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Can Riccò win back the fans he let down?
The Cobra is back but is he sorry?
The enfant terrible of Italian cycling, Riccardo Riccò, has urged fans to reserve their judgment ahead of his return to racing in March next year. Riccò, who hopes that a wildcard invitation for his Ceramica Flamina team will allow him to make his comeback at Milan-San Remo on March 20, told Procycling Magazine that he "deserves a second chance" after his positive test for CERA at the 2008 Tour de France.
In the interview, to appear in Procycling’s forthcoming February Issue (on sale in January), Riccò admitted that he is still haunted by flashbacks of his dramatic exit from that Tour. The self-styled "Cobra" also claimed the memory is the best possible incentive not to dope again.
"There’s maybe a difference between just getting a piece of paper telling you that you’ve tested positive and being kicked out of the Tour de France and thrown in a prison cell," Riccò said in the interview, which took place at the end of November in Serramazzoni, central Italy, where he spends much of the year. "It really shocks you. And humiliates you. At first you can barely look people in the eye. You gradually inch back towards normal life, but it’s horrible at first."
In Riccò’s case "normal" life meant the routine of the racing cyclist. Having spent several months struggling to come to terms with his new reality, and a further period when his main occupation was teaching spinning classes in his local gym, he has now been in full-time training for almost a year. Taking inspiration from Ivan Basso, just as the Liquigas rider did during his doping ban, Riccò has even gone as far as simulating stage races behind a scooter or car in his bid to regain race fitness.
Riccò now says that he’s "confident" of competing drug-free with the best riders in the world, perhaps even as early as San Remo. His 20-month doping ban is due to expire two days before next year’s "Classicissima".
"It’s not easy, having that as your first race but, if not there, I think that I can be competitive again after 10 or 15 races," the 26-year-old explained. "Before San Remo itself I’ll simulate a short stage race. I’ll go to altitude for the first half of March, probably to Spain or somewhere else warm. Here, on our mountains, you can’t because there are six metres of snow. Then I’ll do my utmost to be competitive straight away."
For most fans the concern is not how Riccò rides but how sorry he is about his past misdemeanours. In the Procycling interview, it is put to the Italian that his second stage win of that 2008 Tour, set up by a blistering attack on the Col d’Aspin, bordered on the grotesque. Riccò’s smiling response is not entirely reassuring.
Asked, though, whether he thinks that he can redeem himself in the eyes and affections of fans in Italy and abroad, Riccò appeared optimistic.
"I know it’ll be difficult but I’m confident," he said. "The results of the tests that I’ve done on my bike have been good. Let’s see when I come back. In the main, I’ll concentrate on what I have to do on the road. That’s what counts really. If I start winning again, people won’t even remember what happened to me – the same thing that happened to lots of other riders.
"As far as journalists are concerned, when there’s an interview to do, I’ll do it, but I won’t go looking for it like perhaps Basso did," he continued. "He was always in the papers throughout his ban. I’ll try to keep a lower profile, also because I don’t see why I should take away a share of the limelight from people who are out there racing and suffering."
Riccò met with his new Ceramica Flaminia team-mates at a short training camp in Riccione, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, earlier this week. Registered in the UCI Professional Continental division – and hence on the UCI’s biological passport programme – Ceramica Flaminia hope that riders like Riccò, former Liberty Seguros climber Giampaolo Caruso and veteran domestique Andrea Noè will convince Giro d’Italia and San Remo chief Angelo Zomegnan that the team is worthy of entry to both races.
One man who will no longer ride for the team in 2010 is former Italian champion Filippo Simeoni, who retired at the end of last season. In the Procycling article, Simeoni describes Flaminia’s signing of Riccò as "questionable".