Danilo Di Luca and the disgrace of Italian cycling

Taking the wind out of Nibali's Tour sails

Poor Vincenzo Nibali. No sooner had the young Italian lurched over the line after finishing stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France in Le Grand-Bornand today than the questions had started. Questions not about arguably the best performance of the Sicilian’s career, not even about his two-man relay race off the Col de La Colombière with Lance Armstrong.

No, none of that; The rider that everyone wanted Nibali’s views on hasn’t even competed at the Tour since 2006. He was Nibali’s former teammate, Danilo Di Luca.

Di Luca’s positive test for CERA, announced by the International Cycling Union (UCI), seemed to take no-one by surprise. Far more astonishing would be a negative “B” sample, but, realistically, even Di Luca  must know that ain’t going to happen.

The Paris laboratory which performed the test could conceivably have botched one test, but two? Nah, it’s curtains for the rider nicknamed "The Killer".

The Italian media was particularly keen to collar Nibali this afternoon since the Liquigas man is one of very few Italians to have literally worn his anti-doping convictions on his sleeve. That happened at last year’s Tour, when Nibali sported the same “I’m doping free” tattoo on his bicep as compatriot Damiano Cunego of the Lampre team.

More significantly, when he made comments to Bicisport Magazine a couple of years ago about dopers being “thieves who ought to be locked up”, the Italian cycling community thought it had found itself not only a new Grand Tour star, but also a passionate young spokesman.

So what did he say today? Well, sadly, not a whole lot. To the RAI TV network, sweat cascading from his brow, he panted that he’d rather find out the exact details before making statements that he’d regret.

A few minutes later, a few hundred metres further up the road, he was a little more expansive. “If he’s done that, it’s total idiocy and cycling will be well rid of him,” he told me. “Totally incomprehensible.”

Incomprehensible was also the word used by Silence-Lotto’s Italian directeur sportif Roberto Damiano. He likened taking CERA now to 'popping an amphetamine pill on the start-line'.

“There are clearly people who think they can get away with it, but this is the proof that they can’t,” Damiani said.

Proof they can’t get away with it? Really? A bit like Di Luca’s results have been clouded in substantiated suspicion for a decade, yet it’s taken until now to apparently catch him?

I put it to Damiani that people will be saying tonight, not without some foundation, that Di Luca may well have been doping throughout his career. Damiani, who knows “The Killer” well, wouldn’t entertain such a notion.

“Danilo’s tested positive now, and we can’t make judgments about what’s gone before,” he argued. “It’s also subject to the B sample confirming the result. That said, if he’s guilty, it’s ridiculous – ridiculous of him to think, 'oh, I hope they don’t catch me'. The most dangerous form of medicine, when it comes to doping, is ignorance.”

Damiani was adamant that Italy is no worse off than anywhere else when it comes to doping, but I’m not so sure. The nauseating Italian riders’ cliché of 'I’ve never tested positive' has been replaced by the scarcely-more-convincing 'we’re tested more than athletes in any other sport'.

I also worry that the shift in cultures in Italian teams is no more pronounced; where once Italian team managers and directeurs would say nothing, now they give their riders the odd warning about not playing with fire, but do they do it with any conviction?

The fact is that tonight we’re saying the same thing as we did at the same point in last year’s Tour, namely that Italian cycling is mired in disgrace. That, at least, is what I thought until this evening. Until it got even worse.

Until, to be precise, I learned that the Italian Cycling Federation has banned Filippo Simeoni for four months for handing back his Italian champion’s jersey in protest at his team’s non-invitation to the Giro d'Italia.

Four months for a petty little protest, not much more for dope-cheats like Riccardo Riccò and Emmanuele Sella?

You do the math; I fear that Danilo Di Luca, for one, doesn't have the intelligence.

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