Where have you been Alessandro?

Alessandro Petacchi is finally back on the scene winning Tour stages at the ripe old age of 36. This week has seen his first Tour stage wins since 2003, and he has won them in dominant fashion. So the question begs, where have you been Alessandro? Well, his absences can be attributed to a combination of unfortunate injuries, illnesses and one day in 2007 when he got a bit over enthusiastic with his asthma inhaler. This is in fact the first Tour de France he’s even started since 2004.

Petacchi was a relative latecomer to the Grand Tour stage winners circle. By the time he was 26 he had ten top ten placings at the Giro d’Italia to his name. But he had yet to reach the top step of the winner’s podium at the Giro and he had yet to start the Tour de France. It wasn’t until the Vuelta a Espana in 2000 where the Italian finally hit the big time when he won Stage 8 into Salou. He went on to win another Vuelta stage that year and ended up 3rd in the points classification.

He entered his first Tour de France in 2001 but the step up from the quality of the field from the Vuelta to the Tour proved too much. Competing against the likes of Jan Svorada, Erik Zabel and Stuart O’Grady limited Petacchi’s impact on the sprints, his best result was a 5th place on the final stage along the Champs Élysées. Although he was consistent enough to take 4th in the points classification.

In the next couple of years Petacchi’s Grand Tour performances stepped up a level, helped in no small part by a sprint train which had been built around him, as had been done to such great effect for Mario Cipollini. Cipo’s career was winding down and as such a gap for the next Italian sprint king had opened up. Petacchi wasted no time. In 2002 he won a stage in the Vuelta and finished 2nd in the points race, his highest placing yet for a Grand Tour sprinters jersey (he also finished 4th in the Giro points classement).

Aged 29, 2003 was the year Petacchi truly announced himself as the sprint king of the peloton. He won six stages of the Giro d’Italia, four stages of the Tour de France and four stages of the Vuelta a Espana. In doing so, he became only the third rider in history to win stages in all three Grand Tours in the one year (after Miguel Poblet in 1956 and Pierino Baffi in 1958). But these stage wins in the Tour were to be his last for many years. In 2004, Petacchi won a remarkable nine stages of the Giro d’Italia winning the Maglia Ciclamino along the way. But at the Tour in July he was forced out with a shoulder injury on Stage 5, having not threatened in any of the bunch sprints. Coincidentally, this was also the day that Mario Cipollini abandoned the Tour de France for the final time.

What followed was a five year hiatus from the Tour de France for Petacchi. In 2005, the World Championships course in Madrid was a race which could possibly suit a sprinter. As such, the Italian team manager Franco Ballerini formualted a plan to win the Rainbow Jersey which would see the Italians unite behind Petacchi in the same way they did in 2002 for Cipollini. Accordingly, Petacchi announced early in the season that he would ride the Giro, rest in July and then ride the Vuelta in preparation for the Worlds.  His season seemed to go completely to plan, after winning Milan San Remo, he won four stages of the Giro and five stages in the Vuelta (along with the points jersey), including the final stage into Madrid just a week before the Worlds road race.

But despite his flawless preparation, the night before the race Petacchi was suffering from sinusitis and found it very difficult to breathe throughout the 273km route. Petacchi alerted his team mates to the fact that he was suffering toward the end of the race. This allowed Paolo Bettini the opportunity to ride for himself, but it was too little too late and the Rainbow Jersey was won by another sprinter Tom Boonen. This was to be the first entry in a catalogue of woe that was to define the years to come for Alessandro Petacchi.

The 2006 season started fantastically with seven early season victories followed by podium places at both Milan San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem. Having won 19 stages in the past three years at the Giro he entered the race once more with his sights on a heap of stage wins. But on Stage 4 to Hotton he was involved in a crash which saw him fracture his left knee cap. Petacchi described it as the worst injury of his career. With his leg in a cast from ankle to hip, he was facing 2 months out of action and he would therefore miss the Tour de France.

This injury would change Alessandro Petacchi as a sprinter. He confessed later that it affected him psychologically as he was no longer willing to take as many risks leading up to a bunch sprint. Sometimes he would avoid bunch sprints altogether if the weather made the roads in anyway dangerous. He first encountered this fear upon his return to racing in the 2006 Vuelta a Espana. Understandably, he was off form and his best result was a 4th place behind Thor Hushovd, Erik Zabel and Andre Griepel on Stage 6. But on the day of the 15th stage, disaster struck again. After the bunch sprint, Petacchi approached Danilo Napolitano at his team bus to vent his frustrations at what Petacchi thought was an obstructive maneuver by Napolitano. Petacchi became so angry that he punched the bus, thereby breaking his hand and rendering him unable to continue in the race. He didn’t race again that year.

If 2006 was bad, 2007 was worse, it was to be Petacchi’s annus horribilis. It started off brightly as he won five stages and the points jersey (for the 2nd time) in the Giro d’Italia. This led to a declaration that he was heading to the Tour in July with the single goal of winning the Green Jersey. However, merely days after this statement of intent the news broke that Petacchi had tested non-negative for an asthma drug called Salbutamol. He did have a therapeutic use exemption for this drug but he overshot the limit he was allowed according to the exemption. Petacchi claimed:

Maybe I did extra sprays that day. However, I did not do anything wrong.

Nevertheless, his Milram team suspended him pending the outcome of a hearing with the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI). This threw his Tour participation into serious doubt. On the 3rd July, four days before the Grand Départ in London, Petacchi’s case was heard by CONI. He underwent two hours of questioning but to no avail, after CONI demanded a 1 year ban for the now 33 year old.

