Award-winning sports journalist and author
Award-winning sports journalist and author

Giro d’Italia preview 2011

It is something of an annual rite at the end of the cycling spring. The three week Tours hove into view when the Giro d’Italia starts on the second weekend of May, and without fail doping scandals past and present bubble up to form a murky background during the build-up to the Tour de France, centerpiece of the cycling year. This year is the same, with a new twist: the Giro looks harder and more mountainous than ever, and the drugs issues are more worrying.

The Giro organizer Angelo Zomegnan faces an unwelcome conundrum. He has devised a route that will test the riders to the limit, with seven mountain top finishes, short hilly stages that should provide spectacular racing and a return to the dirt roads of Tuscany. But Zomegnan will watch the progress of the favourite, Alberto Contador, with trepidation, and crossed fingers. The Spaniard won the race in 2008 and will be odds-on to repeat that this year, but the victory may not be decided on the roads of Italy in spite of Zomegnan’s best efforts with his course.

The Spaniard is the best stage racer in the world, with three victories in the Tour de France – even if one of those is pending confirmation – and one each in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. The mountainous route will suit his climbing talents and there is simply no other rider in the field with his record, although the Italian Vincenzo Nibali will start as the home favourite. But a Contador victory could be meaningless within a few weeks of the race finish in Milan on May 29, because the Spaniard may face a retrospective ban for doping during the 2010 Tour de France.

Traces of the banned stimulant clenbuterol were found in Contador’s urine after to 2010 Tour, and after much to-ing and fro-ing between cycling’s governing body, the UCI, and the Spanish cycling federation, the Spaniards ruled that Contador should not face a ban, on the grounds that the provenance of the substance could not be proven, meaning there was a chance it had been ingested through contaminated meat. He has protested his innocence, vehemently, and gained support from the highest level in Spain.

The UCI and World Anti Doping Agency both appealed against the verdict at the Court of Arbitration in Sport. They had no option, as the case could be a defining one. If Contador is confirmed as not guilty, that undermines the whole concept of strict liability in the WADA anti-doping code, under which an athlete is responsible for any substances found in his system “whether or not the athlete intentionally or unintentionally used a prohibited substance or was negligent or otherwise at fault”. The three-man panel is expected to rule some time in June, so that at the very least, Contador and the cycling world will see some kind of closure before the Tour de France stars. Contador is allowed to race pending their verdict, but if they find against him, he will forfeit his results. And that doubt will follow his every pedal stroke in Italy.

Contador’s case is not the only one pending. In the US, a Food and Drug Agency inquiry is looking into allegations that Lance Armstrong used drugs while racing for the US Postal Service team and winning his seven Tours de France. Grand jury hearings continue with no sign of any conclusion: the case recently extended its tentacles to Italy with the news that the Italian magistrate Benedetto Roberti – who had collaborated with the Federal inquiry – was looking into the affairs of Armstrong’s former trainer Michele Ferrari, who has been banned from working with athletes but was alleged to have various Italian cyclists on his books. Ferrari has denied any wrongdoing.

Of direct relevance to the Italian race, however, is the tendency of the home stars to fall from grace over doping. The latest is the 2008 world champion Alessandro Ballan, pulled by his BMC team from the Giro before it even started due to allegations that he used blood transfusions and human growth hormone. That inquiry centred on the Lampre team, with 13 members allegedly involved in doping in 2008-9. Earlier in the season, the “Cobra”, Riccardo Ricco, nearly died of what was alleged to be a contaminated blood transfusion just months after returning from a ban for use of a blood booster.

The bad news for the what remains one of the world’s leading cycling nations is that the constant run of doping inquiries and positive tests in the last 12 years have put off sponsors: Lampre is one of just two Italian teams to qualify among the leading 18 that make up the UCI’s World Tour. Most Italian teams are now smaller enterprises and most, worryingly, seem to accept high-profile riders who have served drugs bans. Nibali is the only recent Italian winner of a major Tour to have avoided controversy.

Ireland will be represented in Italy by Letterkenny man Philippe Deignan, whose career has had a few lows since his successful Tour of Spain in 2009, when he won a stage and finished ninth overall. Last year Deignan struggled with illness and was left on the sidelines when his sponsor, Cervelo, pulled out. He moved over the winter to Armstrong’s Radioshack team, with whom he has a one-year deal, and the Giro d’Italia has been in his plans since the start of the season.

“I’m happy with the way that the team has said to me – go to the Giro and try to get a result for the [overall] myself without too much pressure,” said Deignan earlier this year. “If I was going to the Tour of California or the Tour [de France] I would be riding for the other guys. This gives me an opportunity to go for the GC and stage results and I will be riding with that in mind. That is my objective.” There are only four totally flat stages in the next three weeks’ racing, so the 27-year-old climber should have plenty of opportunities to display his talent.

This article appeared in the Irish Mail on Sunday on May 8 2011