Pedaling Toward Redemption

News & Results

05/14/2013| 1 comment
by Neil Browne
Danilo Di Luca: Are the reputations of some riders too far damaged for them to be allowed to take part in races such as the Giro d'Italia? Fotoreporter Sirotti

Pedaling Toward Redemption

Are the reputations of some riders too far damaged?

In the closing kilometers of stage 4 in this year's Giro d'Italia, Danilo Di Luca (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) attacked. However, he was caught just before the finish line and crossed the line in 24th place.

Stage 1 of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California started and ended in Escondido. It was a tough stage with a climb over Mt Palmar in addition to temperatures over 100 degrees. In the last 5 kilometers Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) attacked with Francisco Mancebo (5-Hour Energy p/b Kenda) hot on his tail. In a sprint for the stage win Westra was the fastest with Mancebo finishing in second place.

On both occasions my Twitter timeline (which I use as a barometer for people's opinions - admittedly not the most scientific method) exploded with people rooting against them. “Yeh for Westra - anyone is better than Mancebo.” someone tweeted. It was the same type of comments aimed at Di Luca - not a lot of love for his strong attack - or his team's sponsors.

Di Luca doesn't have the cleanest history in the sport. He was implicated in the “Oil for Drugs” doping scandal and was also popped for CERA in the 2009 Giro d’Italia. He was suspended for two years. However, he cooperated with the Italian anti-doping authorities and had his suspension reduced to nine months.

The 37-year-old rider hasn't garnered a lot of love because, while he's admitted to doping and cooperated, he hasn't taken on the role of an anti-doping rider like Garmin-Sharp's David Millar. Di Luca is more a shrug of the shoulders like, “Yeah I got caught”, gave some evidence, and got on with his career.  

Fast forward to this year and Di Luca is without a team - or is he? Ten days before the start of the Giro d’Italia, Di Luca was hired to ride in the hi-viz colors of Team Vini Fantini-Selle Italia. Apparently he'd had a deal with Vini Fantini back in November, so there you go - another rider from the “old guard” returns to racing.

Mancebo, while not implicated in any doping scandals, was linked to Operation Puerto. He was never charged with doping and always said he was innocent. However, he left the European racing scene when his name came up in Operation Puerto (mainly because he couldn't get a contract with a team) and has been racing in the States since 2009, racking up wins along the way. In fact he is so consistent that the Spanish rider is a two-time National Racing Calendar champion.

I asked about Mancebo at the 5 Hour Energy-Kenda training camp and team director Frankie Andreu told me, “I can’t control what went on, but I can control what goes on now and what he did when he came to America. That means setting a good example, no tolerance for doping and not going down that road. We stand for a clean sport and the consequences of how it affects everyone.”

The common thread between these two men is doping: one resolved, the other not. Di Luca comes off looking offensively unpleasant and vexatious by only coming clean when faced with a career-ending ban and then never publicly making amends. Some might say the same of Millar. He only admitted to doping after spending time in a French jail cell. The difference between Millar and Di Luca is the Scotsman took a very public anti-doping position. Di Luca? Well not so much...

Mancebo might get lucky. The Spanish judge in the Operation Puerto case is asking for the blood bag evidence to be destroyed. If that happens we'll never quite know if he was receiving some artificial help. This goes back to why there isn't much obvious public support for Mancebo to be seen these days. The cycling fans are jaded with who to believe. Lance Armstrong's admission of guilt was a kick to the gut to even his most faithful followers. So when a professional cyclist has evidence stacked against him (or her) and is able to skate away from any charges, people get testy.

People want justice - that's what it boils down to. For some, Armstrong was unfairly persecuted for something most of the peloton was doing. For others he is the poster boy for organized doping and deserved to be roasted over a fire. I had one person tell me the Texan was “evil”. I'm no Armstrong fan and I think he has some sociopathic tendencies, but I don't think he's evil. You can pick up the front page of any newspaper and read about what evil truly is. Regardless, there isn't a sense of closure. Many people still feel cheated. Armstrong is still full of hubris with the not so subtle Twitter icon, “Never Quit” message on a bridge he is about to run under. Again, not a lot of closure for those who want to or at least try to move on from those dirty days of professional cycling.

In the case of Di Luca and Mancebo we may never get that complete sense of closure. Di Luca took his suspension and returned to racing - nothing more can be done. Mancebo was never suspended or brought up on charges, and unless the blood bags aren't destroyed we may never get to the bottom of the mystery, did he or did he not dope. This is real life and things aren't always wrapped up neatly for us.

Chances are Mancebo is going to win again at some point during this season. Heck, it might even be at this year’s Amgen Tour of California. A victory for his small squad would be a huge boost for them and perhaps guarantee a continuing sponsorship or maybe new company logos on the team kit for next year? From a personal standpoint I'd like the 5 Hour Energy-Kenda squad to succeed. I like Frankie Andreu and he deserves success. But at any price?

Di Luca could also win this season as well. He has been aggressive in the Giro d’Italia so far and he might yet make a winning move.

But with every pedal stroke these two, and other riders like them: David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde, are also riding for redemption. For some of those listed the fans have already welcomed them back. For others the jury is out whether they will ever be respected again as professional athletes.

I'm not sure where to draw the line in the sand regarding redemption. Does everyone deserve a second chance or are their offenses too much for a cycling fan to ignore? I'd like to think that everyone deserves another chance. It's up to us to determine if we're going to let them have that one shot at redemption or if they blew it already.

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If a group of former top professional cyclists got together and outed the dirty team directors, soigneurs, doctors, and facilitators still poisoning the sport with their presence. This could do much towards cleaning out the vermin which still have jobs due to the omerta of this group of former "leaders". I recognize many of theses same cyclists owe their livelihood to those who had them dope freely in the 90s and are now only involved in the sport due in large part to their own silence. They owe it to us the fans, to move forward and actively become a part of the solution. Puerto would end up being anecdotal if some of these former pros had the stones to step up and tell the whole truth.