Ricco Thinking

In his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, author Douglas Hofstadter presents readers with an unsolvable puzzle. Naturally, Hofstadter doesn’t tell the reader that the puzzle is unsolvable. The reader is given four rules and a starting point plus a solution they are supposed to reach. The experience is confounding.

Imagine someone tells you to draw a car route from any location in the United States to the town of Palmer, Alaska. You are given a set of reasonable rules: that cars can be driven on roads, that roads lead from any location in the United States to the state of Alaska, that Palmer is a town in Alaska. Define a route to Palmer. You’d think you could do it, right? Just one problem: Palmer is landlocked; though it has roads, none lead into or out of the town. The only way to reach it is by air or ferry. A route cannot be drawn from anywhere in North American to Palmer. Such is the problem of Hofstadter’s puzzle.

Hofstadter’s treatise on the nature of intelligence won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and turned the field of computer science concerned with artificial intelligence on its head. The lesson of Hofstadter’s puzzle isn’t to defy the reader; rather it’s to teach the reader to think critically … in some applications, it could even be called suspiciously.

When I tried to solve the puzzle I struggled with it for an hour, then I tried to back from the conclusion to the beginning, attempting to reverse-engineer the problem and still couldn’t get from B to A. Only then did I begin to think that a solution wasn’t possible. Such an epiphany is Hofstadter’s introduction to the nature of recursive thought, an ability peculiar to human beings in which, put simply, we think about thinking.

I cite Hoftstadter’s book because reading it was a landmark in my education and taught me the value of thinking critically about information. I began to evaluate statements based not just on the value of the information they contained, but also on the likelihood that the statement was true or false.

I offer that as a backdrop to the revelation by Riccardo Ricco that his illness came as the likely result of a self-administered transfusion.

When Ricco returned to the pro peloton, I was apprehensive. I’m not going to quote him chapter and verse, but the body of his statements previously struck me as those of a person unrepentant in action. I wasn’t the only person to struggle with that issue; Mark Cavendish spoke forcefully of Ricco’s unrepentant nature. Let’s remember, Ricco claimed to Cyclingnews, “When I was found positive, I confessed everything. I was honest.”


Initially, he told RAI, “They searched my bags but only found some vitamins that we all use and so they decided to let me go home.”

Just a few weeks ago Ricco said “And yes, winning the Giro without doping is possible. To do that, you have to work and do your job properly.”

Okay, so we know he didn’t (do his job properly), but the stunner is that as he said that he was sitting on a bag of his own blood, so-to-speak.

This fall, coach Aldo Sassi took Ricco under his wing. Sassi is the man who famously paraphrased the bible passage on Nineveh in which he promised that we could have faith that seven cyclists were clean—his clients. Just two weeks later he added an eighth client: Riccardo Ricco.

If we take Ricco at his word—which ought to be a tenuous proposition at best, but deathbed confessions often seem to lack a certain editor—then the autologous blood transfusion he performed used blood that was just 25 days old. Perhaps this was his first autologous transfusion since re-entering the sport. Surely Sassi’s death was a blow. Perhaps he only returned to doping after Sassi died.


However, Ricco has been winning ever since his return, and this is where my experience with Gödel, Escher, Bach comes to bear: Given how he won prior to his suspension, is it reasonable for us to believe that since his return from his suspension that the only time he doped was in 2011? If we know one detail of cyclists who dope, the pattern of behavior is that those who do it, do it repeatedly. There aren’t many guys who have cleaned up as convincingly as David Millar.

There’s no way to know how tainted Ricco’s results at the Tour of Austria are; there is no just mechanism or reason to strip him of his wins, but his recent off-the-rails transfusion dulls them, but that isn’t the biggest problem with Ricco’s kidney failure.

For those of us who ponder implications, a natural question emerges: If Ricco has been doping all along (and that isn’t implausible), could Sassi have known about it?

Everything we know of Sassi’s career tells us that he coached athletes to succeed without the aid of doping. He was outspoken and principled about his dealings with athletes. Surely, he doesn’t deserve to have his reputation tarnished by Ricco, especially considering that he is unable to rise from the grave to defend himself.

And that’s the problem with Ricco; his doping leaves victims in his wake. The Saunier Duval team imploded following the expulsions of Ricco and teammate Leonardo Piepoli from the 2008 Tour de France, leaving riders and staff unemployed.

What will happen to Vacansoleil? Surely the sponsor won’t be happy about a doping controversy, even if the rider in question did help the team secure entry into the ProTeam division. One wonders just how Ricco thinks or if he considers how his actions could affect others. His seeming inability to consider the harm his actions might bring others fits the definition of sociopath.

Ricco needs to be banned from the sport for life, not because he’s likely to dope again and steal wins from deserving riders, but because another positive test has the ability to wreck careers beyond his own. We may not be able to protect him from his own stupidity, but the UCI has a duty to protect others from it.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Mike

    The solution is to ban dopers in any sport for life. Have an appeals process, but if you get caught, that’s it, career ends, no returning a few years later.

  2. Champs

    I see it unwise to send anyone to the Tyburn Gallows for a first offense. Just maybe you did convict an innocent man. But Riccò has blown his second chance, and earned the (career) death penalty.

  3. Robot

    Riccó’s stupidity makes me sad for Sassi. He had become, in the run up to his death, a real guiding light in the anti-doping effort. I believed in him, and by extension, in his clients, Basso, Evans, etc.

    But Sassi is dead. We can debate his legacy, but the man, fortunately, will suffer no more.

    To my mind, the real victims here are Evans and Basso and the others, for now their exploits come under the microscope in a way their actions might not have warranted had Riccó not pissed in the pool.

  4. MattyVT

    Likening Ricco to an unsolvable puzzle is a great angle. He’s not a Rubik’s cube that has a nearly impossible solution, but is instead a fully unsolvable riddle.

