Di Luca returns to top in Tirreno, but who benefits?

Danilo Di Luca showed he has returned from his doping suspension with a strong performance yesterday on one of Tirreno-Adriatico’s toughest stages. In front of a home crowd in Abruzzo, Italy, he battled with Vincenzo Nibali, Cadel Evans and Philippe Gilbert – he nearly caught Michele Scarponi to win the day.

Di Luca, though, was busted only two years ago using the sport’s most recognised banned drug, Erythropoietin (EPO). He took a super form, EPO-CERA at the 2009 Giro d’Italia, where he won two stages and finished second overall.

“Would I be so stupid as to take CERA at the Giro,” he said at the time, “one year after [Riccardo] Riccò, [Emanuele] Sella and [Davide] Rebellin were caught.” Yet, he did take it and received a two-year suspension, which was shortened by nine months when he cooperated with investigators.

As of the start of the season, he races for Russian team Katusha. It’s a first division team, with rights to race all of Di Luca’s favourite classics, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the very race where he was busted, the Giro d’Italia.

International Cycling Union (UCI) president, Pat McQuaid is uncomfortable with the quick turn around time for dopers. In December, he’s suggested a minimum four-year ban for EPO users. Nibali, who failed to follow Di Luca’s attacks yesterday and who will face him at the Giro, suggests a life ban.

“There should now no longer be suspensions, just take the rider’s racing licence and tear it in half,” Nibali told Cycle Sport magazine in December. “If they find EPO – which means you used it to go faster, to win – you don’t deserve to race anymore. Stop.”

Di Luca, 35, disagrees and plans to race for the next three to four years. He refuses to believe that his colleagues would rather see him sitting at home.

“But, they didn’t say this to me,” he said this morning in Chieti, 20 kilometres from his home.

“Everyone near me said, ‘Welcome back to the group.’ So, it’s one thing to say someone is saying that, but another to hear it directly [from your colleagues] in the group.”

His direct rival, however, has said there needs be lifetime bans for Di Luca and other EPO users.

“Someone will always say these things. In life, there is someone who always speaks correctly and incorrectly.”

Di Luca finished fifth, six seconds behind Scarponi yesterday after racing over six hours on a stage of 240 kilometres. It was impressive when one considers his last major race was on May 31, 2009.

“He was racing in his home, he was motivated,” said Scarponi, when asked if it was a surprise performance. “He is a great racer.”

“I paid what I had to and served my time,” Di Luca continued, “its right that I return as I was before.”

He’s unashamed to return after he hurt cycling’s image and clouded fans’ perceptions.

“Ashamed? No, absolutely not,” he said.

“Cycling has improved a lot in the last years and, in my opinion, we are on the right path.”

Di Luca’s path clearly differs from what McQuaid, Nibali and others view as the right path.

Related links

Tirreno-Adriatico 2011: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index

Di Luca to ride for Katusha for free

Di Luca ready to return, doping ban reduced

July 2009: Di Luca positive for EPO at Giro