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Don't Call It a Comeback


As teams start rolling out their 2012 rosters, the closest thing to November news in the sport is confirmation of who is or isn't on some teams. And the biggest news of the week is that of two returns: Thomas Dekker to Garmin and Alejandro Valverde to Movistar. Dekker's selection was confirmed last night at the team's presentation, and follows over a year of internal consideration and some racing for the Garmin developmental team, Chipotle. Valverde's return would be even bigger news than Dekker's if it were at all news and he hadn't basically stayed with the team all along. Anyway, it's hard to think of a time when two bigger names returned from suspension. There will be much to scrutinize next year.

But will there be any results? Conventional wisdom is that the most important legal substance a guy can put in his body in preparation for top-level racing is an adequate supply of race miles. Valverde's sanctions will expire shortly, so his race miles coming into the season should be firmly set at zero. Dekker has been back on the bike with Chipotle since August, and he's been a busy beaver of late, coming seventh in the Chrono Champenois, a 30km time trial, and winning the Duo Normand with Johan Van Summeren, another 54km ride. Neither result, however nice, speaks to his potential at distances over 200km.

Let's take a quick look at some past examples of returning riders and how they fared upon redemption.

Now, riders are like snowflakes, all different, so take all this with a grain of salt. But here are some recent returnees worth considering (as opposed to recent returnees who were obviously still on the sauce):

  • Michele Scarponi: dropped in 2007 after confessing to some Operacion Puerto connection. Scarponi was a threatening rider just coming into his own when he got suspended, and had the good fortune of coming back in August of 2008, giving him some nice mileage and even leading to a 7th in Emilia, before embarking on a strong 2009 season where he ranked 57th in the world. He's since moved into elite levels. So it's fair to say he got lucky, got racing in time to put together a good comeback year, but also took that full year before really reaching his top level.
  • Ivan Basso: Basso, like Dekker, barely squeezed in some fall racing in 2007 before fully resuming his career in 2008. It's easy to say he wasn't great in 2009, in light of his very strong Giro victory in 2010, but he did finish fourth in the Centenary Giro (with DiLuca expunged), a pretty solid result even if the guys behind him were mostly Tour riders guarding their form. Still, it's safe to say that it took Basso a full year to return to where he had been.
  • Alexandr Vinokourov: Like Scarponi, Vino came back in August ('09) and got a pretty good base together for his strong 2010 spring run, including a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Frankly, the guy had a terrific year in 2010, with a pretty good Giro result (6th) in a tough race. Grand Tours are the ultimate test for most riders, especially those whose preparation might be thin. Vino passed that test.
  • Bjorn Leukemans: Missed all of 2008, but he really just picked up where he left off. In '07 he took fourth in Paris-Roubaix; in '09 he was 8th in de Ronde. That said, he had a far better spring in 2010, when he was anywhere from second (Dwars) to 7th (E3, Brabantse Pijl) in his favorite events. Classics riders are harder to evaluate, since one-day efforts aren't the same as stage races, and placings are influenced by so many small things besides form, but his quality went up after a year, no question.
  • Stefan Schumacher: Another guy who came back in summer (July in his case), just in time to have no chance to start the Tour. Funny, that. Not that a Tour team was going to give him a chance. Anyway, Schumi got in his obligatory miles for a few months, then got a full season together in 2011. By March he was top ten at the Coppi e Bartali and took a couple wins in Asturias in April. With Miche, he didn't ride much among the stars, but he was somewhat visible in the fall campaign, including 7th at the Coppa Sabatini.
  • Emanuele Sella: Nearly identical story to Schumi, except a year earlier. Which means we have an extra year of data on SELLAAAA! And what it says is that he had a Schumiesque run from his truncated half-return through his decent first full season back... and then took it to another level in the second season, winning the Coppi e Bartali.
  • Davide Rebellin: Scary story. The guy racked up 27 top-ten results in 34 official finishes, immediately upon his return in May. If you believe these results, then you have to like Valverde's chances. And you're awfully forgiving.
  • David Millar: Took a long time to find himself upon returning. He was good at Saunier Duval, albeit mostly against the watch. More dedicated readers of his story (FMK!) can fill in some blanks here if they choose. But Millar's story really is from another era, with a career built in the wild early 2000s and a comeback forged slowly in the cleaned-up era with a notably clean team. I think we know much more about him as a rider now, an all-rounder who will surprise the bigger stars on his best days.

Like I said above, this really is an unusual time for high-profile returns. The list doesn't include a lot of big names, like Landis or Rasmussen, who never truly returned, or recidivists like DiLuca or Ricco, or strange cases like Rui Costa or Petacchi who only got mini-suspensions. For that matter, with the exception of David Millar, I didn't even bother looking before 2005, when suspensions weren't especially long and returning riders weren't really expected to go clean (coughPantanicough).

The list defies generalization, but for one thing: guys are almost certain to be better off after a good six months than they will right out of the chute. If Dekker has a good classics run, it'll be because the classics don't require the same depth of form as a grand tour, and/or because he's squeezed in some quality miles in 2011.

Same with Valverde: he'll be even more stale than Dekker, but his doping offense dates back to 2006, and it's possible that during the protracted legal proceedings that followed, he actually won the Vuelta and put up some dominant spring performances without illegal assistance. In other words, without really knowing the full skeleton contents of his closet, there's a strong possibility that his natural baseline performance level is among the very highest in the sport, so his return to prominence might merely be a matter of shaking off the rust for a couple months.

But Dekker's case will always be far more intriguing to me. By all accounts he's a talented guy. How much of that talent was ever on display, however, is an open question. Did he dope in place of training? Could he have been as good had he not given in to temptation and had he started with a little less star treatment? At 27, he is on the early side of his prime, so even in his Silence-Lotto turn he was still just realizing his potential, or should have been. He could be a bust, indicating that his fire for the sport didn't burn hot enough, or that his "talent" was always manufactured in a lab. Or he could be a star -- if he is truly chastened by his punishment, and his talent is what we thought it was. Or his future could fall anywhere on that broad spectrum in between. Oddly enough, I bet Valverde comes around faster, even with the later start, simply because he is so established. Dekker... if he starts popping some good results by mid-summer, I will be impressed. And excited.