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Giro History: The Doping Scandals!

For the month of May I'll mostly be gushing about how much I love the Giro, Italy, Italians, my ancestors, pasta puttanesca, and even limoncello (once I'm drunk enough). Today, though, we walk tabloid-style through a few of the darker days of the Giro, if only to help us appreciate the relative lack of distraction the race currently enjoys.

Probably the race organizers' lowest moment came in 1969 when Eddy Merckx was summarily ejected with two stages remaining and the Cannibal firmly ensconsed in pink for an alleged positive drug test. The re-test was delayed until after that day's stage rolled out, leaving Merckx out and gifting the overall win to Felice Gimondi. Worse, the sample was eventually mishandled, the whole incident became mired in conspiracy theories, and Merckx was eventually cleared of wrongdoing.

The scandal mostly made the Giro out as the bad guys. Back home, the Belgian legislature passed resolutions condemning everything related to Italy. [Not a good time for those Italian coal miners relocated to Liege.] The Prince of Belgium sent a plane to bring the victimized Merckx home. Ultimately, the people who suffered most were Merckx at first, and later anyone who had hopes of winning anything at the 1969 Tour de France, where an angry Cannibal returned to racing and demolished the competition, winning six stages and the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys.

On the flip: Modern Problems

Under eerily similar circumstances, Marco Pantani got bounced from the 1999 Giro with two stages remaining for a high hematocrit level that indicate use of EPO. There is a pretty good summary of the affair in Cycling News' wrapup, and a good article from the Guardian on Pantani's life and exploits.

Like Merckx, Pantani protested his innocence, but that's about where the similarities end. Pantani came into the race as a beloved national treasure following his 1998 season where he won the Giro and the Tour (which itself was a sort of rolling, three-week drug scandal), so the likelihood of any impropriety on the part of the race organization is about nil. Also, his subsequent doping problems and eventual death from cocaine overdose... while they don't prove he took EPO in 1999, they make it complicated to argue. Ivan Gotti won the 1999 Giro, presumably on merit, but as future investigations of Gotti showed, nothing is certain.

The 2001 Giro almost didn't go off. The lowest recent moment of any grand tour came in Stage 18, where after another night of raids on riders' hotels, the stage was dramatically cancelled and the possibility of finishing left completely in doubt. Ultimately the riders soldiered on, and few top figures were implicated (unless you count Dario Frigo, who briefly was in pink before the first of his endless drug problems surfaced). Gilberto Simoni, already in pink, won the next day in the high mountains to sorta restore the race's integrity. Sorta. Check out CN's post-mortem for all the sordid details.

The problems in 2001 set the stage for more shenanigans in 2002. To the delight of the organizers, the stage was set for a showdown between the winners of the prior two editions, Stefano Garzelli and Gilberto Simoni. Garzelli blitzed the field, including third-placed Simoni, in 2000, but melted away inconspicuously before the raids in 2001.

The rematch lasted six days, when Garzelli turned up non-negative for the masking agent probenicid, a finding that was confirmed two days later leading to his expulsion. Sounded great to Simoni... until he too turned up non-negative a day later for traces of cocaine. Simoni protested with his legs, winning dramatically the next day, but a day later he was gone, off to the gulag for questioning. Ultimately Simoni's trials were the illogical if predictable extreme reaction to the rampant drug use the year(s) before, and in the end he escaped serious punishment when police concluded the drug traces were from nothing more than an anesthetic he was given during some dental work a month earlier. Simoni has since been untainted by anything (save for massive collapses every July in France), and got revenge in 2003 with the overall Giro win.

All of this underscores how nice it is to see a new generation of riders come along, and put this kind of ugliness further behind Cycling... we hope.