A year ago, his reputation was so toxic that he was barred from participating in the Lampre-Merida team’s official photo shoot, but on Wednesday, Michele Scarponi will take centre stage in Brescia as the 2014 Astana team is presented to the world. It’s a funny old game, cycling.
After serving a three-month ban in late 2012 for his links to Dr. Michele Ferrari, Lampre continued to withhold Scarponi from racing and training camps once the 2013 season began, at the apparent behest of new bike supplier Merida.
Scarponi insisted that his relationship with Ferrari had been limited to just two days of testing in September 2010, although when handing down his sanction, the Italian Olympic Committee made a point of stressing that it would revisit the case if further details were to emerge from the ongoing Padova-based doping inquiry.
In spite of that apparent sword of Damocles, however, an agreement was eventually brokered with Lampre that saw Scarponi return to action by late February. He would go on to finish the Giro d’Italia in 4th place overall, represent Italy at the world championships and, by year’s end, secure a deal with Astana that will see him lead their squad at the Giro and flank Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour de France.
“Let’s say that it was quite a cold winter, but when I sat down and spoke with the management, we resolved everything,” Scarponi told Cyclingnews recently of the impasse at Lampre at the beginning of 2013.
“It was one of those moments. Once I got back racing, there was no problem at all with the team, and I just looked to do my season as normal. Then my contract was expiring at the end of the year, so I decided to change teams.”
A decade before USADA’s Lance Armstrong investigation, the Italian Cycling Federation had already banned Michele Ferrari for life in 2002 and prohibited its riders from frequenting him. Along with Filippo Pozzato and Giovanni Visconti, Scarponi was one of three riders to be handed a three-month ban in 2012 for availing of Ferrari’s services, but he maintains that their working relationship was limited to just one test on the Monzuno climb near Bologna in September, 2010, when he raced for Androni Giocattoli.
“I don’t like having to talk about these things all the time. Clearly, from my point of view, it was extremely unfair because I only saw him once for a test. To say that I ‘frequented’ him is a bit much. I was given a suspension, I accepted it and basta. It ended there,” said Scarponi, who did little to hide his displeasure at revisiting the matter.
“You’re still asking these questions and it’s something from the past. I repeat: my story was blown out of proportion and I suffered the consequences. For this reason, I don’t even like talking about it. I saw him once, if that, and I paid for it with a three-month suspension. Enough. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Scarponi’s insistence that he was not trained by Ferrari over an extended period of time is not supported by the police phone tap quoted by Gazzetta dello Sport in October 2012, however, in which the two appear to speak in considerable - and damning - detail about his 2010 preparation.
Even if one takes Scarponi at his word, it is still immensely difficult to comprehend why a rider who had already served a suspension for blood doping under the supervision of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes would then turn to Michele Ferrari, of all people, for supposedly routine physiological testing.
“I understand the question. Do I have to answer this? I'm thinking about how to respond,” Scarponi said. After a pause, he added: “I never thought that going to see him one time would have brought all of this on top of me. I didn’t think I’d done such a serious thing. Clearly if I could go back, I wouldn’t do it.”
Asked if he felt it was unfair that only three riders (as well as the retired Leonardo Bertagnolli, already suspended for biological passport violations) had been slapped on the wrist for their links to Ferrari, Scarponi said: “I think it’s unfair that you keep asking me these questions. Honestly. I saw him once and this is a new adventure. I think I’ve put it all behind me and basta.”
Scarponi was speaking at his first full training camp with his new team, where, perhaps ironically, his role will be all the more prominent following the collapse of the proposed transfer of Franco Pellizotti from Androni-Venezuela due to Astana’s adherence to Movement for Credible Cycling policy. Signed primarily to support Nibali at the Tour, Scarponi is also set to lead the line at the Giro alongside Fabio Aru.
“It won’t be easy to do both things, but I do think it’s possible to ride the Giro for a good overall finish and then go on to help Vincenzo at the Tour,” Scarponi said of his dual role.
Scarponi has ridden only two Tours during his career and only once (2012) has he raced both the Giro and Tour in the same season. Combining the two in 2014 will pose a conundrum. “It’s never simple. There’s no magic formula, let me put it that way,” he said.
“I’ll look to find an excellent state of form for the Giro. In June, I’ll try to recover my strength a bit and then go to train at altitude with the Tour team. I think that just being in a new team and having a new role at the Tour de France will motivate me a lot.”
Scarponi begins his 2014 campaign with Nibali in Argentina later this month at the Tour de San Luis, and his pre-Giro programme will include the Ruta del Sol, Tirreno-Adriatico and Giro del Trentino. “The level will be very high at the Giro and it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “But then, I’ve been up there with the best of them at the Giro for years, and it’s a race that always gives me a rush of adrenalin when I line up.”
At 34 years of age, Scarponi now has twelve years as a professional behind him, which include 18 months of combined suspensions from Operacion Puerto and his Ferrari links. This time last year, Scarponi's days in the peloton seemed numbered, but after landing on his feet at Astana, the Filottrano native has no plans to call time on his career for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t know. I’ve signed for a year with Astana, with Vinokourov’s team,” he said. “I’ll give everything to repay their faith in me. I hope I can show up to the level of the team and maybe stay on for a few more years.”