As the days tick down to the end of his two-year ban for doping, Riccardo Ricco is trying to rebuild his relationship with the Italian tifosi who supported him so passionately before he tested positive for CERA.
Ricco's ban ends on March 17. His Ceramica Flamina team has not been invited to ride Milan-San Remo and so Ricco is likely to return to racing at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi & Bartali in his home region of Emilia Romagna.
Despite his sins and even after he split from partner Vania, who also tested positive for CERA in January, Ricco believes that many Italian tifosi still loyally support him because they are simply not interested in doping.
"I can't expect people to believe in me now, I've got to prove it out on the road," he said in a video interview recorded by the Italian Cycling Pro magazine.
"I don't think the tifosi are interested if there's doping (in cycling) or not. They're interested in the battle and competition. I don’t think real tifosi are interested in doping. If someone is a fan of Ricco, they still are now, even if he's made a mistake or not."
"I was a fan of [MotoGP pilot] Valentino Rossi even when he didn't pay taxes in Italy. For me a champion is a champion. I think my real fans see me as a 23-year-old who made a mistake but who can't wait to see him race again. That's how I see it. Of course there are other kinds of cycling fans but that's the way I see things."
Vania pleas for Ricco to return
Ricco has been based in Sicily in recent weeks, training hard for his comeback but also staying away from Vania Rossi, having broken off their relationship by text message according to the Italian reports.
She wrote an emotional letter to Ricco and allowed it to be published in Gazzetta dello Sport at the weekend. She pleaded for him to come back and insisted she's innocent.
"We've got a beautiful baby that needs a mum and a dad. I hope he comes back because I still love him," Rossi says in the letter.
"In his place I'd have kept quiet… instead he said some crazy things that made me really angry. Then he went to Sicily to train. To be honest he wasn't ready to support me, indeed he was angry because I've created him problems. Then he was excluded from Milan-San Remo. I haven't seen him since then, except for a second with our respective lawyers, where he didn't even speak to me. The only thing we should have done was to help each other. Instead he publicly humiliated me."
In the letter, Rossi insists she did not take any drugs and questioned what could have caused her positive test for CERA, suggesting that changes in her body due to childbirth could have been the cause. She also said she would fight to clear her name.
"In 2001 I was involved in a serious hit and run accident. I was in a coma for five days and woke up with three broken vertebrae. I got a small payout for it. Now I'm going to use that cash to defend me from these crazy accusations. I'm not bothered about a ban, the most important ting is to clear my name, as a mother and to keep my family together."