Alessandro Ballan (BMC) has been suspended for two years by the Italian Olympic Committee’s national anti-doping tribunal, following a hearing in Rome on Thursday. The 34-year-old was found guilty of violating article 2.2 of the WADA code and is banned until 16 January, 2016.
Ballan’s doping infraction dates from the spring of 2009, when police taps from the Mantova anti-doping inquiry revealed that he had undergone a blood transfusion during his time at the Lampre team.
During the three-hour hearing on Thursday afternoon, Ballan’s lawyers claimed that he had undergone ozone therapy to treat cytomegalovirus, but not a performance-enhancing blood transfusion.
“Technically, the accusation isn’t of a blood transfusion, but of an infusion of ozone,” Ballan’s lawyer Fabio Pavone had told Gazzetta dello Sport immediately after the hearing on Thursday. “We explained that he had used it during the period in which he had removed himself from activity because he was stricken by hepatitis. Ballan admitted it, and said that he didn’t think it was necessary to alert anybody. In good faith.”
On Friday morning, however, CONI delivered its verdict, deciding to hand down a two-year ban to Ballan and a fine of €2,000. CONI also announced that pharmacist Guido Nigrelli has been handed a life ban for his part in assisting doping on the Lampre team, while Dr. Fiorenzo Egeo Bonazzi has been banned for four years.
In addition to his two-year ban, Ballan also faces criminal proceedings resulting from the Mantova-based anti-doping investigation, along with 28 other riders, trainers, pharmacists and directeurs sportifs. The trial is centred primarily on the activities of Guido Nigrelli and his links to the Lampre team, and is set to resume on January 24.
News of the Mantova doping inquiry first broke in the spring of 2010, after Ballan had left Lampre for BMC. The team took the decision to withdraw Ballan – and fellow arrival from Lampre, Mauro Santambrogio – from racing ahead of that year’s Paris-Roubaix, only to reactivate him less than two months later.
The situation repeated itself in 2011, when Gazzetta dello Sport cited a transcript of a phone conversation that appeared to detail Ballan’s blood doping in the spring of 2009. BMC withdrew Ballan from its Giro d’Italia roster and said he would remain inactive pending further information from the Mantova inquiry.
However, when he was again reinstated in late May, a statement from BMC said it was because the team had “never been notified by any authorities regarding these alleged actions and conversations.” BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz insisted to Cyclingnews that he saw “no contradiction” in BMC’s handling of the matter.
When Ballan was formally named in the Mantova investigation in April 2012, BMC opted to take no action. In July 2013, Ballan was named among the 27 people who were sent to trial as part of the Mantova inquiry. The first hearing was held in December and the trial is due to continue next week.
Some 28 riders, trainers, pharmacists and doctors are on trial as part of the Mantova investigation, including Ballan, Nigrelli, Damiano Cunego, Giuseppe Saronni, Mauro Santambrogio, Michael Rasmussen and Marzio Bruseghin. While the lengthy investigation is understood to have uncovered swathes of evidence – anti-doping expert Sandro Donati has compiled a 167-page document analysing it – very little of it has made its way into the public domain to date.
However, Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere della Sera’s citing of phone taps detailing Ballan’s 2009 blood transfusion saw CONI open sporting proceedings against him even before the Mantova case went to trial.
Parallel to the criminal case, therefore, CONI began its own inquiry, and Ballan was questioned by a panel in Rome in July 2011. In November 2013, CONI recommended a two-year ban for Ballan.
In the spring of 2009, Ballan was the reigning world champion, having won the title in Varese the previous September, and was again due to lead Lampre’s challenge in the classics. After abandoning Tirreno-Adriatico in March, however, Ballan did not race again until Memorial Marco Pantani in June, explaining that he was suffering from citalomegavirus.
According to Mantova public prosecutor Antonino Condorelli, Bonazzi performed a a blood transfusion on Ballan near Montichiari shortly before the 2009 Giro d’Italia, which he ultimately did not ride. At the CONI hearing on Thursday, Ballan and Bonazzi tried to convince the panel that it was a therapeutic, ozone therapy, but the anti-doping tribunal ultimately found against them.