Ivan Basso (Liquigas) has been waiting a long time for this sweet moment of redemption.
Ever since he was slapped with a two-year ban for admitting his role in the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal (with his Clinton-esque, only-intended-to-dope confession), Basso has vowed to return to the winner’s podium to prove that he could be just as good as before –this time without an asterisk next to his performances.
Basso took a giant step Friday toward the promised land when he attacked with savage ferocity up and over the fearsome Mortirolo in Friday’s four-climb, 195km 19th stage.
But was the otherwise innocuous 10km gradual climb to the finish line to Aprica that allowed the Liquigas captain to capture the pink jersey for the first time since winning the 2006 Giro.
“It’s a happy day for me today and that was a bad time for me before. The most beautiful thing is that I have come again,” a happy Basso said. “What matters for me is what I’ve done since I’ve come back. But that’s not as important, what’s important is tomorrow on the Gavia.”
Basso — working with stellar Liquigas teammate Vincenzo Nibali and stage-winner Michele Scarponi (Androni) — gapped overnight leader David Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne) and arch-rival Cadel Evans (BMC) to position himself to claim his second Giro crown.
Basso looked like the same dominant rider in 2006, when he won four stages and the overall by more than nine minutes ahead of José Enrique Gutiérrez, aka the Buffalo, another rider alleged to be one of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes’ numerous Puerto clients.
In fact, it was his victory up Aprica ahead of Gilberto Simoni (who later called him an “extraterrestrial”) that locked up the maglia rosa for Basso in 2006, just as the Puerto storm was gaining strength and eventually bring him down.
This time Basso says there won’t be any reason to doubt him.
Since he’s returned to cycling in 2008, he’s been working with well-reputed trainer Dr. Aldo Sassi. He’s consistently posted his blood profiles and training programs online and even UCI president Pat McQuaid said this week that there is no reason to doubt Basso’s performances.
Basso promises Italian fans and journalists that they can trust him. Just as the Giro and cycling in general continues to be hounded by the doping’s ghosts of the past, everyone is hoping that new Basso has truly turned the page.
Liquigas dominates Mortirolo
Basso and his Liquigas teammates were nervous before Friday’s epic battle over the Mortirolo. Pesky Spanish climber Arroyo was hanging tough at 2:27 ahead of Basso and didn’t show signs of cracking.
“Everyone was on edge this morning because they knew they had to really put Arroyo under pressure today or it might be too late,” said ex-pro Giovanni Lombardi, who is now Basso’s agent and advisor. “Ivan is the strongest rider in the Giro, but the stage to L’Aquila changed everything.”
Arroyo was the last man standing in GC our of the huge, 54-rider breakaway that snuck clear in the Giro’s second week and gained more than 12 minutes on the main pack. Liquigas was the biggest loser that day and many were criticizing the team for letting the Giro ride away.
Liquigas was forced to play it patient against Arroyo. They proved Friday yet again they are the strongest team in the race, putting five men on the front of the pack over the Cat. 1 Trivigno climb that traced up the same knife ridge of the Mortirolo.
An early, seven-man breakaway was on its dying breath when Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) went on a solo flier (that later ended badly when he crashed on the Mortirolo descent). Those were just preambles to the Liquigas train.
Liquigas put Valerio Agnoli, Robert Kiserlovski and finally super-domestique Sylvester Szmd on the front. By the time Basso turned the screws on the Mortirolo, there were only 25 riders in the front GC group with even a prayer.
“We knew it was going to be difficult, because we saw Arroyo going well the past few days and he has a strong team. But everyone on the team knew their role and we divided up the responsibilities,” Basso said. “We believed in our chances today. There was tension in the morning, just like there was at Zoncolan.”
Basso poured it on up the Mortirolo, the brutally steep climb that helped forge the Marco Pantani legend.
Only Scarponi and Nibali could follow. Arroyo faltered and went at his own pace to limit his losses, topping the summit 2:02 behind the Basso trio. Between them were Alexander Vinkourov (Astana) at 55sec; Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) and John Gadret (Ag2r) at 1:32; and Cadel Evans (BMC) at 1:44.
Arroyo’s pink jersey dreams unravels
Arroyo made an absolutely spectacular descent off the narrow switchbacks on the Mortirolo to revive his hopes. Nibali was forced to slow for the recovering Basso, and Arroyo actually passed Evans, Sastre and Gadret to join up with Vinokourov.
With 20km to go, the gap dropped to 38sec and it was looking likely that Arroyo could save the day and end the stage still in pink.
The five riders regrouped just near the base of the Aprica climb, with a gap of 41 seconds to the Basso trio. Though there were collective interests, Arroyo soon found unwilling warriors for the battle.
Vinokourov was suffering (he was later docked 20sec for an illegal feed with 8km to go) an didn’t pull through. Sastre was also struggling and didn’t pull through until the climb leveled out in the final 5km. Gadret looked cooked as well and Evans did what he could to help, but the pink jersey was quickly slipping away.
But Basso wasn’t done yet. The leading trio hit the final 13.9km to Aprica ready for a final surge. Scarponi was fully committed to collaborating, with the chance of a stage-victory and a move up on GC as his enticement. Nibali and Scarponi (another Operación Puerto confessor) helped, but it was Basso who did most of the pulling.
