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So What Do We Make of Ballan Now?

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Alessandro Ballan has been cleared of doping in related to the Mantova case. So how do we view him?

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Last week ex-World Champion Alessandro Ballan, formerly of Lampre and BMC, was cleared of any wrongdoing in association with the Mantova doping trial in Italy, a five-year saga that ground to a halt with only a pharmacist found guilty of anything. Ballan, who maintained his innocence all along, is now free to ride wherever, having completed a suspension for ozone therapy, which he claims was for treating the cytomegalovirus which torpedoed his Rainbow Jersey season, at least early on. In the end, from the standpoint of official justice, Ballan never doped, and his only error was undergoing a banned treatment, but for good reasons. [Ballan accepts that he broke the rules.]

If you believe in his innocence, you're looking at a guy who won two of cycling's most cherished prizes (Worlds, Vattenfalls... OK, the Tour of Flanders), then went on repeated hiatus, causing him to miss the Classics in 2010, and causing him to be fired by BMC in 2014. He served 18 months and stood trial for his career, incurring however much in legal fees, all because he admitted to using ozone therapy rather than keeping mum and waiting for the Mantova prosecution to fall apart. He never doped -- under this scenario -- but his name will forever be tarred with suspicion.

I hate all of this, personally. Ballan was one of my favorite riders to watch and I screamed loud enough to wake up my kids when he pipped Leif Hoste for the 2007 Flanders win, which he earned half a dozen times that day, not just in the last 20 meters. Ballan's aggressive style earned him a world title, and a nice collection of additional wins in his prime. [He's 36 now.] Can I believe in those wonderful displays of racing cunning and strength? Can I celebrate one of my favorite Ronde editions again?

As usual, with doping, we will never really know. The adage of "where there's smoke, there's fire" is usually complete crap, except with respect to fire and sports doping. It's safe to say that the problem of doping in cycling was and probably still is a good deal worse than we are led to believe, simply because we don't wind up hearing about every infraction. What happens in your arteries stays in your arteries, as long as the testers don't come along at an inconvenient moment. I'm pleased with the evidence that we have emerged from the darkest days, but my naivete ends there.

In Ballan's case, officially there is nothing to make hay over. But what of the evidence from Gazzetta dello Sport (via CN), which had alleged phone transcripts where Ballan admits taking EPO, and Guido Nigrelli, the pharmacist at the center of the investigation, asserts that Ballan would not have made it in cycling without doping?

According to Gazzetta dello Sport the police establish that "the athlete has undergone ten transfusions." On April 20, 2009, Ballan speaks to Nigrelli about taking EPO.

Nigrelli: "How many have you done?"

Ballan: "This is the fifth one."

He then adds a little later: "This is how I’ve done EPO..."

Gross. If Ballan uttered those words, end of story. But the trial turned up dead ends, including a moment where alleged testosterone turned out to be water, and while riders spoke in code words like "eggs" and "ham" and so forth, even this supposedly damning transcript apparently didn't hold up in the end. And if it didn't, then maybe, just maybe, it's an indication that he rode clean, as Ballan insists.

Did he cheat? Maybe. Am I sure? Definitely not. Could this suck more? I doubt it.