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Tirreno-Adriatico: Turning a Page

Italy_mediumWhat do Michele Scarponi, Ivan Basso and Stefano Garzelli all have in common? Well, some shared experiences to say the least, most recently today's escape from the peloton which vaulted all but Basso onto the podium of Tirreno-Adriatico, in all likelihood. In addition, all three have gone through -- and emerged from -- the UCI's doping control enforcement program in some form or another. Garzelli did his time years ago, after testing positive (in the maglia rosa) during the 2002 Giro d'Italia for a masking agent, while Basso and Scarponi are two cases which hit closer to home: Operacion Puerto perps who served their time.

All three, more than other returning suspendees like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, threaten to force fans to decide how they feel about welcoming back ex-dopers. Basso returns to a high-salary, high-profile position at Liquigas and a probable favorite's role for the centenary Giro d'Italia. Scarponi is about to win the second-biggest stage race on Italian soil and is a threat to win in the Ardennes (albeit not the first name to come to mind). Garzelli was flying last fall when he was conspicuously omitted from the Italian World Championships squad... I suppose with Bettini retired it's possible we would see Garzelli get the shot at the glory agonizingly* denied to him last year when the worlds come to Mendrisio this year. [* Not my agony; his -- he's from Varese.]

Basso and Scarponi both come back fresh off suspensions, when you would hope the experience has convinced them to fly straight. Then again, they both copped to "attempted doping" and denied any actual infraction. For a lot of us, this is less than a real confession, and not as helpful to the sport's effort to cleaning up. They aren't heroes, not by a long shot. Hell, even Riccardo Ricco came out and said "I did it." But they accepted punishment. [Did Garzelli ever confess? I don't recall; certainly not at first. Am also having trouble remembering if he has been the subject of any more recent whispers.]

All three riders, it should be noted, are with teams listed among the 36 teams participating in the UCI Biological Passport program (scroll down to Venezuela for Serramenti). I guess this is the key: if you believe in the bio-passports, then you shouldn't be disturbed by the Italian trio's return. Meanwhile, OUCH and Rock Racing are not on the list -- probably for good reasons, but again if the bio-passport is your clearinghouse for ex-cons, well, Hamilton and Landis aren't being cleared, at least not in this manner. [Not that either troubles me: they aren't being invited to many top races, and aren't winning the ones where they take the start, so whatever.]

I find all of this very ambiguous and don't like making pronouncements as to who is currently clean or dirty; all I will say is that the Italians are on equal footing with a lot of riders about whom I harbor no suspicions, so I am willing to accept them back. Hopefully they will race in France at some point, a country one would probably avoid if they had something to hide. I also have to applaud the Italian system for at least processing some cases. Italy is the last place you will ever find exemplary forms of justice, but for now their riders who have been implicated aren't in some awful limbo. They were accused and examined; CONI got confessions out of them (of a sort); suspensions happened; and when they paid their debt to the peloton the riders were invited back. That the system also bagged a few of the biggest names (Basso, Ricco, and limited dealings with DiLuca and Petacchi) is a sign that it's not cynically selective, and seemingly unlike their Spanish counterpart, CONI is not in the business of protecting big investments. I am certain there are omissions, and you could argue that the returns of Basso and Scarponi represent punishment that's too soft. But the (desired) end point of crime and punishment is rehabilitation, and today was a big day for that.