Ivan Basso’s racing ban ends on October 24 and he’s not wasting much time getting back in the saddle.
Just two days after his ban ends for his admitted role in the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal, Basso is expected to race at the Japan Cup on October 26.
His new Liquigas team will likely announce it later this week and schedule a press conference with Basso ahead of the Giro di Lombardia in mid-October.
Whether or not he’s received as villain or a saint remains to be seen, but Basso has been training feverishly to return to competition in the best possible condition.
His 2009 racing schedule has yet to be finalized, but Basso is expected to take aim at the Giro d’Italia, which he won in 2006 just days after his name was initially linked to the Puerto investigation.
Team officials hope Basso can return to the Tour in 2010.
Basso – who will turn 31 in November – has already ridden 30,000km in 2007 through October.
According to his manager, ex-pro Giovanni Lombardi, Basso has often re-enacted the intensity of real-life conditions during weeklong virtual stage races replete with climbs and time trials to simulate real race speeds and recovery.
And he vows his return to elite racing will be transparent.
Since this year, he’s been working with renowned Italian trainer Dr. Aldo Sassi – coach of Cadel Evans at the Mapei Training Center near Milan – and will reportedly post his blood levels and training data online in an effort to rebuild his shattered credibility.
Basso’s homepage (www.ivanbasso.it) is posting a countdown clock to his comeback, with a message that reads: “A new site – and he’s not alone.”
Basso’s return to the peloton is certain to be one of the most contentious and divisive in a sport already littered with reformed riders and others on the comeback trail from various infractions.
Basso was the biggest fish caught in the Puerto net after Spanish authorities unraveled the extensive blood doping ring that allegedly involved more than 50 cyclists.
Despite a lot of unanswered questions and ongoing legal process in Spain, the Puerto scandal has left many scorched.
Basso, along with Jörg Jaksche and Michele Scarponi, are the only riders to serve bans among the alleged 50-plus names in the Puerto dossier. Giampaolo Caruso, another Italian rider, is currently appealing a two-ban to the Court of Arbitration of Sport.
Others, such as Jan Ullrich and Joseba Beloki, have seen their careers end while others, like Francisco Mancebo, have been relegated to the fringes of the sport for alleged links to the scandal.
Basso’s fate was sealed when Italian reopened the Puerto case a week before the start of the 2007 Giro.
After months of insisting he wasn’t a cheater and signed a lucrative contract to race with Discovery Channel, Basso finally admitted he was indeed the infamous “Birillo” mentioned in code-names used in the Puerto papers.
He split hairs, however, when he faced the Italian disciplinary commission in May 2007.
Basso admitted only to giving blood to alleged Puerto ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes with only “the intention of doping” and that his 2006 Giro crown and other previous victories were achieved in an “honest manner.”
Italian authorities handed down a two-year ban, but reduced it to 16 months after considering the amount of time he didn’t race following his expulsion ahead of the 2006 Tour and his return with Discovery Channel in January 2007.
Hero or villain?
It will be curious to see just how much Basso will want to confront his past as he moves toward his comeback.
In Italy, he’s often hailed as a heroic confessor and a singled-out victim who admitted his errors and took his medicine.
The depth of sympathy for Basso is often revealed in flowery portraits in the Italian media.
Varese, host of the 2008 world championships, is Basso country and rowdy throngs of his fan club are spotted along the course despite that fact that their hero is still officially sidelined.
Others cringe at the thought of Basso’s easy return to the peloton.
Whether he likes it or not, Basso will be met with skepticism from some quarters.
Liquigas didn’t bat an eye at the chance of signing the still-popular star to a two-year deal worth an estimated 1 million euros that includes built-in incentives for big wins at the Giro.
For Basso, winning is the best way to revalidate his place in the peloton. It will be interesting to see what kind of welcome he receives.