Riccardo Riccò is making a gradual recovery in hospital in Italy but will soon be questioned by Italian police as the investigation into possible blood doping gathers pace.
The Italian Olympic Committee has already opened an investigation that could lead to a life-time ban for the Vacansoleil rider, while Italian police want to know if and how other people were involved. Police will want to confirm the confession of blood doping Riccò allegedly made to a doctor when he was rushed to hospital early on Sunday morning. Doping is illegal in Italy and carries a possible jail sentence of between three months and three years.
According to Gazzetta dello Sport, Riccò may have transfused his own blood as he prepared to target the Tour Méditerranéen that begins today in the south of France. The race ends with the steep climb to the summit of Mont Faron on Sunday.
Gazzetta reveal that Riccò visited the Centro Mapei on Friday and underwent a mass-haemoglobin test as part of an independent anti-doping screening programme Riccò accepted when he agreed to work the late Professor Aldo Sassi. Gazzetta spoke to sports doctor Andrea Morelli who claimed that the test was normal. The Italian sports newspaper suggests that Riccò could have transfused a quantity of blood on Saturday and explains how poor conservation of extracted blood or an infection can spark septicaemia, kidney blockage and a high temperature.
According to Riccò’s father his temperature touched 41C when he was rushed to hospital and rapid treatment by the doctors managed to save his life.
Red blood cells have to be constantly stored at a temperature between four and six degrees centigrade. Higher temperatures can cause the membrane of the cells to breakdown and cause a release of toxins into the blood stream after a transfusion. Riccò’s life is no longer at risk but he could have suffered permanent kidney damage.
Police search Riccò’s house
On Wednesday morning Italian police searched Riccardo Riccò’s home, finding several unidentified tablets but no trace of possible blood doping equipment that could have sparked his life threatening condition and lead to him being rushed to hospital.
According to Gazzetta dello Sport, drug squad officers from the Parma Nuclei Antisofisticazioni e Sanità (NAS) searched the home Riccò shares with fiancée Vania Rossi and their baby son in Serramazzoni in the Apennine hills in Central Italy.
Riccò is still in hospital after feeling ill during Saturday night but Rossi was in the house. No bags of blood or blood transfusion equipment were found in their home but several loose tablets and a bottle containing others were reportedly found. The label on the bottle was not written in Italian and so the tablets will be sent for analysis to see what they contain.
The police search automatically means that Riccò has now been formally placed under investigation by Italian police. Both Riccò and Rossi are likely to be questioned in the next few days as police try to work out exactly what caused Riccò’s sudden illness and if other people were involved.
Gazzetta reported that Rossi told the police that she was not at home when Riccò felt ill on Saturday night but found him is a serious condition when she returned. He was then rushed to a nearby hospital and then transferred to a bigger, more specialist hospital in Modena because his condition was life threatening.
There was strong reaction from within the cycling community to the news that Riccardo Riccò had reportedly admitted to undergoing a blood transfusion when he was taken to hospital. Paolo Bettini, a former pro rider and now the Italian national coach, told Gazzetta della Sport that he usually defends riders and hopes they learn from their mistakes but he suggested Riccò had “toyed with death and with himself. It is his life, but he has offended the family of Aldo Sassi.”
Riccò worked with Sassi for two months last year before the trainer's death due to brain tumour. Sassi was vehemently anti-doping and declared he was willing to take a chance to help rehabilitate Riccò.
Italian Cycling Federation president Renato Di Rocco made no bones about how he felt about Riccò.
“For his own good, for his family, for the good of cycling, Riccardo Ricco should leave competitive sport, he's got to get out of the evil tunnel he is stuck in. He must rebuild his life as person, first of all,” Di Rocco told Gazzetta dello Sport.
He added, “We are faced with a young guy who is sick inside, intoxicated by false messages, those of fame and success at any cost and by any means – who has lost all sense of the reality of life. This is very damaging and the Federation will take all the necessary steps to protect itself."
World time trial Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), currently riding the Tour of Qatar, told L'Equipe: “I think we should send him to the moon. That's all, because what kind of person doesn't understand about life. Once an idiot, always an idiot. I am sorry for his health, but in a way that is his problem because he created it himself. It yet again makes us cyclists appear as unfair. "