Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
By Andrew Hood
Riccardo Riccò always wanted to be like his hero, Marco Pantani.
The self-styled “Cobra” got his wish Thursday and made a Pantani-esque implosion as two French gendarmes hauled him away after he failed a doping control from stage four at the Tour de France.
In a scene that was an eerie replay of Pantani’s exclusion from the 1999 Giro d’Italia for testing for high hematocrit levels, Riccò made his own forced exit Thursday that could have equally grim consequences.
The first rumors started spreading about 12:30 Thursday afternoon, as the fanfare of the Tour start in Lavelanet was just kicking into gear. Journalists started to hover outside the team bus and, 20 minutes later, the news was confirmed and pandemonium broke out.
Photographers, reporters, cameramen and soundmen all squeezed in around the front door as an official team car pulled up with two gendarmes inside.
The door opened and a sullen Riccò, dressed in team sweatpants and T-shirt, quickly climbed down and disappeared into the car without saying a word. Fans and curious on-lookers whistled and booed as he sped away.
To some, it reminded them of how Pantani was escorted away by Italian carabinieri at Madonna di Campiglio in the ’99 Giro.
“It’s sad for cycling’s image, but we’re cleaning up the sport,” said race leader Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto). “We weren’t surprised, let’s put it that way.”
Riccò’s performances were already raising eyebrows. Second overall in the 2008 Giro d’Italia, he won two stages and held both the white and polka-dot jerseys midway through the Tour.
“The unfortunate thing is when things look like they’re too good to be true, they are too good to be true. He did look pretty good,” said David Millar of Garmin-Chipotle. “It’s just amazing that he’s that irresponsible and doesn’t have any love or respect for the sport.”
Some of the Saunier Duval-Scott riders, who had already gone to the start line, returned and disappeared into the truck without talking to reporters. David de la Fuente, the Spanish attacker who was hoping to win the best climber’s jersey, looked like someone had punched him in the gut.
Team manager Joxean “Matxin” Fernández stood on the steps of team truck to announce the entire team would be pulling out of the race. Wearing dark aviator sunglasses that hid his eyes, he said the team would indefinitely suspend activity, including races in other parts of Europe.
“It’s our decision to leave the race. Riccò wasn’t just any rider. He was our leader and we cannot carry on as if nothing had happened,” he said. “We just found out 10 minutes ago, so we need to take a cold, hard look at the facts to understand what has happened.”
Under Tour rules, teams are allowed to stay in the race after a first doping offense. Barloworld and Liquigas, two teams who’ve already individual riders failing doping controls, continued in the race. A team is forced to leave the race when a second rider fails a doping control.
“The cheats have to realize they will get caught,” said Tour director Christian Prudhomme. “We are working to create a cycling that is credible, cycling that is clean. There are people who continue to believe it’s possible to cheat. We must have resolve. We will catch the cheaters.”
As the new spread of Riccò’s departure, Thursday ranged from anger to frustration to even relief.
“They’re raised in a culture that they’re convinced it’s only possible to do this sport if you’re doped. It’s not true. Look at Christian Vande Velde, he’s doing this Tour without even any injections and he’s third overall. It is possible,” Millar continued. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take years (to change cycling). There will be positive next year and the year after that.”
The Riccò case had an immediate and devastating effect on the Tour. Previous doping cases with Manuel Beltrán and Moises Dueñas were viewed as relatively minor players.
Riccò, however, was viewed as the promising, if troubled, new star.
“It’s disappointing and frustrating because he was supposed to be from a new generation,” said Rolf Aldag, sport director at Team Columbia. “We’re hoping for changes in the sport, but not everyone has heard the message.”
The positive case for cycling’s new bad boy will tarnish if not end his once-promising career.
The blond-haired Riccò turned pro in 2006 and quickly earned a reputation as a rider who spoke with his legs and his mouth. He famously called his professional colleagues “vegetables” and regularly mouthed back at rivals.
“I’m not afraid to say what I think,” Riccò said during this year’s Giro.
A natural-born climber, Riccò attacked like Pantani. Riccò would stand out of the saddle and have his hands on the drops as he powered up the searing climbs.
Riccò was supposed to be Italy’s new shining jewel and he positioned himself as the Pirate’s heir apparent, but his fall from grace could match that of Pantani, who went from double Giro-Tour winner to virtual pariah just a few seasons later.
Pantani tragically died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. Riccò surely won’t want to emulate his idol every step of the way.