By Andrew Hood
What a difference a year makes. Ivan Basso joined Team CSC for the 2004 season, and under Bjarne Riis’s watchful eye, the reserved, almost shy Italian took a major leap forward in his professional career.
Last year he was the only rider strong enough to stay with Lance Armstrong in the Pyrénées and earned a stage victory and third-place Tour de France podium for his efforts.
Basso has grown out of his shell with Riis, building the necessary skills to forge that “killer instinct” so necessary to win cycling’s grueling three-week grand tours.
Basso is now racing in the first week of the Giro d’Italia with overall victory as the stated goal – big words that he’s confident he can back up with a strong performance.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Basso earlier this season to get the inside story on this rising star. Here are excerpts from their interview:
VeloNews: When did you decide to race the Giro?
Ivan Basso: I started to think about it in October and November. I thought about a new challenge. Last year in the Tour, many people were saying to me, “Ivan, please race the Giro.” I contacted Bjarne in November and I explained to him that I wanted to make a slow start but have my form arrive in the Giro and do the Giro full-gas. I won’t race between the Giro and Tour and try to do a nice Tour. For me, I don’t know if it’s possible. In my head, it’s possible, and this is the most important. I have motivation for the Giro, and the Tour I have in the heart. I am ready to try something new.
VN: How did Riis react when you told him you wanted to race the Giro?
IB: He didn’t speak for 20 seconds. Then he said, “Let me think about it for a few days and call you back.” Then he called me back and said he was supporting the idea. Now he’s very excited about it.
VN: Most people say the Giro is too hard these days to race both the Giro and the Tour, but you obviously don’t believe that. Why do you think you can do it?
IB: Last year I did many races before the Tour de France – the Tour Med, the classics, Romandie, Dauphine, the Italian champs and the Tour. Then after the Tour, every race in September and October every race I went to I was strong. I raced more than 100 days last year and I was strong all season long. Many riders did the Giro and the Tour in the old times. If you’re a strong rider for the big tours, it’s not possible just to do one big tour. I think it’s nice to do the Giro and the Tour.
VN: How many Giros have you raced?
IB: Two! In 1999, I didn’t finish. In 2000, I made it to Milan.
VN: Why did you always race the Tour instead of the Giro?
IB: Because at Fassa Bortolo, they always had a captain for the Giro – Dario Frigo, Aitor Gonzalez — but no one wanted to go to the Tour, so I went instead.
VN: Many believe you’re poised to win the Tour, so why race the Giro now?
IB: It’s not easy to win the Tour next year. I did a very nice Tour, a very strong Tour, but not near the win. I still lost five, six minutes to Lance; that’s a lot of time. I think it’s better to talk about winning the Tour when you arrive near the winner, not six minutes away. That’s a big difference.
VN: So you believe you still have to improve a lot to win the Tour?
IB: I’m sure I can win the Tour some day, I think it’s possible to do the podium in the Giro and win the Tour, or win the Giro and get a podium in the Tour. I think everything is possible, but if I make the same program like I did last year, it’s not sure I would win the Tour. There we a lot of people talking about winning the Tour before the start this year, but the Tour was the same. I don’t think it’s good to talk a lot, it’s better to be strong on the bike.
VN: What’s the difference between the Giro and the Tour?
IB: The Tour and the Giro aren’t the same. If you go third in the Tour, then you can go to try to win the Giro. The objective is to go onto the podium, but when Armstrong isn’t there, the other guys are like more human.
VN: So you’re going to the Giro to win, but are you worried about Cunego?
IB: I’m not thinking about Cunego and Simoni, I only think about me and my team. My goal is to bring the best form in the start of the Giro, and after that I will look in the race to see who is strong. Cunego, Simoni, Garzelli, Spanish guys – when I am ready, I am the same Ivan in the Tour, I won’t have a problem to do the Giro.
VN: If you win the Giro, would it mean more to you than third place in the Tour?
IB: I don’t think about this. This is talk for the journalists. Many people think that finishing third in the Tour is more important, but for an Italian guy, winning the Giro is very important. Every person has their own idea.
VN: How has your life changed since last year? Are you a big star in Italy now?
IB: It’s nice. Every day, photographs, the television – not just the news but on the afternoon chat shows. It’s good for the sport, good for the Giro – all this is okay, how can it be bad? The race is another thing. Then, there is no talking, only legs. I think now about my work and my training.
VN: What are your expectations for this year’s Tour?
IB: It’s a new experience to race both the Giro and Tour, it’s not easy. You need a strong head. I don’t think so much now in Tour. I’ve looked at the course, but the Giro, I’ve thought about it every day. Once I finish the Giro, then I will think about the Tour.
VN: What is your impression of Armstrong?
IB: He’s the strongest rider in the group. He’s incredible and he’s the best professional. I see him at least one more year as strong. Every year is not the same, but Lance is amazing. I have much respect for him because he is a very big professional.
VN: How is your relationship with him?
IB: With me, he’s a big man, because he helped me in the Tour and after the Tour with my mother. His foundation helped my mother. I never had a problem with Lance. The problem is the riders that don’t respect Lance – he won six Tours – the other guys, shut up.
VN: How close were you to leaving CSC?
IB: When a rider has a big year, it’s normal that other teams will talk to me. I am very happy to be here in CSC. I am here at CSC because Bjarne is such a strong man for my personal evolution. I think very highly of him. He listens to me, he watches me, he takes me to his house for four or five days a week. The work for the Tour doesn’t start in June, it starts in December. We are always talking, always in close contact. For a rider like me, it’s important that you have someone in confidence. He feels like family. Bjarne for me is like a second father. When I have a problem, I talk with Bjarne. Because he’s very close to me.
VN: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from Riis?
IB: The most important thing is the confidence in yourself. That’s what Bjarne teaches us, then it’s no problem. You have to believe in yourself always. I focus on what I have to do, train, race, rest, it’s all okay. This is where has Bjarne has helped me a lot. He’s helped me so much with his philosophy. You believe in yourself always. You have to be a killer, but it’s not possible to change like this to that so fast. It’s not so easy.