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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson; Week 1 headliners: Riccò, Talansky

When Marco Pantani died of an apparent cocaine overdose, alone in a Rimini hotel room seven years ago this St. Valentine’s Day, Riccardo Riccò was racing on a small amateur team called Grassi Marco Pantani. Riccò, then 20 years old, dreamed of emulating his hero by someday winning the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

Riccò came close. He was runner-up to Alberto Contador at the 2008 Giro and had already won two stages of that year’s Tour de France when he was exposed for doping with CERA, the third-generation EPO that was thought to be undetectable. Last week, prior to competing in the Mediterranean Tour, Riccò, who was being paid a salary of almost $1.5 million a year by Dutch team Vacansoleil, was recuperating in a Modena hospital from a self-administered blood transfusion that sent his blood pressure off the charts and almost ruined his kidneys.

When this past weekend French journalist Philippe Brunel of L’Équipe went to Riccò’s hometown of Formigine to see what locals thought of their hero’s latest doping infraction, he found that the headquarters of the Italian racer’s fan club was padlocked. “It’s not much use anymore,” sighed one of the fan club’s founding members.

Until last week, they’d had great hopes for Riccò, that he was repentant and would be back at the Giro this year shooting for the fabled maglia rosa. But the rider nicknamed The Cobra was incapable of shedding his tainted snakeskin and donning a new one.

That’s no surprise to athletes who raced with him and were repelled by Riccò’s perceived arrogance when he first came to the professional ranks — at one point referring to the other athletes as a bunch of sheep. His attitude resulted in vehement criticism of Riccò by riders this past week, just as happened after his positive test result at the 2008 Tour.

In his blog for Vélo Magazine a few days after that 2008 incident, French rider Jérôme Pineau said that Riccò was a recidivist, writing this about him: “I have some Italian friends who, when they raced with him at 15 years old, told me he boasted that he doped and even showed them how he did it.”

Talansky gets Pro Tour Promotion
That was Andrew Talansky’s age, 15, on the day Pantani died in 2004. Talansky was then into cross-country running at a high school in Miami, Florida; he knew nothing about cycling.

The now 22-year-old Talansky, after stepping up from domestic squad California Giant, is the latest budding star for Garmin-Cervélo. He raced for his UCI ProTeam for the first time this past week at the Med Tour, which Riccò was predicted to win … and for which Ricco transfused a bag of his own blood that had been sitting in a fridge since January 13.

Riccò expected to make his winning move in the Med Tour this past Sunday on the fifth and final stage, finishing atop the abrupt 5km climb that winds up to the summit of Mont Faron, high above the port city of Toulon. Instead, on that cool, cloudy afternoon, the Italian was lying in the intensive care unit — while Talansky was confirming the climbing prowess that earned him second place in last year’s Tour de l’Avenir.

The young American placed fourth on that stage (and fourth overall) only 18 seconds down on the solo winner, French veteran climber David Moncoutié. Talansky’s remarkable debut will be remembered if and when, as expected, he develops into an eventual Tour de France contender with contemporaries like Tejay Van Garderen of HTC-HighRoad; but of more lasting significance could be the words he penned during the French stage race and posted to his “A Day in the Life” blog last Friday.

Talansky didn’t mention Riccò or any other rider who has attempted to cheat cycling’s anti-doping charter. He merely expressed his dismay with those who claim that all pro cyclists are dopers and so they can’t believe in this sport anymore.

At the heart of his piece, Talansky wrote: “We can be asked to pee in a cup, have our blood drawn any time, anywhere. I welcome it. The truth is, as hard as this may be for some ‘fans’ and so-called ‘journalists’ to believe, we all do. I welcome anything that shows that our results are those of hard work and our love and dedication to this sport. … With our performances and our openness, we as riders prove that we are clean.”

Talansky is now part of Garmin’s internal anti-doping program besides submitting samples at races and out-of-competition tests for the UCI’s biological passport program. If there is any hint of a transgression he knows that his career will be over. One can only hope that Riccò would have been caught out by the passport program sooner rather than later, whether or not he told the doctors trying to save his life that he had undergone an illegal blood transfusion.

Like the many cheats before him, Riccò believed that he could get away with it. This time his transgression almost cost him his life; hopefully, others who contemplate blood doping will consider his fate and Talansky’s words. In concluding his blog, the brilliant young American racer wrote: “I love my sport and I will do anything to share that love with all the real fans out there, to give journalists something real to write about. So here is my challenge to all of you: BELIEVE!

“If you are capable, believe in me, believe in my team, believe in my competitors, believe in this sport. I do. It has so much to offer, so much excitement to share, so much inspiration to provide; all you have to do is believe.”

Interestingly, all five stages of the Med Tour and the overall title went to riders from France — the country that claims to have had the most stringent anti-doping policy in cycling for the past dozen years. Let’s hope that those two facts are related. Let’s also hope there will be fewer and fewer Riccòs in our sport, and more and more Talanskys.

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