    With regards to Sassi I would like to think that he didn’t have enough time with Ricco to build the baseline he used to ensure that his riders were clean. If Sassi had worked with Ricco for a year or so it would be interesting to see if he would have detected performance irregularities and called Ricco out on it. More that anything I feel bad for Sassi’s family, and I’d like to think that his system would have proven itself effective once it had enough data. Sadly we’ll never know.

    I would add Christophe Moreau to the list of reformed dopers who seem to have returned to race clean.

  5. Souleur

    Ricco is bearing the unfortunate fruit of his labor as we speak. He wasn’t a good liar and now he isn’t even a good doper. I agree that he is unrepentant, but at least now he bears a part of that and not entirely leaving others in the wake to accept this. I think its a truly sad case. more to come I am sure.

    Critical thinking is necessary today in cycling and you make the point well Padraig. I have never actually considered it formally, but I do use it in my profession; analysis, interpretation, evaluation and a conclusion & this is simply part of cycling and our culture (frankly) now. Unfortunate to us is that there are not any virtues that are attached to this process of thinking, such as trust, truth, honesty, & altruism. Yet, we do and the media we read does as well no matter how objective they try to be in being ‘objective and factual’. I find myself at times attaching some of these virtues to those I admire and that leads me to faulty conclusions at times. Personally, I accept being wrong on more occasions because of this, because of hope, and I at times reject the notion to always point the finger of conviction. Its something in terms of critical thinking that you have to consider how often are you willing to be wrong or right when the opposing conclusion/outcome is a possibility as well. In research analysis its referred to as the sensitivity and specificity, how often are your truly ‘rights’ right, and your truly wrongs ‘wrong’, and then which one do you accept more of, or less of. There inlies an amount of risk in each consideration.

    Nonetheless, in return to cycling after dope, Millar looked human. That was helpful to me to accept he was clean. He was open to frequent testing, formed a relationship on a team that diligently tested him and followed him and he has been an exception. Basso truthfully has been very human appearing also, but less open, at times contrite, at times hedging. Perhaps that is normal, I am not sure, but for Millar I agree he has reformed.

    it comes down to decisions, decisions. Information, good information and at times jaundiced information. Sifting it out, removing our passions, and being honest in evaluation/conclusion because the outcomes are so influential.

  6. Alex

    Sassi seemed to me like a good man. So good in fact he´d believe Ricco, who for his part never looked like a good person or character (again to me). I guess you can´t fight the nature of some people, it´s like that parabole of the scorpion stinging the frog while crossing the river on his back. He´d drawn before he could change. Ricco is indeed living up to his nickname and that´s such a shame.

  7. BikeRog

    Ricco is anything but an unsolvable puzzle. He’s stupid, not a very good liar, not adept at constructing behavioral patters that lend credence to his falsehoods and fails as a con man just as he’s failed as a person and cyclist. In fact, once out of his hospital bed he’ll probably be sent to the head of a long line of imbeciles waiting to collect their Darwin Awards.

  8. Stanley

    Thought I’d never say this, but for once I agree with Cavendish; hope Ricco recover and then becomes someone’s bitch when he goes to jail.

  9. randomactsofcycling

    Rich thinking indeed. I wonder if a humble and seemingly respectful sportsperson were found guilty of doping, would our thinking about the punishment be clouded by our thoughts on his character? Oh, but didn’t that happen with Basso? Ivan seems to have been accepted back into the peloton even though his family are just as shady as Ricco’s and even though he admitted virtually nothing.
    It is too difficult to remain objective. That’s why judges get paid so handsomely (in some cases).

  10. jza

    Ricco is good for cycling. If corruption and doping are to be minimized, guys like him, or Thomas Frei are what it needs. They lay it all out in public, intentionally or not. Hold up the mirror. Big time cycling, this is it.

    The reaction by guys like Cancellara, Cavendish, even Vandevelde, is at best goofy, at worst totally shameless and hypocritical. They’re playing the game and winning, but don’t ya think this makes them pause for a second. Either microdosing EPO or trasfusing blood. Just a few degrees this way or that? So would you tell the doctor who could save your life what happened?

    What Ricco did puts them at risk. A fuckup risks exposing the game, and Ricco is just the kind of fuckup that could blow things up in a big way.

    And enough with the Sassi sob stories, he must have been a great guy and good coach, RIP, most respect to the man. He’s been at the epicenter of drug use and blood doping from the very beginning. Moser, Mapei, I mean really. Basso and Evans didn’t 1-2 the Mortirolo on inspiration and happy thoughts.

  11. Nom

    Stanley (and Cavendish I suppose), are you really advocating rape as a fitting punishment for cheating? As unpleasant a person as he seems to be, cruel and unusual punishments of that nature are hardly called for in a humane society. Also, we are presuming guilt on hearsay. Should we not wait for some proof?

  12. Peter Lütken

    Good read. It baffles me how some riders are willing to risk not only their own future, but the jobs of all their teammates, soigneurs, mechanics, DS’s and so on because of their desire to get a polite peck on the cheek from a podium girl and a little money.
    One comment on the intro to the piece: The landlocked Alaskan community is called Cordova, not Palmer

    1. Author

      Peter: Likewise, we don’t get why they do it. As to landlocked Alaskan communities, Cordova and Palmer both are, and they aren’t the only ones.

  13. Brett

    It’s just depressing that all of this takes away from good people and great athletes.

    And it’s unsettling that a person does this to oneself. Aside from essentially (from what I’ve read) transfusing spoiled blood and how disgusting that idea is; what does Ricco feel when he looks in the mirror at the end of the day? Does he smirk, or sigh?

    As for Cav. pretty tacky.

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