“I need a photo opportunity,
I want a shot at redemption,
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard.”
- Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al
So the Vuelta a Espana has arrived, and after a protracted and toothless debate about whether the team would take him back, Alexandre Vinokourov has arrived at the start with Astana colors on his back. Who’d have guessed? Outside of denying the doping charges that landed him a two-year suspension, it’s probably the most predictable move the famously impulsive rider has ever made. And so, in riding his first grand tour since getting tossed from the 2007 Tour de France, Vino jumps headfirst into the ever-expanding ranks of the post-dope comebacks. The goal of such comebacks certainly seems understandable enough – you make a grand re-entry, clear your name, prove you really were that good, dope or no dope. To some observers, the comeback can even seem admirable, with disgraced riders summoning the courage to show their faces again in hopes of making amends. Others just think that the return of dopers is in poor taste. But whether or not they’re understandable, admirable, distasteful or anything else, the fact of the matter is that comebacks are very rarely successful.
Naming one top-flight grand tour rider who has come back from a dope suspension and recaptured his former glory is dead easy. Naming two is considerably more difficult.* Eddy Merckx, of course, managed to go on to a fairly handy career after his little incident at the 1969 Giro d’ Italia. But in accomplishing that feat so thoroughly, Merckx was an anomaly, a category of one (as is the case with many of his achievements in cycling). In the 40 years since Eddy left the Giro in tears, precious few riders have managed to shake off some time on the bench with the same success.
Michel Pollentier, for instance, won the 1977 Giro d’ Italia before getting nailed with a condom full of clean urine nestled snugly his armpit during a 1978 dope test. On the day he was caught, he’d just won on Alpe d’Huez and assumed the Tour de France’s yellow jersey, a shirt he’d never wear again. Though he won the 1980 Ronde van Vlaanderen and came second at the 1982 Vuelta, after the Alpe, the palmares of the one-time Tour contender mostly read like a schedule for the Flemish kermesse circuit.
But that was all in the amphetamine era, a substantially different game from the last 20 years or so of professional cycling. Once dope got really effective and suspensions got longer, the chances of making it back to the top of the grand tour heap after a positive became even more dismal. Thirty years after Merckx, Marco Pantani was also booted from the Giro d’ Italia, but unlike the hearty Belgian, the unstable Italian would never recover from the scandal, personally or professionally. To be fair, Pantani never officially tested positive – he was given a two-week sit-down for “health reasons” due to a high hematocrit level in the days before EPO testing – but the writing was on the wall.
Tyler Hamilton, a perennial dark horse before his 2004 blood doping positive, made a brief return to Europe with the mildly sketchy Tinkoff team before returning to the United States to ride for the mildly sketchy Rock Racing team. After a surprising win at the U.S. professional championships last year, Hamilton tested positive again in 2009 and retired from the sport citing troubles with depression. Others cited the 8-year suspension he was given.
Unlike Pantani and Hamilton, Floyd Landis, who barely stepped off the podium of the 2006 Tour de France before being stripped of his yellow jersey, is still alive and pedaling a bicycle for money. You just wouldn’t know it from the results. To put it kindly, Landis’ return to the sport has been a low-profile one, and it will be surprising if he is at the start of next year’s Tour of California, much less a grand tour.
While other comebacks have fizzled out on the road, Michael Rasmussen’s return has barely even made it far enough to do that. Yanked from the 2007 Tour de France while in yellow for lying on his UCI whereabouts forms, the Danish climber hasn’t been able to find a team that will hire him. Instead, he’s been riding a few open races in Denmark, wearing the colors of the bike shop he owns in Italy. He’s doing well in the races he does, but it’s hard to rake in the UCI points riding open races for a shop team, even if it’s Mellow Johnny’s.
Through all their outsized denials, the righteous indignation, and the stumbling, unsuccessful, and abortive attempts to return to past glory, all these riders have, to varying degrees, ended up as Paul Simon's proverbial cartoons in a cartoon graveyard. All bluster, ego, and grand plans, only to be put in the ground by the falling anvil of reality.
Set against that backdrop, Vinokourov’s chances of returning to the front of a grand tour seem slim, and his cocksure return to the sport wearing a Vino-4-Ever jersey seems like the perfect setup for an embarrassing flop. But he seems to grasp that history is against him. He’s hedged his bets, saying that he’s not at the Vuelta for the win, but maybe to try for a stage and prepare for the World Championships. But somewhere in the back of his mind, the 35-year-old must be wondering if he still has the stuff to go three weeks with real ambitions. If history is our guide, he doesn’t.
Vinokourov isn’t the only rider in this Vuelta seeking to avoid the headstone being laid over his career, though. For company, he has Ivan Basso (Liquigas) who, despite having already ridden this year’s Giro d’ Italia, is making his first grand tour appearance with any intention of riding for the GC. Frankly, Basso’s chances of making a successful comeback seem better than both his predecessors and contemporaries. Better than Pantani, better than Hamilton, Landis, and Rasumussen, and now, better than Vinokourov. Not because he’s younger or has more talent or anything else, but because he admitted to doing something wrong. No, he certainly didn’t fess up willingly, and his half-assed “intent to dope” confession-ette was laughable. But of all the recent returns from the wilderness, he’s the only one who has ever unburdened himself of any of the weight of his infractions. The rest of them chose to keep shouldering that weight. In grand tours, they always talk about everything counting – every bit of body weight, every extra minute of rest, every watt of energy saved or used. A marginally lighter conscious has to be worth something, no?
*So who has made the most respectable comeback after a suspension in the modern era? I’d go with Christophe Moreau (Festina, 1998). I suppose you could argue for Richard Virenque as well, but that whole thing was just embarrassing for everyone.