Di Luca leads Denis Menchov on stage 16 of the 2009 Giro d'Italia, although the Russian would later best the Italian by 41 seconds for the overall.
(Photo: Yuzuru Sunada)
The Killer, Italian cyclist Danilo Di Luca is back, but he is killing cycling. The doper who nearly won the 2009 Giro d'Italia, signed Monday with first division team Katusha.
Katusha team manager and former classics specialist, Andrei Tchmil hired Di Luca. He plans to take him to the stage race where he was caught for doping two years ago, the Giro d'Italia, and then the Vuelta a España stage race.
"I can't deny that Di Luca did something wrong," Tchmil told Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper. "But in life, hard as it is, you need to know how to help others."
Tchmil offered Di Luca a contract where he will only be paid for wins. Di Luca, being a slightly desperate, agreed. The International Cycling Union (UCI) has already commented that such a contract is not possible and that riders in the first division must receive an annual minimum wage of €33,000 ($42,500). Tchmil will need to talk to the UCI.
But let's remember who Tchmil is dealing with. Who is The Killer?
Di Luca is from Italy's south, a town in the eastern region of Abruzzo called Spoltore. He won the amateur Giro d'Italia in 1998 and became professional the year later. Almost immediately, he struck and gained his new nickname, The Killer. He won a stage at the 2000 Giro d'Italia, an uphill finish to the town of Peschici.
He kept improving. He won classics – the Giro di Lombardia in 2001, Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne in 2005 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2007. And eventually, he started challenging for Grand Tour wins. His first and only came at the 2007 Giro d'Italia.
Doping stories were brewing, though. As part of the 2004 Oil for Drugs investigation, police documents showed Di Luca used blood booster EPO. Three years later, in 2007, Di Luca received a three-month suspension.
Also in 2007, suspicious anti-doping tests from Di Luca's Giro win were investigated. Di Luca's urine had the hormone levels of a small child. The prosecutor argued the abnormal reading was due to an illegal intravenous drip. Di Luca defended himself, escaped punishment and kept his Giro win because CONI ruled there was "not a sufficient degree of probability" in the test results.
He nearly won the Giro d'Italia again in 2009. He finished second behind Russian Denis Menchov by just 41 seconds, but did win two stages during the three-week race. However, after the race test results showed that he used blood booster EPO.
Di Luca got off lucky again. The Italian anti-doping tribunal (TNA) issued him two-year ban instead of the recommended three-year ban. Then, in October, the TNA reduced his ban by nine months and seven days, a reduction thanks to Di Luca's collaboration in other investigations.
"I was wrong," he said last month. "Why did I do it? Good question. When you're inside a system, you end up, for good or evil, being a part of that system and make mistakes."
Which mistake was Di Luca referring to? And just when did he ever win cleanly? Were any of those one-day classics won without the help of doping?
When he was busted in 2009 it was just one year after the high-profile EPO case of Riccardo Riccò at the Tour de France. Di Luca knew about Riccò and the Operación Puerto investigation in 2006, he knew he was cheating and cycling was trying to clean itself.
Some cyclists contribute to a better cycling and deserve to come back, but Di Luca's record show that he is not one of them. Winner of last year's Vuelta a España, Vincenzo Nibali thinks cycling needs to be stricter. He suggests there should no longer be suspensions for EPO users, but that we just tear the rider's racing licence in half.
Fabio Bordonali would probably agree with Nibali. He was the team manager at LPR Brakes in 2009 when Di Luca was caught. Bordonali's team folded by season's end and many of his employees were left jobless. Or Andy Schleck, who finished second behind Di Luca at the Giro d'Italia in 2007. Or the other cyclists who were cheated by Di Luca's doped performances.
Di Luca and dopers like him are killing cycling. Instead of racing free, Di Luca should not race at all.