Posted by: mdegeorge | May 30, 2010

The Giro di Doper ushers in a new age of cycling

Forgiveness can be hard to come by in sports—just ask Terrell Owens about his visits to Philadelphia or Clay Bennett’s reception to the Pacific Northwest. Vindication can be even rarer.

But this year’s first Grand Tour has been the stage for a revival, a second chance at cycling life for several convicted dopers who ascended once again to the summits of cycling many thought they would never see again.

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The final standings of the Giro d’Italia count three convicted dopers among the final top 10, including Maglia Rossa winner Ivan Basso. Michele Scarponi and Alexandre Vinokourov finished fourth and sixth, respectively, while another convicted doper, Stefano Garzelli, captured the win in Stage 16.

It’s only fitting that Basso, one of the biggest names implicated in doping, would be among the first from the generation of disgraced cyclists to return to his former glory. His two podium finishes in the Tour de France and 2006 overall classification win at the Giro made him one of the world’s premier cyclists before his 30th birthday. But like many of his peers, he was implicated in the Operacion Puerto doping scandal, banned from the 2006 Tour, and admitted to attempting to dope with convicted Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, earning him a two-year ban.Basso returned late in 2008 and had what now looks like a transitional season in 2009, finishing fourth in the Giro and the Vuelta a Espana without really mounting a realistic charge at the overall lead in either.

Scarponi, primarily a classics specialist prior to his ban for Operacion Puerto, served his two-year ban and returned with tremendous success in stage races. He claimed two stage victories in the 2009 Giro and the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico. This year, he was the first to cross the line in Stage 19 and managed to hold onto a high GC position for his continental Androni Giocattoli-Serramenti team.

Vinokourov, a constant threat in classics and stage races alike since the late 1990s, looked ready to turn a corner in 2006 and become the consistent performer everyone long expected him to be. He finished fifth in the 2005 Tour and won the 2006 Vuelta. Vino fell out of contention in the 2007 Tour but still managed two stage wins, after one of which he tested positive for a high red-blood cell count indicative of a homologous transfusion, and was slapped with a two-year suspension. He won several smaller races last year, before recapturing the Liege-Bastogne-Liege title this season.

Garzelli shocked many when he won the Maglia Rossa in 2000 after starting the race as one of Marco Pantani’s domestiques. Just two years later, he was expelled from the Giro for testing positive for a masking agent, leading to a nine-month ban. He has since won seven Giro stages, including Stage 16 this year, finished second in 2003 and seventh last year while also earning the King of the Mountains jersey.

The grim reality facing cycling for most of the last decade was a peloton of performance-enhancers that consigned every result to the fear and suspicion of a laboratory’s result. Now, the sport must swallow the fact that races will be won at an increasingly frequent rate by men who have been convicted of drug use and done their penance.

For me, it’s a small price to pay to ensure that the pros are riding clean—and this coming from a guy who still has an intense dislike for Adam Graves for slashing Mario Lemieux in 1992 despite Graves being one of the most generous and magnanimous figures in hockey.

There has to be a willingness in the sport to let certain elements of the past go. Unlike other sports (pay attention now, Bud Selig), cycling benefits in that it knows of the vast majority of doping offenses that long marred its name thanks to a rigorous doping policy. Many cyclists broke the rules and violated the trust of the fans, sponsors, and everyone else involved, but they have paid the price to the fullest extent of the law.

The time has come for them to earn the chance at redemption. The line forms behind Basso.

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