Riccardo Riccò claims that he is ready to shed his bad-boy image – as well the nickname, “il Cobra”, which came to symbolize the former drug-cheat’s venomous nature on the bike and off it.
“I’m no longer aggressive like I used to be,” Riccò told Cyclingnews on Thursday. “Once upon a time it would have bothered me if the Italian papers talked more about [Ivan] Basso, [Vincenzo] Nibali and [Michele] Scarponi than me, but not any more. The phoney wars don’t interest me any more. I’ve calmed down a lot. I’m tranquillo now.”
He then announced with a chuckle: “The Cobra is dead! You don’t believe me? It’s true…”
The Italian was returning home to Emilia-Romagna after two days of testing with new coach Aldo Sassi at the Centro Mapei near Milan.
Sassi, who recently recruited Damiano Cunego to a stable of riders already including Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans, told La Gazzetta dello Sport in October that working with Riccò would make a perfect “final gamble” as he battles with a brain tumour. Riccò read the article and called Sassi to accept his invitation.
Riccò told Cyclingnews yesterday that the pair’s first meeting had been about much more than just crunching numbers.
“He wanted to get to know me a lot better and meet my family,” Riccò said. “We spent a lot of time talking my life and my cycling career up until now. We also did an endurance test and a VO2 Max test, but they weren’t the important things. Aldo was more interested in what I had to say.”
Many view Riccò’s decision to link up with Sassi as a deliberate and perhaps cynical attempt to regain credibility after his positive test for CERA at the 2008 Tour de France. Sassi has said previously that he can vouch for any of his riders being clean, partly thanks to his own regimen of longitudinal blood tests.
Riccò, though, says that the partnership has nothing to do with good PR.
“I’m doing it for myself, not for other people,” he said. “It’s not intended to send a message. I have big objectives and Aldo can help me to achieve them – it’s that simple. When we had our chat, we spent next to no time talking about doping. There was no need - I was very clear on that score from the start.”
Riccò did nonetheless confirm that Sassi had taken blood samples to establish benchmarks for his total haemoglobin mass. It is believed that, while blood transfusions can’t be detected via traditional tests measuring only haemoglobin concentration, they can be revealed by variations in an athlete’s total haemoglobin.
Riccò conceded that, with Sassi’s life expectancy not stretching beyond the middle of next year, he feels duty-bound to do the coach proud.
“I definitely feel very a big responsibility towards Aldo, with what he’s going through. I really need to honour him on the bike,” he said.
Having controversially switched teams from Ceramica Flaminia to Vacansoleil midway through last season, the 27-year-old will remain with the Dutch squad in 2011. Despite voluntarily relinquishing new signing Ezequiel Mosquera’s ranking points – the Spaniard having tested positive for Hydroxyethyl starch at the Vuelta a España in September and awaiting sanctions – Vacansoleil are currently placed 12th in the UCI’s team classification. They are therefore poised to obtain a ProTeam licence allowing them entry to the World Tour, which includes all three major tours.
“Based on the rankings at the moment, there shouldn’t be a problem with getting into the Giro and the Tour,” Riccò said on Thursday. “The Giro route looks really good – extremely hard and for riders with stamina who can really climb. I’m not saying that I’m going to win or finish on the podium; I just want to do my best and entertain people. After the Giro, Aldo would like me to go to the Tour to aim for stages, but we’ll discuss my race programme more in a fortnight, and after our team’s training camp in Benidorm from December 10 to 20.”
Riccò has apparently settled well at Vacansoleil, where his team-mates next year will include double Tour of Flanders champion Stijn Devolder.
“Yeah, I’ve integrated really well,” he confirmed. “It’s very different to the teams I’ve ridden for in the past. There’s a lot less stress and pressure. I’m sure that the team will also be strong next year, although it’s too early to say which guys are going to be my key men in the mountains…”
Riccò commented finally on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s recent suggestion that the UCI should consider night-time dope tests – a recommendation which has mystified and angered many of his countrymen.
While demonstrating his new-found diplomacy, the erstwhile “Cobra” shares his colleagues’ concerns.
“Personally, I don’t agree with it,” he said. “I mean, where does it end? Unless they test us 24 hours a day… But it’s also not up to me to decide. If the authorities go ahead with it, we’ll have to accept it.”