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By Stephen Farrand, Reuters
As the mountains of the Tour de France appear on the horizon, Italy’s Ivan Basso is emerging as one of the dark horses of this year’s race behind favorites Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich.
Basso, who is 28th overall, just 1:17 behind the sixth-placed Armstrong after Tuesday’s ninth stage, finished seventh last year, won the best young rider competition in 2002 and has the consistency needed to do well in the grueling three-week race.
He has often been criticized for riding conservatively, but after moving to CSC this year he has promised he will go on the attack in search of a stage win in the mountains and a place on the final Tour winner’s podium.
“My dream is to finish on the final winner’s podium of the Tour in Paris, but more importantly I want to be a protagonist,” Basso said as riders looked ahead to Wednesday’s 237km stage from Limoges to St Flour – the longest stage of the 2004 Tour and the first day in the mountains.
“I’d rather win a stage in the mountains and finish out of the top 10 than finish sixth or seventh but never attack. I want to surprise people and leave my mark on the race. I want to make people forget the Basso who always sat on the wheel of his rivals.
“I’m only an outsider but I’m really convinced I can have a good Tour. So far things have gone pretty well. We lost some time in the team time trial, but I’m not that far behind Armstrong and even closer to Ullrich.”
In the spring Basso traveled to the U.S. to work with aerodynamics experts in a wind tunnel. He now has more efficient position on the bike and is convinced he can limit his losses in the individual time trial in Besancon on the penultimate day.
“I used to lose a lot of time in the time trials but I’ve improved a lot,” he said confidently. “Last year I only lost a minute to Armstrong in the mountains and so if I can put it all together I know I can finish on the podium.
“Armstrong and Ullrich are the big favorites and are a level above everybody else but then I’m up there against (Tyler) Hamilton and perhaps (Iban) Mayo for the last place on the podium.”