With Basso setting the pace on a newly added sector of the climb on a secondary road with ramps as steep as 15 percent before it linked up to the more gradual main road to Aprica, the gap grew to 1:06 with 10km to go.
Basso was nearly in the virtual pink when the gap grew to 2:18 with 5km to go. Nibali and Scarponi added their power in the final kilometers to drive home the final difference of 3:05.
“The team did a great job today to make the selection on the Mortirolo,” said Nibali, who vaulted into third overall, now 2:30 back. “We wanted to have at least two of us at the bottom of Mortirolo to help tow up to Aprica. To have Scarponi there played perfectly into our hands.”
Arroyo was disillusioned at the line because he thought he played it just right. He didn’t count on the other riders not having the legs to chase — or counting on Basso being so strong.
“I tried to race in an intelligent way, calculating my efforts on the Mortirolo. It has been a pity being so close to keeping the maglia rosa. In my group there were some riders with no motivation to fight. That’s why time difference of Basso increased enough for him to take the leader’s jersey,” said Arroyo, who slipped to second at 51sec back. “When I hit the bottom of the Aprica, I thought it would be possible to keep pink. Basso was very strong and there was some confusion in our group. I will keep fighting to maintain a spot on the podium, but you have to recognize that Basso was strong again today.”
Evans, Sastre throw in towel
When the dust settled, Liquigas had firmly taken back what they had let slip away at L’Aquila.
Arroyo is still in with a shot of the podium at second at 51sec back, but Nibali climbed up to third at 2:30, bouncing ahead of pre-race favorites Evans (fifth at 4:00 back) and Sastre (sixth at 5:32 back).
“Liquigas’s rhythm was a little too strong for me with the condition I have now,” Evans said. “I didn’t have the legs to follow them. There was nothing to do. We’re talking minutes now behind Ivan, so I don’t know. Four minutes is hard to pull back on Basso. If he continues like this with the same legs, it will be difficult to win.”
Sastre, too, admitted that his podium hopes also took a dive when the chase group let the Basso trio power away.
“Behind, there wasn’t the necessary understanding or strength to reduce the differences. At least we tried to save the day and I am content to be able to arrive with this group behind the three strongest men of the race,” Sastre said. “It was a very difficult stage. It was fast from the start and we spent a lot of energy ahead of tomorrow’s stage. I didn’t have bad legs, but aches and pains I’ve had are disappearing, but there are a few riders who are going better than me. We have to congratulate Liquigas, who did sensational work and who put their two leaders on the podium today.”
Liquigas was already putting the champagne on ice. The Gavia stands in their way on the road to Verona.
If the Mortirolo didn’t give the 2010 Giro its final judgment, Saturday’s stage will. The five-star stage features more than 14,000 feet of climbing. It opens with a 123km loop into Switzerland, climbing the 18km, 7-percent Forcola di Livigno and two lesser peaks before returning to Bormio. Then comes the monstrous Passo di Gavia, famed for its epic crossing in a blizzard that earned Andy Hampsten the pink jersey that he kept until the end of the 1988 Giro. In 2010, the 24.9km, 5.6-pecent Gavia is followed by a long descent and then a summit finish on the Passo del Tonale (another 11km at 5.7 percent). A brutal penultimate stage. Organizers have a back-up plan ready if weather forces closure of the Gavia.
- Basso takes KoM: Matt Lloyd’s run in the green King of the Mountain’s jersey ended Friday when Ivan Basso took first-place points over the Mortirolo. Lloyd has held the green jersey since winning stage 6, but his green patch ended up one of the Giro’s hardest climbs. Lloyd started the day four points ahead of Basso, but slipped to second in the competition, with Basso leading 35-29. Lloyd has a chance to regain the jersey if he sneak into an early breakaway in the Giro’s five-climb penultimate stage.
- Garzelli crashes: It looked like Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone) might have one more miracle left in his legs when he attacked over the Trivigno climb to have a nice head-start on the GC faves heading up the Mortirolo. A winner at Plan de Corones, the 2000 Giro champ ran out of gas and was swallowed up the Basso onslaught midway up the climb. To add insult to injury, Garzelli crashed on the Mortirolo descent. He’ll start Saturday’s penultimate stage with cuts and scrapes to his right elbow and knees as souvenirs from his Mortirolo adventure.
- Froome kicked out, Vino penalized: Chris Froome (Team Sky) was kicked out of the Giro after the UCI race jury said the British climber took a pull on a motorbike during the stage. There were no immediate details, but a UCI communiqué said that Froome was out of the race and fined 200 Swiss francs. Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) was penalized 20 seconds and fined 200 Swiss francs for an illegal feed 8km to go. Maybe that explains why Vinokourov wasn’t taking pulls in the Arroyo group.
- 1. Scarponi
- 2. Basso
- 3. Nibali
- 4. Vinokourov
- 1. Basso (LIQ)
- 2. Arroyo (GCE), at 0:51
- 3. Nibali (LIQ), at 2:30
- 4. Scarponi (AND), at 2:49
- 5. Evans (BMC), at 4:00
- 6. Sastre (CTT), at 5:32
- 7. Porte (SAX), at 6:00
- 8. Vinokourov (AST), at 6:02