Blazin' Saddles

Quick! Step away from Ricco

Blazin' Saddles

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It's a weird time in the cycling calendar, August. The Tour de France is but a dwindling memory while the Vuelta still too far away to seem relevant.

Once all the ubiquitous (not to mention fixed) post-Tour criteriums have been done and dusted, there's a period of intense mediocrity with little-known races happening daily, most of which seemingly won this year by Garmin's Dan Martin, who is so hot right now that he's quite literally "on fire" according to Cyclingnews.

Indeed, the sole point of real interest at this point in the season is the annual jostling for new contracts and angling for new teams - brought alive this August by Alberto Contador's move to Sunguard-Saxo Bank and, controversially, Riccardo Ricco's unveiling at Quick Ste... hang on, at Vacansoleil.

Yes, the Cobra is back - or he would be, had he actually joined a team that was guaranteed Pro-Tour action next year. Still, he has the renowned GP Plouay to look forward to on Sunday - where the Italian will no doubt come up against Dan Martin for the top prize.

Ricco's home for the next stage of his career has been under the spotlight since the likeable Italian announced he was leaving Ceramica Flaminia, the little known second tier cycling team that sounds as if it should be a lady of dubious morals operating down a back street near the forum in ancient Roman times.

Anyway, last Friday it was reported that Ricco had joined Quick Step and hoped to race in the upcoming Vuelta. "It was a great gesture allowing me to join a Pro-Tour team," Ricco told Gazzetta, sounding like a man for whom such a gesture of goodwill came as a surprise.

Surprise indeed was the emotion felt by the cycling public. In fact, most fans were more than surprised by Patrick Lefevere's recruitment policy - they were gobsmacked (while wanting to smack the gob of Lefevere). The Belgian team had wanted to lure Contador, but instead here came the most despised former drug cheat on the circuit.

Four days later, however, Vacansoleil announced that they, and not Quick Step, had signed the 26-year-old climber. For proof, they released a picture of Ricco posing in a Vacansoleil shirt. His hair was extremely ginger. (Now Saddles understands why he went in for the peroxide look).

"The last week it all developed really quickly while we were looking for a real climber in add to our team for 2011," team manager Daan Luijkx said, simultaneously communicating Brice Feillu's departure in a round-about way.

It turns out that a special meeting with Ricco - "a rider who has paid his debt" - was what clinched it for Luijkx, who came to the ominous conclusion that "we share the ambition and way of racing with him". (Saddles presumes this was a reference to Ricco winning bloodied - as he did in the Tour of Austria - as opposed to Ricco winning with extra blood and a hefty dose of CERA).

Anyway, it appears that Ricco has agreed on the immediate termination of his contract and an "astronomical payment" (enough to make Patrick Moore drop his monocle and gaze down from the sky at night) should he be caught with his fingers in the CERA cookie jar again.

The big question about the whole episode is did Ricco change his mind about joining Quick Step or did Lefevere wake up and smell Magnus Backstedt's coffee?

You see, Quick Step are one of the 10 teams with a valid Pro Tour licence for 2011. Theoretically, in joining them Ricco had a ticket back to the big time (and with Tom Boonen by Ricco's side, that's one hell of an office Christmas party).

But as it stands, the Cobra may be no closer to a major Tour than he was this past year at Flaminia, a team which were overlooked for the Giro precisely because of their association with an unrepentant doper.

As for Vacansoleil, a team snubbed for all three major Tours of the season despite their fine performance in last year's Vuelta, hiring the peloton's hot potato in Ricco is a rather maverick way of catching the eyes of the UCI and race organisers - especially seeing that they're one of 14 teams applying for the remaining eight Pro Tour berths for next year.

BS wonders how Stijn Devolder, another Vacansoleil recruit (incidentally, from Quick Step), feels about the whole thing. Maybe Feillu Junior was right to jump ship while he could. Could he be followed now by the fiery Johnny Hoogerland? Sunny holidays in July look more and more likely - but first Vacansoleil could well be in for a wet winter.

TRANSFER ROUND UP: So, Carlos Sastre has left Cervelo and joined Geox, the new incarnation of Footon-Servetto, where he will be joined by Rabobank's Denis Menchov, if you believe the rumours. Apparently the slick shirts clinched the deal.

Daniel Navarro's Alpine grimace will grace the front of the peloton for at least another year after the Spaniard joined his compatriot Contador at Sunguard-Saxo Bank along with Astana team-mates Jesus Hernandez and Benjamin Noval.

Astana, who are used to losing all their best riders to one single team in the off-season, have replaced Contador as their GC hopeful with Roman Kreuziger, who admitted he was going a bit stale at Liquigas. At Astana, the Czech will "represent with power and pride the colours of Kazakhstan," according to new team-mate Alexander Vinokourov.

Vino's shamed compatriot Andrey Kashechkin is, of course, joining Lampre - and the Bruno lookalike is not the only ex-doper to make the headlines after it was announced that Stefan Schumacher would join Miche (they're a team, right?) as soon as his two-year ban ends on August 28.

Having previously snared the services of Michael Rasmussen, Miche have now confirmed their status as a sort of rehabilitation for washed-up dopers - cycling's equivalent to The Priory, if you will.

As for the Chicken, he'll be falling off his bike and booking holidays to Mexico alongside reigning Tour champion Contador at Sunguard-Saxo Bank, according to the gossip mongers.

Meanwhile, Christophe Le Mevel will step into Christian Vande Velde shoes at Garmin when the American breaks a collarbone in next year's Giro; Andre Greipel will win some "sh*tty races" (starting with three stages in the Tour Down Under) for Lotto; and Matti Breschel will bring his model good looks to Rabobank in a bid to compensate for black swan Robert Gesink's unsightly features.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK: "If I could be a mix of Sean Kelly and my uncle Stephen (Roche), it wouldn't be bad," Dan Martin clearly has lofty ambitions.

"When you look at the way the investigation has come about, you have to ask whether there is a genuine investigation or whether there are vendettas going on here. It has taken place in the public arena, which is unnecessary," UCI president Pat McQuaid on the US Postal investigation.

Follow Blazin' Saddles throughout the week on www.twitter.com/saddleblaze - will you be the 2,000th follower?

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