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SERRA SAN BRUNO, Italy (VN) — The Giro d’Italia was spared a potential awkward moment on Tuesday when 23-year-old Enrico Battaglin, of the UCI Pro Continental team Bardiani Valvole-CSF Inox, won stage 4 into Serra San Bruno, finishing ahead of Fabio Felline (Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela) and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) for an all-Italian sweep of the day’s top spots.
Just moments earlier, it appeared as though Italian Danilo Di Luca, of Vini Fantini-Selle Italia, might take the stage win. The rider known as “The Killer” launched an audacious attack on the second and final rated climb and drove to the finish line with young rider Robinson Chalapud (Colombia). The pair pushed over the summit with nearly 20 seconds on the main group, but they were caught with 600 meters to go.
In the chaos that followed, across wet and slippery stone slabs, Battaglin timed his sprint to perfection to upset the sport’s biggest names, including race leader Luca Paolini (Katusha).
An underdog had won, and perhaps equally important, Di Luca had not.
Had Di Luca won, it would have forced the Giro, and the sport of pro cycling, to take yet another long look in the mirror, and open another examination of the ghosts of its past, and those still haunting the present.
Di Luca, 37, won the Giro in 2007, and finished second overall in 2009. He also served suspensions during both of those seasons — in 2007, for prior involvement with Italian doping doctor Carlo Santuccione, and in 2009, when he tested positive for using the blood-booster CERA during that year’s Giro.
Di Luca also delivered a urine sample during his 2007 Giro victory that reportedly recorded the hormone levels of a small child, dubbed “pipi degli angeli” (angel’s pee), a sign of the use of masking agents. However he ultimately was cleared for that offense, with Italian Olympic Committee anti-doping officials admitting there was “not a sufficient degree of probability” for a doping conviction. He was able to keep his 2007 Giro title, though he was stripped of his 2009 second-place finish.
“He punched the Giro d’Italia in the stomach in 2007 and almost did it again in 2009,” former Giro d’Italia race director Angelo Zomegnan famously said on Italian television.
After serving a suspension, Di Luca returned in 2011 with Katusha, riding for no salary. He rode last year with Acqua & Sapone, and only opened his 2013 campaign after signing with Vini Fantini in late April.
By comparison, Battaglin is an unheralded young rider, a distant nephew of Giovanni Battaglin, the 1981 Giro and Vuelta champion. He won the prestigious Coppa Sabatini in 2011, as a stagiaire, beating another disgraced doper, Davide Rebellin, who was returning after being stripped of his 2008 Olympic silver medal for using CERA.
Last year, in his first full season as a professional, Battaglin completed his first Giro d’Italia. On Tuesday he became a Giro stage winner with his second pro win. His joy at the finish line was palpable.
“In 2011, after I had won everything as an amateur, I started my pro career winning,” Battaglin said Tuesday. “Perhaps I thought it was easier than it really is. I may have paid for that last year. This year, I was determined to show that I’m a good rider. I worked hard in the winter and I’m starting to reap the rewards.”
Di Luca is far from the only rider at the Giro with a doping scandal on his record. Race leader Paolini is no stranger to controversy; he was implicated in a long-running drug trafficking case, Operation Athena, that also involved Ivan Basso’s sister, Elisa. However, Paolini has never served a suspension.
Team leaders Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) and Franco Pellizotti (Androni Giocatolli-Venezuela) have both served doping suspensions. Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who pulled out of the race two days before it started, has won the Giro twice, once before a doping suspension, and once after.
And the Garmin-Sharp team of defending champion Ryder Hesjedal has four riders in the race who have served suspensions.
The critical difference, however, is that Garmin’s riders have acknowledged, and apologized for, their transgressions; Basso has as well, to a degree. Scarponi, Pellizotti, Paolini, and Di Luca have not.
More importantly, though, it’s important for the sport that new names, those without checkered pasts, come to the fore and shift the focus away from their embattled predecessors — riders such as Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEdge), Carlos Betancur (AG2R La Mondiale), Fabio Aru (Astana), and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano).
Just as it’s naïve to think that doping in cycling is a thing of the past, it’s also unrealistic to wish that the riders who contributed to the damage the sport now faces would just fade away. Rebellin won a race in Poland just last week; Spaniard Francisco Mancebo, who was heavily implicated in Operación Puerto, continues to race in North America, most recently winning the queen stage at the Silver City’s Tour of the Gila on Sunday.
Whether or not these riders, or Di Luca, are now respecting anti-doping rules they disregarded in the past is impossible to know. Performances, by and large, are more believable than they were even five years ago. Times are slower, attacks are less dramatic, and time gaps are closer. While his move was bold, that Di Luca was unable to hold his attack on Tuesday is encouraging.
The day when the pro peloton is clear of suspicion will likely never materialize. However, the day when the peloton is clear of riders with controversial pasts may be only a few years away. Until then, it’s understandable that many will prefer to cheer for the underdog — the rider with a clean record and the possibility of a clean slate.
Sometimes he may even win.