Thursday, July 17, 2008
Riccò's Blood Confirms Rumours
OK, now it’s time to release all that pent-up Ricardo Riccò innuendo and rumour. I suggested a couple of days ago that VeloNews' Neal Rogers should have hung onto everything he included in this piece to use as background for the inevitable story when Riccò (Saunier Duval) actually tested positive. In doing so, he would have kept from looking like part of the rumour mill. See what a few days’ patience would have done?
Not that I can blame Neal. I’m pretty impatient myself. That little personality quirk has me questioning why, if Riccò tested positive on Stage 4, does he now have Stages 6 and 9 on his palmares? We all know why, of course – because the testers are busy couriering everyone’s blood and piss all over France, then probably faxing back results. (Have you ever noticed that the Europeans still love the fax machine? Love it!) So, while his precious bodily fluids took a little Tour de France of their own, Riccò was busy making hay while the sun shone.
Look, the Tour de France and the teams that ride it haul an absolutely stunning amount of crap all around the country – portable stages, a start village, dope, barriers, podium girls, and other inflatable monstrosities. Is a portable testing lab really too much to ask? Sure, it would be expensive, but once you subtract the FedEx bills and the costs of paying people to go back and amend the stage and GC results every few days, it practically pays for itself.
There are problems with that idea, I’m sure. I fully admit I’m throwing it out there without really knowing anything about the instruments necessary to conduct the tests, including their size, weight, and what it takes to keep them calibrated. That final issue would likely be the undoing, as the various testing agencies seem to have enough trouble keeping everything in order when their equipment is anchored to a nice, even cement floor that doesn’t get hauled up a couple hundred switchbacks before they use it. But still, isn’t this something we could think about? It doesn't have to be this solution - depending on how long it takes to actually do the tests and other logistical issues, it might not be feasible at all, but there has to be something that can be done to speed the process up.
On the heels of the Riccò news, Saunier Duval has withdrawn its team from the Tour, which could look bad for them, but is probably the smartest thing they could have done. If the Riccò case is indeed one of an individual acting on his own, without team knowledge, support, or endorsement, then they have no way of knowing who else, if anyone, was in on the game. So they’d be risking another positive that would make it look like a case of institutionalized doping, even if it wasn’t. If Riccò is just the first indication of institutionalized doping at Saunier Duval, they’re obviously smart to leave, as the rest of their boys won’t be able to ride 5 kilometers without a moto-mounted tester pulling up to take a sample, and those samples will come back hot. And if everyone at Saunier really is in on the act, they probably have some additional pending tests from Stages 4 through 11 that they’re dreading the results of anyways.
Reports indicate that Riccò tested positive for something new, Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator, or CERA, which is apparently a longer lasting version of good old EPO. I’m not sure yet if its detection comes as a result of a new test or not, but if it is, the testing agencies are doing a good job of coming up with tests for the latest thing without letting the teams know they’re doing it. Which is, of course, a great way to catch people. We'll call it the "They're testing for what? Oh, crap!" method. I have to wonder how many riders are shaking in their shoes now that the cat’s out of the bag -- when you took the injection a month ago, there ain't much of a way to shimmy out of the positive at this point.
The scandal is still young, of course. I’m sure we’ll get more details as the day goes on, and we’ll get to see if this third strike is what finally gets the mainstream media to jump on the annual indictments of cycling as a dirty sport. I suspect it will be. Cyclingnews/Procycling has already scored a great quick-turnaround scoop by interviewing one of the experts involved in the UCI blood passport program about Riccò’s test. He's surprised that Riccò tested positive for CERA, since there's no currently validated test to detect it. That situation, if true, is sure to raise a lot of questions as the case progresses.
But here’s a question we can think about already: Does Riccò’s positive make UCI President Pat McQuaid’s indictment of Spain more or less valid? On one hand, Riccò is Italian, not Spanish. On the other, he rides for a Spanish team. Either way, McQuaid’s latest opinion, like many of his other ones, seems like it would be best kept to himself, because the problem could be something other than what he’s thinking. That is, are the Spanish and their teams really doping more than others, or are they just worse at covering it up? In a sport that’s less and less nationality-based every year, it seems shortsighted to try to pin scandals to a single country.
Finally, as with Beltran's transgressions, I'm not going to berate Riccò for his, though they're certainly going to give the sport a hell of a hard time over the coming weeks and months. Knowing that he holds the late Marco Pantani up as his idol, I'm just going to hope that his story has a different ending.