Professor Giancarlo Isacchi freed Franco Pellizotti at an anti-doping hearing yesterday in Rome and opened a debate about UCI's biological passport reliability.
Isacchi, a haematological expert, appeared as an independent expert witness for the Italian anti-doping tribunal (TNA). In Pellizotti's case, he said that "there is not a significant probability" provided by the biological passport's evidence to signal a violation.
The UCI signalled a violation and on May 3, asked the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) to open a disciplinary hearing for 32-year-old Pellizotti of Team Liquigas. He had won the Tour de France's mountains classification and finished the Giro d'Italia third overall in 2009, and was an important catch for the UCI's biological passport.
CONI's prosecutor agreed with the UCI and on July 29, recommended a two-year suspension for Pellizotti. A branch of the CONI, the TNA issued its ruling based on the recommendation yesterday. Instead of suspending Pellizotti, as it had with the biological passport cases of Francesco De Bonis and Pietro Caucchioli, presiding judge Francesco Plotino acquitted him.
Plotino heard from three haematological experts: Isacchi, Giuseppe D'Onofrio (representing the UCI and prosecutor), Giuseppe Banfi (representing the defence). Isacchi said that one has to admit that there are anomalies in Pellizotti's profile, but it's not enough to prove that there is blood doping. In last year's Giro and Tour, his biological passport values reportedly increased or remained stable instead of decreasing over time as they normally should.
Team Liquigas doctor, Roberto Corsetti said that the variations can be explained by natural causes, such as altitude training.
"The variations in most cases, like this one, are debatable," Corsetti told Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper. "The math formula [of the biological passport] does not take into consideration other possibilities, for example, periods at altitude."
The UCI found three suspicious results out of 22 controls. Two of those were taken after he had been at an altitude training camp: April 15, 2009 in Tenerife and July 2, 2009 at the Tour de France in Monaco, after he had been in Livigno. The third control was taken on December 12, 2008, at his home.
The UCI's experts have had time to prepare their case against Pellizotti. The UCI discovered the anomalies on December 6, contacted Pellizotti on March 3 and issued a statement on May 3 - plenty of time to confirm its case would stand up to eventual appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
It has already appealed a similar acquittal for Slovenian cyclist Tadej Valjavec, who returned to racing last month. It is expected to appeal the TNA's decision soon.
Pellizotti has not raced since the GP Larciano on May 1 and will have to wait until next year to race again as the season is over. Which team will he race for? His contract with Liquigas ends this year. Liquigas, though, may want to wash their hands of Pellizotti and focus on its Grand Tour stars, Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali.
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