Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport has today published what it says are leaked transcripts of conversations that allegedly took place between Alessandro Ballan and Guido Nigrelli, the pharmacist at the centre of an investigation into doping in Italy. The news appears to explain BMC Racing’s decision yesterday to remove the former world champion from its active roster. Other evidence gathered by Mantova-based investigators, including video footage, reportedly implicates a number of past and present riders and staff of Lampre, Ballan’s former team.
Nigrelli’s pharmacy in Mariana Mantovana was said by the newspaper to be akin to a “sacristry of doping” for Lampre riders, where it says they would hang upon his every word and buy anabolic steroids, EPO and human growth hormone, discuss how to evade testers, and talk freely about team mates.
If true – and it must be said, the Gazzetta’s coverage of the investigation to date suggests that it does have credible sources within it – then the openness with which such issues have apparently been discussed is nothing short of astonishing.
Here, there appears to be little use of the kind of codewords that hampered the Spanish police investigating Operacion Puerto and led to the cycling world learning that Alejandro Valverde once owned a dog named Piti.
Ballan, reports the Gazzetta, spoke to Nigrelli on 1 April 2009 – halfway through the cyclist’s reign as world champion following his victory in Varese in autumn 2008 – regarding human growth hormone, given the name ‘G,’ that another Lampre rider, Paolo Bossoni, was due to deliver to him.
“And this is ‘G’?” asks Ballan. “Yes, sure,” replies Nigrelli. “Yes, but how do you take it?” continues the rider. “By mouth.” “You have the stuff?” “They’re delivering it to me on Tuesday,” says Nigrelli.
Five days later, on 6 April, Fiorenzo Bonazza, a doctor who worked with Nigrelli, asked the latter if he could bring Ballan along with him “for that therapy that we have already given him,” words that according to Carabinieri involved in the investigation relate to ten blood transfusions.
On 20 April, Ballan again spoke to Nigrelli and during the conversation the pair discussed the cyclist having taken EPO during the previous February’s Giro di Sardegna. “How many, how many of them [intramuscular injections] have you done?” asks Nigrelli, to which Ballan replies, “This is the fifth,” adding shortly afterwards, “Sure I’ve done EPO…”
A fortnight later, Nigrelli is said to have told Daniele Pietropoli, then with LPR Brakes but now a Lampre rider, that “Ballan without chemicals would never have emerged.” The latter did not secure a professional contract until he was aged 25. Just four years later, he was world champion.
Last night, as happened in April last year, BMC Racing relieved both Ballan and former Lampre team mate Mauro Santambrogio of racing duties due to their links to the enquiry. The pair were both due to take part in this month’s Giro d’Italia, which starts in Turin on Saturday, with Ballan leading the US-based outfit.
While last year both cyclists quickly returned to the peloton, if the allegations made against Ballan by are true, the 31-year-old will almost certainly face doping charges, including a potential criminal trial, and the prospect of a lengthy ban as well as being fined or even imprisoned.
Notification was reportedly sent to Ballan, Santambrogio and presumably the other suspects in mid-April that the initial phase of the investigation had been concluded.
In Italy, which follows the inquisitorial model common on the continent in criminal law, the judiciary are far more involved in investigations and drawing up charges than happens in the English legal system.
The next step, once the necessary procedures under the Italian penal code have been followed, will be to ask a preliminary hearing judge to draw up indictments against them.
In Ballan’s case, the Gazzetta reports, such charges would be likely to include ones related to blood doping, while others including team management may be charged with the use, possession or supply of banned substances.
Besides any sporting sanctions they may face if found guilty, Italian law also makes use, supply or distribution of banned performance enhancing substances a criminal offence, with punishment including possible fines and even imprisonment, whether for riders or team staff.
The newspaper adds that the evidence gathered by the Mantova Prosecutors’ Office involves 14 riders, one team manager, two sports directors and one masseur who might have played a role in this year’s Giro. Lampre has changed its entire management team, and none of its current riders implicated will be taking part in the race.
Like BMC, Quickstep and Liquigas, have each left out riders said to be involved, respectively Alan Marangoni and Marco Bandiera. Only one cyclist involved in the investigation remains on the provisional start list – the Movistar rider, Marzio Bruseghin.
The Gazzetta – which, it should be remembered, is owned by the same RCS Media Group that organises the Giro itself – has said that it would be opportune if the rider pulled out of the race, not through reasons of guilt, but ones of transparency and being seen to do the right thing.
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.