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By Andrew Hood
Ivan Basso is back in the winner’s circle for the first time since his comeback from a 16-month racing ban after claiming overall victory Saturday at the 33rd Giro del Trentino race in northern Italy.
The Liquigas captain out-dueled overnight leader Janez Brajkovic (Astana) in the fourth and final stage for his first victory since he was banned for links to the Operación Puerto blood doping ring.
“To win again, after such a long time, is a true pleasure,” Basso said. “This victory gives me confidence ahead of the Giro d’Italia. I was better here than I expected. I’ve trained hard the past three weeks, doing an enormous amount of work.”
Danilo Di Luca (LPR) won the final 214km stage into Pejo Fonti with a formidable attack on the rising finish for his second win on the 2009 season.
Giampaolo Caruso (Flaminia) finished second with the same to cap a strong week with Stefano Garzelli (Acque e Sapon) trailing through third and climbed into fourth overall.
Brajkovic held a slender, four-second lead on Basso going into Saturday’s finale and had strong support from Astana, but Basso unloaded on the final kilometers to drop the slender Slovenian climber.
Basso crossed the line fifth at four seconds behind Di Luca, but was able to gap Brajkovic, who came across 10th at 30 seconds, easily handing the 31-year-old Basso his first victory since winning the 2006 Giro d’Italia.
Basso says he’s a reborn rider following his humiliating admissions in April 2007 that he worked with Puerto ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, though he stopped short of a full confession, saying he only intended to dope.
“The hard moments have made me stronger,” Basso said. “Of course, I wished it had never happened. I know this story will stain me forever, but I started the comeback from zero. I worked hard to come back and my team supported me fully. First, my gratitude goes out to my family.”
Basso’s troubles began during his dominant, nine-minute victory in the 2006 Giro when media leaks linked him to the growing Puerto scandal in Spain.
Despite denying reports, evidence linked Basso to Fuentes and the vast blood-doping ring that allegedly included nearly 60 riders. Basso was among nine riders from four teams kicked out ahead of the start of the 2006 Tour de France.
Basso continued to deny allegations and with cycling authorities blocked from obtaining access to police evidence, Basso eventually returned to racing with Discovery Channel in 2007.
The heat turned up again that spring, however, when Italian authorities were able to match Basso’s DNA to blood pouches collected in the Puerto raids.
Under pressure, Basso finally admitted he was a Fuentes client, but never fully confessed to doping. Italian officials slapped Basso with a 16-month racing ban that ended Oct. 24, 2008.
The Italian promises he’s a conformed rider and returned to competition at his comeback race at the Japan Cup with Liquigas in last fall.
Basso has since enlisted the helped of respected Italian trainer Dr. Aldo Sassi and has been posting results of anti-doping controls on his personal web page.
The Trentino victory is a boon for Basso, who enters the centenary Giro as the top favorite for victory despite missing the past two editions of the race that he won in 2006.
“I will start the Giro with both feet on the ground. I think it will be a very demanding Giro, very well-fought and unpredictable,” Basso said. “I hope to do well, but my team will also have Franco Pellizotti. I know I will have to show that I can ride at my previous level. I will start with a lot of humility. The Giro will be my first three-week stage race in three years. I know that it will be very difficult, but my team and I are very motivated.”
The Giro starts in Venice on May 9.
Stage 4 – Sillan (A) to Pejo Fonti (I)
1. Danilo Di Luca (Ita) LPR Brakes-Farnese Vini, 214.2km in 4hr 58min 19sec
2. Giampaolo Caruso (Ita) Ceramica Flaminia-Bossini Docce, same time
3. Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo, s.t.
4. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) CSF Group-Navigare, s.t.
5. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas. At 0:04
Final standings1. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas, 13:17:50
2. Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Astana, at 0:22
3. Przemyslaw Niemec (Pol) Miche-Silver Cross, at 0:33
4. Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Acqua & Sapone-Caffè Mokambo, at 0:55
5. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) CSF Group-Navigare, at 1:08