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Italy stays tough, but eases ban for ex-dopers

Italian federation eliminates national team ban for past dopers, but riders snared in the future will be left off the squadra azzura

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MILAN (VN) — Italy is opening the door for ex-dopers like Ivan Basso and Franco Pellizotti to compete in its national teams, but keeping the key close by.

“Clearly, we are not gifting the national jersey, it’s earned by work and results,” federation president Renato Di Rocco told La Gazzetta dello Sport after being elected to a third term. “On top of that, our youth project is a reality and continues.”

Di Rocco won the presidential election Saturday with a majority, earning 144 of 257 votes, but over the weekend also agreed to lighten the national team ban on riders caught doping and suspended six months or more.

The national federation (FCI) should ratify the rule by mid-February. It will allow riders such as Basso, presented with Cannondale in Los Angeles yesterday, to race the world championships in Florence later this year.

Basso served a two-year suspension after being linked to Operación Puerto and caught in a blood doping system.

The national team could draft him for the worlds this September on home soil. Michele Scarponi (Puerto, blood doping), Danilo Di Luca (EPO ban), and Franco Pellizotti (blood manipulation) would also become candidates for Italy’s famous squadra azzurra, which has not earned a road race medal since Alessandro Ballan and Damiano Cunego went one-two in Varese, Italy, in 2008.

The new rule only lifts the ban on past cases. Any riders who are now caught doping and serve a six-month (or greater) ban will be barred from representing Italy’s national team.

Head coach Paolo Bettini questioned the ban in the past, but pointed out that other federations could enforce similar anti-doping rules.

“Look, I’ll give you an example,” Bettini told VeloNews in September. “For some years now, the grand tour organizers have asked the teams to not bring riders who may create problems or embarrass the race. I ask myself, ‘why should the organizer have to do this and why don’t the national federations already step in?’”

Last year, Italy also overlooked riders like Giovanni Visconti and Ballan, who were involved in ongoing doping investigations, but had not been banned or formally charged.

Cycling is the only sport in Italy with such a ban in place, but with around 200 registered professionals the rule affected many. Several big stars over the last few years made the headlines for the wrong reasons. Riccardo Riccò was ejected from the Tour de France in 2008 for using EPO CERA, served a suspension and, after returning to the sport, nearly killed himself with a reported DIY blood transfusion in early 2011. That episode and other events forced Italy to tighten its noose.

In June 2011, banned cyclists were barred from competing in the national championships or representing the national team in world championships and the Olympics. The rule was later lifted concerning the national championships and Pellizotti returned from his biological passport-related ban to win the tricolore in 2012.

“I need to keep watch on my own home. I’d like that the whole cycling world did the same thing, also teach the young and their families that this is a sport to be taken seriously,” Di Rocco told VeloNews last fall. “I’m interested that maglia azzurra means something. It’s an important symbol for cyclists and we want that they merit it.”

The federation is working intensively at the amateur level, where Di Rocco said the number of doping cases is still high. On the second Sunday of each month in the first four months of the year, the federation bars junior road racing to encourage competition in track, mountain bike and BMX racing.

Bettini said recently that he plans to step down as head coach, perhaps allowing BMC Racing sports director Max Sciandri top step in. Bettini wants to work as the team’s general manager, overseeing all categories to create a 360-degree system similar to Australia or Great Britain.

Despite the concession to stop applying the ban retroactively, Di Rocco and Bettini plan to push ahead to change Italian cycling.