Almost two years after first being implicated, Alessandro Ballan continues to wait for a resolution to the Mantova-based anti-doping investigation. Along with his fellow Italian Mauro Santambrogio, Ballan has twice been sidelined by his BMC team after being linked to the affair, but on each occasion was subsequently welcomed back into the fold.
The Mantova inquiry, led by public prosecutor Antonino Condorelli, was centred on the activities of pharmacist Guido Nigrelli and his involvement with the Lampre team in the 2008 and 2009, when Ballan was a member of the squad.
“Italian justice is very slow, you only have to look at the example of [Luca] Paolini [against whom charges were dropped five years after the Operazione Athena doping investigation began – ed.], so I’m still waiting,” Ballan told Velochrono.
Ballan was first pulled from racing ahead of Paris-Roubaix in April 2010, but returned to action the following month after an internal investigation by BMC. In 2011, he was removed from BMC’s Giro d’Italia squad in the build-up to the race when Gazzetta dello Sport published allegations of blood doping against Ballan, and quoted the transcript of an alleged telephone conversation between the rider and Nigrelli, in which they discussed the use of EPO and growth hormone.
Although BMC again allowed Ballan to return to action scarcely a month later, he was questioned by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) in July. On that occasion, Ballan was asked to present a defence brief, and it is understood that his contention is that his conversations with Nigrelli concerned the treatment of an illness rather than doping techniques.
Neither CONI nor the Mantova procura have made any public pronouncements on Ballan’s case since.
“Of course I’m not 100% free in spirit, because a part of you is always worried by a matter like this,” Ballan said. “But thanks to the confidence of the team, I was able to come back to the party and put this matter to one side. That said, it will be much better when it’s all over.”
Business as usual?
In spite of the pall cast over his career by the Mantova investigation, Ballan is attempting to focus on the racing season, which will see him line up alongside Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet in BMC’s expensively-assembled classics line-up. As was the case in 2011, Ballan will again begin his campaign at the Tour Down Under.
“I’m returning this year because it’s a race that I like,” Ballan said. “It’s going to allow me to carry out some interesting training that will help me come back to Europe with excellent condition. That worked well for me in 2011.”
Ballan is adamant that there will be no conflict of interests between BMC’s Classics leaders this spring, even if many of their objectives overlap. “I can guarantee you that there’s a great understanding between us. Afterwards it will be up to the directeur sportif to decide who is the strongest, and then it will be up to the riders to put themselves at the service of this designated leader,” he said. “It’s obvious that Philippe Gilbert wants to shine in Belgium, we’ll work for him.”
While the beginning of Ballan’s season will again be built around the cobbled classics, he also has one eye on a race closer to home, the Strade Bianche. “It’s a route halfway between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, which is fascinating and unique, thanks to the sterrato. I’ve already finished on the podium twice, and I hope to win it.”
The 32-year-old Ballan is also hoping to make a belated debut in the Giro d’Italia. “I’ve never done it. As an Italian, I would really like to take part,” he said.
In both 2010 and 2011, of course, Ballan was slated to be part of BMC’s team for the corsa rosa, but on each occasion was withheld from competition due to allegations emanating from the Mantova investigation.