italian outfit Ceramica Flaminia last August on a two-year contract, Riccò had come under the wing of the coach Aldo Sassi, renowned for his anti-doping stance, who was himself fighting the brain tumour that would kill him shortly before Christmas. It now seems that their paths crossed too late to save Riccò.
The rider had been preparing for a season in which he was thought likely to challenge for the overall title in the Giro d’Italia, a race in which he has twice been runner-up, and perhaps even the Tour de France, whose director, Christian Prudhomme, made conciliatory remarks regarding the prospect of the Italian taking part in this year’s race only last week.
However, for all his protestations that he was a reformed character, Riccò has never been far from doping rumours over the past year, and it’s likely that news of his apparent admission to self-tranfusion will be greeted with a certain degree of schadenfreude in some quarters.
The comments from the head of the FCI do give some pause for reflection, however, about the pressures that may drive some cyclists to take risks with their health in the pursuit of glory; for Di Rocco, it is not a simple case of an athlete found once more to have broken the rules on doping, but instead an individual, and one who must have known he would be targeted by the testers this season, who has lost all sense of reality.
“In no uncertain terms: for his good, for his family, for the good of cycling, Riccardo Riccò must leave competitive sport, he must come out of the perverse tunnel he has got himself into, he must find himself again, as a person, above all, as a man,” Di Rocco told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“He has done what he has done regardless of the punishment, risking also his life, and that makes me shiver. There’s so much bitterness, but this case is so specific and terrible to lead us to reflect on a crisis of values whose effect is diminished if we limit it to cycling alone or sport in general,” he added.
“Here, we’re not talking of mistaken advice, of sorcerer’s apprentices, of the hidden piovra [the Italian for octopus, also used as a metaphor for organised crime] that we are trying to fight and eradicate. We are faced with a young man who is ill on the inside, drunk on false messages – fame and success at all costs and by any means – which have made him lose all sense of reality, of that which it is worth working, striving and living for.
“The damage to the sport’s image is enormous and the Federation will take all the steps it can to limit it,” added Di Rocco. “But the moral disaster is frightening,” he concluded.
The news from Italy will be a heavy blow for Vacansoleil-DCM, which moved up from Professional Continental to ProTeam status over the close season, giving it guaranteed entry to cycling’s biggest races.
Another high-profile rider signed by the Dutch outfit for the 2011 season, Vuelta runner-up Ezequiel Mosquera, is currently under investigation after an A sample taken during that race tested positive for the banned substance hydroxyethyl starch. The result of the analyis of the B sample is still awaited.
In a statement published this evening on its website, Vacansoleil-DCM said: "The team has taking knowledge of the rumours regarding the rider Riccardo Riccò.
"These rumours say that Riccò would have admitted to have done a blood transfusion by himself. Riccò would have admitted this transfusion to the doctors when he was hospitalized with high fever in Pavullo.
"The team declares to have not enough knowledge of the relevant facts to make a deliberated judgement on this matter. The team has a zero-tolerance policy concerning doping use. All riders and staff who violate the internal and UCI doping rules are fired on the spot.
"Currently the team started an investigation on the facts. Depending on the results of the investigation further steps are taken."
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.