Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) returns to racing in April following a controversial case that saw him escape a possible two-year ban after testing positive for nearly double the allowed limit for Salbutamol last year.
The Swiss cycling federation ruled that Ulissi was negligent in use of Ventolin during last year’s Giro d’Italia, but stopped short of calling it outright doping.
That was a critically important distinction for the 25-year-old Italian, who lives in Lugano, Switzerland. With the full backing of his team, Ulissi is scheduled to return to the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) in April, just days after the conclusion of his backdated, nine-month ban.
There are a few wrinkles in the Ulissi case that had some scratching their heads. He tested positive in stage 11 for nearly double the allowed levels of salbutamol (the limit is 1000 ng/ml, but he had 1900 ng/ml), but successfully argued it was merely negligence, not doping. He won stages 5 and 8, when he passed tests, but abandoned after stage 17, suffering from bronchospasm. Ulissi was allowed to use an inhaler to treat asthma during the race.
A few weeks after leaving the Giro and completing the Tour of Slovenia in June, Ulissi and Lampre-Merida learned about the test. The team waited for months to see what authorities would do. Convinced their rider was innocent, the team put Ulissi, who was still not formally suspended, back into a race in September (Coppa Bernocchi), a move that triggered a swift response from the UCI.
In January, the Swiss federation handed down the reduced ban from June 21 to March 26, giving Ulissi the green light to race. Unlike a doping case, there are no Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) rules to stop Lampre-Merida from putting him right back into the peloton. A much-relieved Ulissi will start the Vuelta a País Vasco in early April.
On Wednesday, VeloNews spoke with Lampre-Merida general manager Brent Copeland by telephone to discuss the case. Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: There seems to be some confusion surrounding the Ulissi case, and authorities ruled this was not treated as a doping ban; what’s the position of the team?
Brent Copeland: The Swiss federation gave him the nine-month ban, and they put it down to negligence, so he’s available to start racing at end of March. As a team, we’ve discussed this with our medical staff and our sponsors, and we’ve been keeping up to date with court action. With the class and quality of rider that Diego is, and it was a rider that we were very disappointed for that to have happened to, so we are looking forward to having him back in the races.
VN: Ulissi tested positive during the Giro, and raced again in September, yet his ban was backdated to June, so why did he return to racing last fall?
BC: The UCI didn’t get back to us, and neither did the Swiss federation, about what the situation was. It was delicate because no one could figure out how he came back with such a high number. It was taking ages, and for us as a team, we wanted to know what the situation was. Because he wasn’t disqualified, we sent him to the race. The very day he started to race, the case was handed over to the Swiss federation, so that helped speed things up. I think that where this new organization [Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation] is going to help speed things up, and keep things up to date. It’s unfortunate that things take so long.
VN: So the team has full confidence in Ulissi?
BC: Very much so. From day one, we’ve always trusted him, and we knew that it was a situation that was never doping. We believed in him. We knew this was something that was not done on purpose, and we’ve stayed by his side. We know the type of rider that Ulissi is. He’s been with the Lampre organization since he finished juniors, and we know him as an athlete really well. We knew it was a situation that couldn’t have been a positive like everyone was saying. We have full trust and faith in him. We know the class and talent he has. It’s important to remember, he won two stages in the Giro and finished second in the time trial, and all those tests were negative. It was the day he had a big crash [stage 11], so for him to have a funny number like that didn’t add up.
VN: Is a TUE [therapeutic-use exemption] required for the use of Ventolin?
BC: It was with a doctor’s prescription, and the medical staff needs to know you have a problem with asthma. You are allowed to take a certain amount (1000 ng/ml), but you cannot take more. That’s why Diego said, speaking first-person, ‘I would never use Salbutamol again. If that’s the risk, I will advise my colleagues to never use it. If I have some problems with asthma, I would rather pull out of the race, than go through what I’ve been through the past six months.’ It was an expensive lesson.
VN: Concerning his return to racing, there is no conflict with rules from the MPCC?
BC: In this case, the rules are clear; if the returning rider is already signed with the team, it’s a different situation. And this is not a doping case. We’ve always respected the rules and regulations of the MPCC. We’ve signed up for it, and it’s a voluntary organization. Just look at what happened last year with Chris Horner at the Vuelta a España [Horner did not start due to low levels of Cortisol to treat bronchitis, allowed by the UCI, but not by the MPCC], so you could see how much we respect the rules.
VN: A lot of people often assume the worst; how has Ulissi been taking things over the past few months?
BC: He was really been down in the dumps. He went through a tough time. He found himself in a situation where your image gets damaged, when he couldn’t prove that in reality was very different than what some people thought. For him, he’s very relieved to be back. As a team, we are very happy to have a rider of his class back with us. We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.
VN: Ulissi was having a big season before this happened; what do you expect for him when he returns?
BC: We’ve put him back at the Basque Country tour. That’s a difficult race, and he’s a rider who doesn’t need much racing in his legs to get back into racing, but without racing since June, it’s a long period, so it’s a question mark with how he can do there. For the Ardennes classics, Rui Costa can be our captain, and if Ulissi goes well, we can have two cards to play. After that, he’ll race Romandie and then the Giro. A stage or two would be great.
VN: How has this experience changed Ulissi?
BC: It’s absolutely changed him. These kinds of things are never nice for anyone to go through. He’s had to confront a lot, and I think he’s matured from it. He can be more mature in the group, on the bike, and when he gets back into racing, he will have even more fighting spirit. He’s realized how important it is to be in the peloton. Many riders have stayed close to him, because they know it couldn’t have been a true positive case. The feeling I get, he really wants to get back, and show everyone his true talent. He will be even stronger than before.