It's not often that La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's leading sports newspaper, dedicates its first six pages to cycling. One of those rare occasions may have been Marco Pantani's Tour win precisely ten years ago; another was il Pirata's vertiginous descent from hero to villain just ten months later, following his failed haematocrit test on the eve of what would have been a second straight Giro title.
This morning, with the benefit of hindsight, La Gazzetta's choice of headline after Riccardo Riccò's Pyrenean stage win on Sunday - "Pirata Riccò" - looked as ironic as it did prophetic. Like his hero Pantani, Riccò touched the sky then crashed to earth. Like Icarus, both men had been flying too close to the sun, for too long, not to get burned.
Here's a selection of reaction from this morning's papers in Italy, kicking off with La Gazzetta:
La Gazzetta dello Sport
Dear Riccò, pay the full price for your stupidity, chase those villains who've taken you to the brink of ruin, at just 24 years of age, from your door. Think about it. And, while you're at it, hang up your bike in some corner of the exile where you'll now be banished. Cycling didn't die with Pantani; it'll carry on without you, budding campione who's fallen from the precipice of the Tour...Dear Riccò, we're outraged; there's a lot of sadness and even more anger. You really asked for this, didn't you? I hope that you can pick yourself up and that your fall from the precipice of the Tour will signal the end for cycling's scoundrels, that it'll shake your colleagues and their consciences. I somehow doubt it, but as long as I'm alive, I won't stop hoping.
In this clean-up operation which looks like finally burying cycling (a terminally ill patient who refuses to die), I think there's also room for mitigated optimism: the times they are a-changing, like in the (Bob) Dylan song, but above all it's the tests that are developing, and everyone had better get used to it. We see enough clever dicks in everyday life, enough queue-jumpers, tax-evaders and book-cookers, and often the law doesn't treat them severely enough. Let's not complain, then, about an athlete who was messing with his blood being kicked out of a sporting competition. Anyone who says that they ride a bike out of passion should know that the first act of love is respect of the rules.
Speechless, incredulous, sickened. Those adjectives describe our frame of mind on the day of this latest, absurd body-blow for our beloved sport of cycling. But please let's not bother with conspiracy theories this time. No, Riccardo Riccò may well have been acting on bad advice, but he tried to cheat, he looked for a short-cut at the worst possible time, showed crazy negligence, and now he'll pay.
Correction: fifty kilos of flesh, bone and doping. He didn't look like Pantani. He was Pantani. A nauseous replica, so familiar that it takes your breath away. We can call them Pirate or Cobra, the evil's the same, the illusion doesn't change. A cheat disguised as a demigod, with a vast audience baying at his feet, desperate to believe. Another damned story whose ending, we hope for him, at least won't turn out like Pantani's. Pantani turned his misadventure into an existential catastrophe, but his alter-ego from Modena seems young enough, arrogant enough, and uninhibited enough to find himself another chance and another life. Marco wallowed morbidly in guilt. Riccardo probably doesn't know what that is. If he does, he needs to prove it, without further ado.
Il Corriere della Sera
How could Riccò possibly think that, while he was using banned products, he could escape the Tour's implacable tests? Do these young men know where they're headed, or is their irresponsibility freewheeling away? Cycling has lost its marbles, that's the truth: maybe it lacks education (the athlete is no longer scared of a moral entity but he is afraid of a technical one, the laboratory test) or maybe we've just exhausted every reasonable argument...It's ridiculous that people keep talking about bad apples. Either cycling stops or the dope tests stop. The rest belongs to the devils pharmacy, and we're not interested.