Blazin' Saddles

‘Killer’ Di Luca caught – now let’s throw away the key

Blazin' Saddles

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Danilo Di Luca

Cycling fans were meant to be spending their Friday afternoon basking in the duel savagery of the Gavia and Stelvio for the first of two back-to-back mountain epics that would decide if not the destination of the pink jersey then at least the other minor podium places and the thrilling white jersey tussle between Messrs Majka and Betancur.

Instead, we've been dealt a double blow.

Not only has stage 19 been cancelled because of the unrelenting snow and foul weather that has blighted so much of the race, the UCI also announced that Italian veteran Danilo Di Luca – the self-styled "Killer" – tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition test a week prior to the Giro.

The old adage about a RadioShack-Leopard never changing his spots rings true.

Di Luca is a man for whom systematic doping – and with it compulsive lying – has become part and parcel of cycling. Di Luca is what Riccardo Ricco would have ended up like in ten years time had he not botched the blood transfusion he attempted to give himself after Vacansoleil-DCM had given him his own ticket to the last chance saloon.

In many people's eyes, both Di Luca and Ricco should never have been allowed back near cycling. Ricco tested positive for CERA, showed no contrition, saw out his ban, and rejoined the peloton until almost killing himself after storing his own transfused blood at too high a temperature in a portable fridge.

As for Di Luca? The 37-year-old Italian makes other serial offenders look like mere Pop Tarts.

As another Italian rider, Marco Pinotti of BMC, said on Twitter: "Don't run to conclusion. Let's wait for the B sample. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Oh wait..."

The 2007 Giro d'Italia "champion" tested positive for CERA during the 2009 Giro and was given a reduced 15-month ban after collaborating with the authorities. He'd already served three months on the sidelines in 2007 for his part in the Oil for Drugs doping investigation – and it was his same involvement with Dr Carlo Santuccione which prevented him from riding the 2004 Tour de France.

Even his one Grand Tour overall triumph stank of rotten fish when Di Luca gave a urine sample – latter dubbed the "pipi degli angeli" – in an anti-doping test after the Monte Zoncolan stage that had the hormone levels of a small child.

Well, Di Luca's latest fall from grace isn't so much an Angelic piss-take as the Devil's excrement.

Only last Wednesday, Di Luca was telling Gazzetta dello Sport in an interview that "doping is a weakness, period. But it's disappeared from cycling and other sports."

The reality couldn't have been further from the truth.

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Danilo di Luca

Danilo di Luca

Out of contract following the winding-up of Acqua & Sapone, Di Luca only signed for Italian wildcard team Vini Fantini on 26th April this spring once the pro continental outfit were granted a place on the Giro.

Vini Fantini directeur sportif Luca Scinto didn't want Di Luca in his team but was forced to include the controversial Italian for financial reasons because Di Luca brought with him an extra sponsor in Acqua & Sapone. He was also friends with Valentino Sciotti, who runs the Farnese vineyard that lends its name (and euros) to the team.

The rider made his return to racing on 27th April at the GP Larciano, which he finished in 10th place. Two days later, he gave the out-of-competition urine sample which, when tested in the laboratory in Cologne, showed traces of EPO.

"It's true," Scinto confirmed to Cyclingnews on Friday morning. "He's mad, he's a cretin, he needs treatment. There's nothing else to say. We gave him a second (sic) chance and the sponsors put their faith in him and this is how he pays us back. It's crazy that a rider thinks they can get away with it like that."

In hindsight, it seems crazy that any of us believed that Di Luca's performances in this year's Giro were powered on break and water alone. Ever since the start of the race Di Luca's attacking riding has stood out about as much as his Vini Fantini team's bright fluorescent jerseys.

To be at such a level at the age of 37 and after just one competitive day in the saddle should have raised eyebrows – even if the rider claimed he trained hard in the off-season.

After riding on the front of the race en route to Serra San Bruno, Vicenza and Jafferau, Di Luca also rolled back the years with a strong performance in Thursday's uphill time trial, boasting afterwards on Twitter about how strong he felt. This came days after complaining that cycling was now "all about the legs" and not so much about "the tactics".

Having only been with Vini Fantini for a matter of weeks, Di Luca was already looking ahead for fresh challenges. Just days ago he told the media he felt he still had two years left at the highest level, and claimed he wanted to join Astana in a bid to help Vincenzo Nibali win the Tour de France.

Nibali, now almost certain to be crowned Giro champion on Sunday in Brescia, must have been thrilled to read about such an endorsement.

"I'm knocked out. I never wanted Di Luca in the team and I didn't hide it despite being criticised for my opinion," Scinto said in a press release.

"We've built our team based on the sacred values of cycling and we made a mistake by accepting the repeated request from our main sponsor to have faith in a rider they are close friends with. Unfortunately that faith has been repaid with an incredible error, which I still can't understand or take in."

For his part, Farnese wine baron Sciotto was apologetic and contrite about the role he played in shoehorning Di Luca into the team's roster.

"What can I say? I wanted to believe in the man and the rider, and it's only right that I take all the blame because I made a mistake," Sciotto said, no doubt turning as red as one of his tasty chiantis.

"Maybe I made a mistake in believing that someone can redeem themselves after an error and not make one again. Maybe I made a mistake in wanting to help someone who I saw in difficulty."

Vini Fantini have moved swiftly to distance themselves from Di Luca, who was not only sacked on Friday morning but also told to make his own way home from the snow-filled town of Ponte di Legno – preferably on a pair of skis.

Giro race organiser Michele Acquerone has had his work cut out with the havoc caused by the adverse weather conditions, but he could have turned a bad situation into a positive by forcing Di Luca to ride stage 19's original route on a fixie – without leg warmers and with whatever drugs he wanted.

Jokes aside, Di Luca's case, while not exactly shocking when put in the light of his repeated offences, deals another blow to cycling.

It emphasises more than ever that doping is both an addiction and mental illness and that it should be treated as such. It also further enforces the view that doping is a generational issue that will only be eradicated once the entire old guard are shown the door.

Calls for longer or permanent bans for repeated offenders will no doubt surface after Saxo-Tinkoff's Nicholas Roche tweeted: "Some riders never get it! That's why [it] must be lifetime ban or 4yr minimum! Pi**ed off always same riders giving cycling a bad name."

The sad thing for the sport is that although Vincenzo Nibali is in the maglia rosa and on the verge of adding a Giro title to the Vuelta crown he won in 2010, Di Luca is still more of a familiar name and face in Italian households than the 28-year-old Sicilian.

Indeed, on Thursday's mountain time trial to Polsa, the crowds lining the roads were calling out Di Luca's name as if he were the biggest star of the race.

Compare that to Lance Armstrong's last professional mountain time trial in 2004 when the American – who at that stage had not even been officially sanctioned for a doping offence, let alone three – was booed and spat on by fans.

But even this latest fall from grace maybe too much for the lovable rogue that is Di Luca. Already he's become a "former professional cyclist" on Wikipedia. No more doors will open for him. Surely that's it for any kind of future in the sport – especially at management level.

And good riddance. Di Luca's been killing the sport simply by being a part of it.

Sure, he's exciting to watch. But then again, so is seeing riders grapple in sub-zero temperatures on the Stelvio. They banned that – and quite rightly.

So ban him. For good. Then, and only then, the sun may start to shine again.

Armstrong, of all people, summed it up quite succinctly on Twitter: "Knowing I have zero credibility on the doping issue – I still can't help but think, 'really Di Luca? Are you that f***ing stupid??'"

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