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Police work, not anti-doping tests, blow open Italian doping ring

A police sting, not anti-doping tests at the races, busts up a doping ring in Italy that saw a development team doping systematically.

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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — An Italian doping disaster or strong police work … or both?

The news of a top Italian under-23 team systematically using drugs looks bad, but organization chiefs are applauding local authorities for breaking up the doping ring. Instead of anti-doping controls in races down the line, strong police work led the roundup Thursday.

The latest investigation in central Italy began with the death of 21-year-old Linas Rumsas. Police uncovered a ring led by Team Altopack Eppela — Rumsas’s former team — and its owner/manager Luca Franceschi. The under-23 riders reportedly were using micro-doses of EPO, human growth hormones, and opiate-based painkillers, all orchestrated by Franceschi.

This week’s police sting in Italy’s Tuscany region saw six arrested and 17 placed under investigation. The news made the front page on mainstream outlets like the BBC.

“We are constantly informed of the progress of the investigations,” Italian cycling federation (FCI) president Renato Di Rocco told Tutto Bici.

“We know that at the moment there are 16 teams under observation by the police, and Tuscany, unfortunately, is a region heavily involved, as well as the Marche and Sicily, while in Abruzzo the situation is greatly improved.”

Police in Lucca, home to many top-level professionals including Mario Cipollini, began digging seriously when Linas Rumsas died for unknown reasons on May 2, 2017.

His dad, Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas placed third in the Tour de France behind winner Lance Armstrong but was caught up in doping scandals and tested positive for EPO.

Raimondas Rumsas Jr., 23, received a four-year ban two weeks ago for using human growth hormone.

The team manager and others were caught on undercover video as part of the sting. Police found 25 vials of EPO in the house of team trainer Michele Viola. A search of Franceschi’s parents’ home revealed doping paraphernalia including syringes, needles, and powerful painkillers.

The Italian federation and Olympic Committee (CONI) helped direct the regional police forces to the ring, catching the under-23 riders before they continued on to the professional ranks or won major races. Authorities are now turning their attention to other areas and teams in Italy.

“In recent years, the FCI has taken drastic decisions to prevent and suppress doping,” said the national federation. “We’ve worked to offer the most extensive collaborations with the anti-doping arms of CONI and Italy’s Anti-Narcotics Group (NAS).”

Similar stings and investigations have succeeded in the past. They led to Lance Armstrong’s eventual lifetime ban, penalties in the Operación Puerto case, and the trap that caught Alejandro Valverde when the 2008 Tour de France raced briefly on Italian soil.

Armstrong was never snared by an anti-doping test. Instead, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) chief executive Travis Tygart convinced 11 former teammates to give evidence. The work brought cycling’s top star to justice. Armstrong lost his seven Tour de France titles and was banned for life.

With the famous Operación Puerto 2006 investigation, Spain’s Guardia Civil acted on information to bust doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and others. Documents linked several athletes and led to the bans of those including Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde, and the late Michele Scarponi.

High-profile doping busts don’t help to improve cycling’s public perception, but the headlines may discourage other young riders from taking the wrong path in the future.