Italian cycling: a long, inevitable decline?

This year’s Giro d’Italia will unfortunately be remembered for the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt. But it is difficult not to see the race of symptomatic of the long, inevitable decline of Italian cycling, if not only the Giro itself.

The final indignity was the playing of the wrong national anthem for Alberto Contador, and it seemed liked director Angelo Zomegnan had been on the defensive for the entire race, over the difficulty of the race and the extreme descent from the Crostis climb on stage 14. “On one side there are cowards and on the other side ineptitude,” Zomegnan was reported saying.

The route was indeed extreme, likened to a battle for survival, which saw many of the top pro riders staying away in favour of gentler preparations for the Tour de France. Zomegnan has criticized riders for using the Giro as a training race in the past, but may have gone too far in making the Giro stand alone. There always seems to be pressure to make each subsequent edition tougher than the previous, which is clearly not a sustainable strategy. Exhausted riders do not make for much of a race.

Still, Contador made the race look easy. One’s impressions of the Giro might therefore rest on whether one finds the spectacle of Contador, waiting for the conclusion of the judicial process for his doping infraction, apparently easily winning the toughest edition in years to be a triumph or a travesty.

Italian riders rounded out the podium but with so many big names absent, this was supposed to be Italy’s, and Vincenzo Nibali’s, year for winning the race. To have done so would have broken an embarrassing drought for a lack of decent Italian results this season. Italy had four riders in the top ten at Milan-San Remo to start the year – but no one in the top three – and this, sadly, looks like the best result for the season so far.

Doping, again
Let’s play a quick game: can you name one current French rider not under investigation for doping or having been suspended for doping? Easy, huh! Can you do the same for an Italian rider. A little bit more difficult, eh.

One might also wonder as to the general state of Italian cycling with so many ex-dopers and suspected dopers currently riding in the peloton. The Italian Cycling Federation recently announced that it would restrict the participation of formerly suspended riders in the upcoming national championship, a move that would exclude Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi, Stefano Garzelli, Ricardo Ricco, Alessandro Petacchi, Danilo Di Luca, Davide Rebellin, and Emanuele Sella (although the proposal was amended with a cut-off date, allowing Basso, Scarponi and Garzelli to ride). Franco Pellizotti and Pietro Caucchioli are currently under suspension following biological passport irregularities.

Allesandro Ballan’s status is still uncertain, with the former world champ under investigation for doping along with 32 others, including Lampre-ISD team manager Giuseppe Saronni. The investigation was led by public prosecutor Antonino Condorelli and reportedly centred around the sale and use of prohibited substances including EPO, ephedrine, testosterone and corticoids. According to reports, also among the 32 people risking trial include directeurs sportif Fabrizio Bontempi and Maurizio Piovani.

The list, therefore, is a who’s-who of Italian pros. Many have served suspensions and are thus free to ride, but the numbers involved are surely symptomatic of a wider problem: Italian cycling has not gotten the message that the game has changed, that the peloton is moving on from the widespread doping of the 2000s and that this is new, cleaner era. The situation is analogous to French cycling a decade ago, post-Festina, when the message finally got through. Does Italian cycling need to start over?

A wider decline?
The infamous tifosi bring their unique Italian passion to the Giro, but are they in a state of willful denial over the problems in Italian cycling? And are those problems part of a wider Italian malaise?

Zomegnan admitted that perhaps this year’s Giro tried to cover too much territory, 17 regions, part of his efforts to take the race far and wide for the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. Supposedly an occasion for celebration, the anniversary itself proved to be a controversial issue with political parties from different regions unable to agree on how the occasion should be celebrated – with the north of Italy particularly critical of unification itself. A planned week-long celebration was scotched in favour of a tepid, partial public holiday. Even now, the norther regions are pushing for more autonomy (notably over finances) from Rome.

The economy is in trouble and Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is beset by personal scandals of entirely his own making, but is attempting to use his stranglehold on the media to fight his way out. Recent books with titles like, “The Failure of Italian Nationhood” and “Italy Today: The Sick Man oF Europe” take a pessimistic look at the country’s problems, and other commentators have piled on with their own stories of endemic corruption and tax evasion (with Davide Rebellin allegedly dabbling in the latter).

So, do we have a Giro that is being increasingly marginalized, a decadent Italian pro peloton mired in its doping past, and a country beset by economic and political calamity?

Some perspective
We can be quick to point out the woes of others. Here in North America, the US and Canada are hardly free of unique political and economic problems, so criticizing other countries is easy. Making linkages between wider issues in Italy, and the problems in its cycling, is an interesting exercise, but potentially misleading. As well, many quirky characteristics – at least to us Anglophones – is what makes countries like Italy unique. Perhaps we can’t have their charms without their peccadilloes?

The Giro has always operated in the shadow of the Tour de France. “The Tour is the Tour” as they say and the top riders will always make a choice whether to ride it based on their aspirations for the wider season, and this has always been the case. That it may become a race favoured by a certain type of rider (more pure climbers?) and be uniquely tough – a different type of race from the Tour – is not necessarily a negative, and every edition of the grand tours will have their own controversies.

That Italian riders have struggled to get results is not a new phenomena, just as the French have continued to struggle in recent years. The diversity of competition in the peloton is broader now, and country comparisons potentially meaningless. Better to focus, perhaps, on the calibre of the overall level of riding, and the spirit of competition, rather than the numbers on the results sheet.

That said, the doping problem appears to be unique. If the ongoing investigations prove to be accurate in the conclusions we have seen reported so far, there is indeed endemic and entrenched doping in many Italian teams and it may extend well down into the lower ranks. On this issue, it seems clear that Italian cycling needs to press the reset button and start over. Doing so will require conviction and courage.

Matt Rendell, author of “The Death of Marco Pantani”, once said in an interview that he could not get his book published in Italy because of all the doping revelations against Pantani and others that it contained. The tifosi were apparently not ready for the hard truth behind the tragedy. One can only hope that they are more ready now, and that we can look forward to a more triumphant and cleaner Italian cycling in the future.

Vincenzo Nibali: Italy's best hope for the future and a Giro win?

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