However in late July 2007, Petacchi received a reprieve. Despite the judgement of CONI, the Italian Cycling Federation (FCI) cleared Petacchi to race.

It’s one of the most beautiful wins in my life. I don’t wish anybody to suffer like I did, it was the worst experience of my life.

But Petacchi wasn’t out of the woods yet. The following day, CONI announced they would appeal the decision of the FCI to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). But if there’s one thing that the case of Valverde has unequivocally proven, it’s that the CAS don’t do anything quickly. In the mean time, Petacchi was free to race, which he did. He made his return from the suspension enforced by his team at a criterium in Graz where he finished third behind Robbie McEwen and Bernhard Eisel. He went on to compete in the Vuelta a Espana in September where he won another two stages. He punctuated a forgetful year by winning Paris-Tours in October ahead of compatriot Francesco Chicchi.

While CONI were preparing their case to CAS, Petacchi continued to be allowed to race. But at the start of 2008 he was struck down with illness. He was suffering from tracheobronchitis with bronchial spasms and this put him out of his beloved Giro where he was replaced by team mate Erik Zabel. However, his non-participation in the Giro was just as well, as on May 6th CAS reached their decision that Petacchi was to be suspended for one year which result in him missing his 4th consecutive Tour de France.

Petacchi failed to show that the Salbutamol concentration … was the consequence of him inhaling Salbutamol in accordance with his ATUE. (The medication) was not taken with the intention of enhancing his performance. Considering that the athlete bears no significant fault or negligence, the CAS panel has fixed the period of his ineligibility to one year.

But since he had been suspended by his team for two months after the non-negative was announced in June 2007, the suspension would only be for 10 months and it would also be back dated to the 1st November 2007; so he would be suspended until 1st September 2008. It was a bizarre ruling which mean that Petacchi would effectively only miss four months of racing. His results dating back to 1st November 2007 were to be expunged along with his results from the 2007 Giro where the non-negative was detected. But his results between the Giro 2007 and October 2007 all stood. Ultimately, this meant he was stripped of three stages of the Giro, one stage of Tirreno Adriatico, one stage of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, three stages of the Ruta del Sol, two stages of the Tour of Turkey and the GP Costa degli Etruschi.

Ten days later, Petacchi was sacked by Team Milram. The team’s general manager Gerry van Gerwen said:

Every breach of our team policy is going to be penalized. An immediate suspension in case of a doping suspicion and an immediate dismissal in case of a confirmed doping case.

Team Milram’s policy regarding the breach of UCI rules by any team member is such that team Milram and Mr. Petacchi have decided to terminate the contract. The parties have discussed the consequences of the termination and came to a mutual settlement

Petacchi remained defiant afterward and stated his intentions to search for a new team willing to take him on.

My case is extremely weird. CAS concluded that I never tested positive. I have not cheated or undermined the rules. I just had problems breathing….This is the darkest period of my career. If a team pulls me out of this hole, I will remain grateful. I remain a winner.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before Petacchi was snapped up. Fabio Bordonali signed the 34 year old sprinter for his LPR Brakes squad. Petacchi returned from his suspension in September at the Tour of Britain where he won three stages. He then rounded off his scattered season by winning the Memorial Viviana Manservisi and the GP Beghelli.

By this time, a new super sprinter by the name of Mark Cavendish had announced himself on the world stage by winning four stages of the Tour de France. With a formidable sprint train á la Cipollini and Petacchi himself, the British sprinter seemed unbeatable. Petacchi had this to say about Cavendish in the lead up to Milan San Remo in 2009.

He is very strong, but also very young. I don’t know if he will improve enough on the climbs in time for Sanremo but he is a pure sprinter and on the climbs he tires easier than the others.

Petacchi was wrong. Cavendish proved to the whole peloton that he could manage the climbs of Milan San Remo and horsed down the finishing straight to pip Heinrich Haussler for the victory. But Petacchi would get his own back at the Giro. Making his Giro début for the LPR Brakes team, Petacchi wanted to pay back the team for picking him up when he was down the previous year. On Stage 2, Petacchi won his first (legitimate) Grand Tour stage for 18 months when he surprised Cavendish by coming off his wheel and launching his sprint before the Manxman’s final lead out man had peeled off. It worked and Ale-Jet was back. For good measure, he won the next stage too and finished the race in 4th spot in the points classification, ahead of all the sprinters in what was a very mountainous Giro.

Having voiced his displeasure at LPR Brakes constantly being overlooked when it came to invites to races Petacchi wanted to win, he signed for the Pro Tour level Lampre team over the winter. This week Petacchi returned to the Tour de France after missing the past five editions. Originally his season plans hadn’t included the Tour, but a bout of bronchitis which forced him out of the Giro during the first week made him reconsider.

Petacchi won a crash marred first stage which saw him romp home while many of the other sprinters limped across the line. However, on Stage 4 Petacchi put beyond any doubt that he was capable of beating everybody in this year’s Tour field. He gave Cavendish the jump, just as he had on Stage 2 of last year’s Giro, coming out from behind his wheel before Mark Renshaw had pulled off from in front of Cavendish. He powered home in impressive fashion and with Cavendish now out of the running for the Green Jersey, Hushovd has stated that his main rival this year will in fact be Petacchi. I’m not so sure, as the knee injury which Petacchi sustained in 2006 still plays on his mind. When the weather gets tough, Petacchi will probably not contest the sprints with the same fervor as hard man Hushovd. But one things for sure, Alessandro Petacchi is back in the Tour de France.

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