Editorial: Italy stomps on Riccò the snake

Italy's high sporting court in Rome has finally beheaded The Cobra with the ruling that he had poisoned cycling long enough

Belgium (VN) — They say you have to cut off the head of a snake before you are truly safe. Well, Italy’s high sporting court in Rome has finally beheaded The Cobra, delivering Riccardo Riccò a 12-year ban Thursday. It ruled he had poisoned cycling long enough, nearly killing himself in the process.

“Based on WADA rules 2.2, 10.2 and 10.7, not to mention the banned substances listed in those rules, the athlete is guilty,” the ruling declared.

Riccò was not at the Olympic headquarters in Rome to hear the decision, but he now knows that he can forget about racing until 2024, when he’ll be 40 years old. He also must pay a €5000 fine and €15,000 in court costs.

The Cobra’s hiss

The Italian press like to refer to their riders by nicknames: Michele Bartoli was The Cat; Marco Pantani was The Pirate; and Riccò – in a career that included Giro d’Italia and Tour de France stage wins – was The Cobra.

Ironically The Cobra’s most recent venom – bad blood from a botched transfusion – nearly cost Riccò his own life last February 6. It was also this latest and most serious, in a string of doping incidents, that will effectively end his life as a pro cyclist.

He was hospitalized in Pavullo, near Mod that had been kept at in a refrigerator at home for 25 days.” And he was afraid that “he had stored the blood poorly.”

His body rejected the blood, and kidney failure led to lung and cardiovascular problems.

He lived, but didn’t learn.

Riccò changed his story two months later, denying the blood transfusion and the admission. He wanted to return to race in the Tour of Serbia with a small Italian team, Meridiana. It would’ve been his third coming had the Italian courts not acted.

A special case

Even before Riccò debuted as a professional in 2006 with Saunier Duval, he had his problems. He was stopped twice for a high hematocrit level, but received a medical certificate that showed he had naturally high red blood cell volume.

As a pro, he shined almost immediately, winning one of the Giro d’Italia’s hardest legs to Tre Cime di Lavaredo in his sophomore year. A year later at the Giro he won two stages, the young riders’ classification, and placed second overall to Alberto Contador. His team’s directors were so impressed that they decided to field him in the Tour. In France, he rocketed away to win two stages.

“He’s got to be doped,” a colleague would say with a dark laugh. The jokes became reality. Riccò was busted just three days after his second Tour stage win, at Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the Pyrenean Mountains, and taken away by French police. He lost his wins, but kept one title.

He became the first cyclist to be caught using a new, third-generation EPO, called CERA, which hit the headlines again after the 2008 Olympics, when retroactive testing caught cyclists Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher using the substance.

Cut off the head

Despite all the blood, apparently that Tour bust did not sufficiently sever The Cobra’s head, as he lived to strike again.

Riccò returned after serving his 20-month suspension. Second division Italian team, Ceramica Flaminia hired him and wasn’t let down. He won in the Settimana Lombarda, the Giro del Trentino and, with a smashed nose, in the Tour of Austria.

Team Vacansoleil signed him midway through 2010 and offered him the possibility of returning to the Tour de France a year later. He won a handful of races for the Dutch team, starting last season, and would have been racing in the Tour; history would prove otherwise, after the bad transfusion.

Riccò said last year that he wants to open a bar and give up cycling – the courts may have expedited that decision for him. But first he’d do cycling a favor if he’d tell the public the whole truth. Tell them the names, the sources and the complete story behind The Cobra.