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By Neal Rogers
Not to minimize Stefan Schumacher’s surprising stage 4 time trial win, but the 2008 Tour de France saw its first truly amazing performance Sunday as Saunier Duval-Scott’s Ricardo Riccò rode away from the best riders in the world to take his second stage win in four days.
Riccò won the first of three days in the Pyrénées, a mammoth 224km trek over the Tour’s first two category one-rated climbs, the Col de Peyresourde and the Col d’Aspin. On Thursday Riccò out-sprinted pre-race favorites Cadel Evans and Alejandro Valverde to the uphill finish line at Super-Besse in the Massif Central.
Riccò’s victory in the Tour’s first high-mountains stage was taken in a decisive — and eyebrow-raising — manner. After a test bite early on the slopes of the Aspin alongside teammate Leonardo Piepoli, Riccò attacked a select group of 40 riders 4km the summit of the Aspin, rode straight through a three-man chase group that had sprung from the bunch and caught Gerolsteiner’s fading lone breakaway Sebastian Lang, closing a 2:36 gap within 3km.
The 5-foot-8, 130-pound climber then maintained his 1:17 advantage over the peloton over the 26km from the top of the Aspin to the finish line.
“It was a great stage for me,” Riccò said. “Piepoli did a great job on the Aspin where he set a good rhythm. All the big contenders were looking at each other so I kept on going. It’s the mountains, and that’s what I’m good at.”
Riccò’s ride had fans and journalists buzzing over a display of strength that bordered on the implausible at a Tour that is desperately trying to re-establish credibility after two years of scandal.
Even prior to Riccò’s second stage win, rumors of suspicion circulated throughout the Tour after French newspaper Libération reported Saturday that the Italian had been tested four times by the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) since the race left Brest seven days earlier. The AFLD had said it would be specifically targeting several riders because of “worrying” parameters in some of the 180 blood samples taken from the peloton on July 3 and 4.
The 24-year-old Riccò, who finished second at the Giro d’Italia in May, has quickly become one of the most exciting, and polarizing, riders in the sport with his thrilling attacks and penchant for controversy.
Earning the nickname “The Cobra” for his explosive and vicious riding style, Riccò openly admits to idolizing deceased Italian climber Marco Il Pirata Pantani, a rider whose electrifying performances were eventually called into question by scandals in his latter years as a professional. Though he never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, Pantani, who accomplished the 1998 Giro/Tour double, fell afoul of doping authorities for an elevated hematocrit at the 1999 Giro and never returned to his former self.
“Marco Pantani has been my hero since I was 14 years old,” Riccò said Sunday. “He was a great rider who won the Giro and the Tour. I still watch videotapes about him. I hope some day I can ride like him.”
That Riccò so admires Pantani is troubling to some, as is his association with Pantani’s former masseuse Roberto Pregnolato, who was found guilty of drug possession when he was caught throwing used syringes from his hotel room window during police raids on the 2001 Giro.
Riccò said Sunday that he is fed up of reports that he is one of several riders under suspicion by the AFLD, which is carrying out drug controls in place of the UCI. The Tour’s first doping case erupted Friday, when news reports leaked that a urine sample from Liquigas rider Manuel Beltran tested positive for EPO. The AFLD carried out the urine test sample after being alerted by a suspect reading in a blood sample taken before the race.
Riccò has a UCI certificate verifying that he has a naturally high hematocrit of 51 percent, one point higher than the UCI limit of 50 percent established at the 1997 Paris-Nice as indication, but not proof, of blood manipulation.
“I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed,” Riccò said of the reports he is under suspicion. “I know I have nothing to worry about. My blood values are high, but for me they are totally normal because I’ve had them since I was a child.”
Riccò also finds himself repeatedly under the microscope due to his inclination towards unabashed trash talking. He famously chastised the majority of the peloton at the 2007 Tirreno-Adriatocio for “riding like vegetables,” and his mouth has landed the young rider on the outs with senior Italian capos, including Filippo Pozatto and Paolo Bettini, particularly after calling Pozatto “a champion with a lowercase ‘c’”.
Since turning pro in 2006 with Saunier Duval, Riccò has been plagued by compatriots in the peloton who either chase down his breakaways, or refuse to cooperate with him, prompting the rider to claim, “I don’t need friends in the peloton.”
Tactics and alliances wasn’t a matter of concern Sunday, however. When Riccò attacked, he went alone, at a pace no rider could match.
“Riccò was too strong for everybody today,” said CSC team manager Bjarne Riis. “We can’t let him just ride away with the race. Today he wasn’t a threat, so it was okay. Tomorrow is a different scenario. He won’t have it so easy.”
Riccò’s performance moved him up the general classification, from 27th, 3:52 behind race leader Kim Kirchen to 21st, 2:35 back with a summit finish awaiting atop the hors cartegorie Hautacam climb Sunday.
With memories fresh of Rabobank’s Michael Rasmussen climbing his way into the maillot jaune last year before the Dane was ultimately sent home from the race, Riccò’s ride Sunday has some wondering if the cocky Italian might be considering contending for the overall.
“I’m not thinking of the GC,” Riccò said. “I know I can’t win the Tour. You have to be ready for it and prepare like other riders have done. My goal was scoring a stage win and it has been accomplished. What happened today was completely unexpected; it took even me by surprise. I won’t give up, however, and I’ll score more wins if I can. Tomorrow I’d like to work for Piepoli, the stage to Hautacam is perfect for him. As I’ve been saying all along, I’m here to gain experience this year, so that I can come back in 2009 for the overall.”
Whatever road Riccò travels, at this Tour and beyond, one can only hope it’s a path that’s all his own — and far removed from the controversial and ultimately tragic ending of Pantani’s electrifying but abbreviated career.