By Ben Abrahams in Johor Bahru, Malaysia
His last win was over 16 months ago, but Danilo Hondo appears to have lost little of the speed that carried him to 64 professional victories, including two Giro d'Italia stages, adding win number 65 at the Tour de Langkawi this Tuesday afternoon in Batu Pahat. Banned for a total of two years after testing positive for dietary supplement Carphedon in 2005, the 34 year-old served two separate suspensions after a complicated legal process, but has clearly managed to maintain solid base fitness without the benefit of competitive racing.
Looking as lean as ever, the German sprinter took his place at the post-race press conference on Stage 4 of Le Tour de Langkawi, explaining that his motivation had never dwindled during time away from the peloton. "The motivation was not only a question of my comeback race, but of my passion for cycling," he said. "You like to do this to win - sometimes or maybe many times - and in the end you have a lot of races but few possibilities to win."
Quizzed about the training that facilitated such a swift return to winning ways, beating the likes of Alberto Loddo (Tinkoff Credit Systems) and Mauro Richeze (CSF Group Navigare) in today's sprint, Hondo replied: "Actually, I never stopped training because my head was always clear and I knew the day would come. I trained together with all the riders last season so my level was always high.
"Before [this race] I didn't have a lot of intensive training, but I know after 35 years what I have to do to retain a good base."
Without an established hierarchy in the Langkawi peloton, Hondo explained that the bunch sprints here have been somewhat chaotic affairs compared to their European equivalents. "In Europe the fight for the position is pretty hard because you have normally 10, 12, 14 sprinters and all the teams try and get the best position for the finale," he said. "Here it's already a bit confused in the finale because the teams work before and there's not one or two teams that can make a very fast speed to make one line, so it's different trying to find a good position.
"The speed was very high in the stage and also in the finale, so it's a good test for all the sprinters here in Malaysia. When we come back to Europe I think we'll have a good base."
For Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni team manager Gianno Savio, Hondo's signing has provided a rapid return of investment. His return was originally slated for the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, but switched for a race where Savio's teams have a proven track record. "I like very much the Tour de Langkawi and Malaysia," said Savio. "This is the ninth year we come with our team and we've always won a stage.
"For Danilo, his problems are in the past," added the Italian. "We studied very well the question and the documentation of the UCI's letter of anti-doping. For this reason we signed Danilo because he was not responsible for this question. Danilo is not only a good rider, he's a good person. Myself and Marco Bellini, my assistant, always try to find good athletes but also good people."
After Langkawi, the team will return to Italy with eyes on Milan - San Remo and the Giro d'Italia where Savio is hoping Hondo can go one better than his second place in 2005 while riding for Gerolsteiner. "We want to work for him in the Tour de Langkawi but afterwards in Milan - San Remo and the Giro d'Italia. Normally we prepare well for all the races in which we participate. We are known as a team that always honours the race."