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Danilo Di Luca after the finish
Controversial rider lingers in Giro d'Italia peloton
For some, Danilo Di Luca is not so much Italian cycling's Teflon man as an irretrievably tarnished pan that somehow survives being binned with every annual spring clean.
Di Luca's rap sheet is an eye-watering one - from his implication in the Oil for Drugs in 2004 to his positive test for CERA at the 2009 Giro d'Italia, by way of the infamous "pipì degli angeli" scandal of the 2007 Giro - but year after year, one team or another passes the veteran Italian fit for service.
This year, it is the turn of the Vini Fantini-Selle Italia squad, who signed Di Luca just 10 days before the start of the Giro and, it appears, against the express wishes of manager Luca Scinto. The reason for his arrival is to be found in the bubbles that have added a touch of kitsch to Vini Fantini's already lurid kit at this Giro - Di Luca brings long-term backer Acqua & Sapone with him as a sub-sponsor.
The move had been mooted all winter, but Di Luca spent the early season on the sidelines waiting for the green light on the deal. "I had an agreement with Fantini since November so I didn't have any doubts even when it dragged on a little bit. I was always certain that I was going to ride with this team," Di Luca told Cyclingnews in Mola di Bari.
Remarkably, after seven months away from racing, the 37-year-old Di Luca returned to the fray without skipping a beat and recorded a brace of top-10 placings at the GP Larciano and the Giro della Toscana on consecutive days the week before the Giro began.
"I trained well all winter and in any case, my principal objective was always going to be the Giro d'Italia, so all through the early season my training was based around being ready for the Giro," Di Luca said by way of explanation.
Di Luca has continued in the same vein at the Giro itself and the self-styled Killer came close to stage victory at Serra San Bruno on Tuesday. After attacking on the final climb, Di Luca put up fierce resistance on the plateau to the finish and was only swept up within sight of the line.
"The attack was a good one and my timing was spot on too, it's just a pity that there wasn't more collaboration because I could have gone and won the stage, so there's a bit of regret there," he said. "Still, my condition is improving so I'm satisfied with that but we'll see day by day. Given that I've raced so little, this Giro is a bit of an unknown for me."
The spoils eventually fell to young Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani-CSF Inox) and the following day, many media reports reached for the easy analogy - the aging product of a corrupted system overtaken by the symbol of a new generation. Would it were that simple.
For his part, Di Luca defended his right to be at the Giro in the Fantini team instead of a younger rider from Luca Scinto's stable. "I'd say that a rider should race for as long as he feels like it," he said. "To talk about people being young or old doesn't make much sense to me. Besides, an 'old' rider, so to speak, can give advice to young riders because cycling today is very different to the cycling of 10 or 15 years ago. I think that a bit of our knowledge is required."
By sharing some of his particular brand of knowledge with the Italian Olympic Committee's anti-doping panel in 2010, Di Luca was able to negotiate a reduction to his CERA suspension. He has never delivered any particular statements of repentance or any strong anti-doping sentiment, however, and, as Gazzetta dello Sport discreetly put it on Wednesday, Di Luca is "aware that he will never win back sympathies in full".
"The affection of the public has always been there - before, afterwards and now," Di Luca insisted to Cyclingnews. "There are no problems with other riders either, particularly with the big riders because we know each other for a long time."
As Di Luca spoke, Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson were leaving the nearby Garmin-Sharp bus to sign on. The pair admitted to doping as part of plea bargains in USADA's investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal team, but in some quarters they have been feted for their belated confessions, in contrast to Di Luca.
Redemption, it seems, is something that happens "à deux vitesses" in contemporary cycling, with some welcomed immediately back into the fold and others consigned to the limbo of Pro Continental or even Continental level.
"Yes, that's true but I don't think I've had that problem too much because I was able to make my comeback with a WorldTour team at Katusha," Di Luca said. "It was just that I had the worst year of my career there. If I'd come back in 2011 at a high level straightaway, I wouldn't have had any problems getting a place on a WorldTour team. In any case, I want to keep going for at least two more years."
On Friday, the reception for Di Luca will be somewhat less muted as the race visits his native Abruzzo with a demanding stage to Pescara. "It's a home stage, I know the roads by heart and my tifosi will certainly be out in force at the finish," Di Luca said. "But apart from that, it's a stage like any of the others."