By Andrew Hood
Ivan Basso, whose Operación Puerto-related racing ban ends next week, is back in the spotlight and he’s hoping it will be for sporting reasons alone.
Basso faced the media for the first time in a press conference Friday in Italy and seemed anxious to put the focus on racing and not on his links to the Puerto doping scandal.
Basso’s ban officially ends October 24 and he will race for the first time since April 2007 at the Japan Cup on October 26 as part a two-year contract with Liquigas.
“This is kilometer zero for me,” Basso told journalists Friday in Italy. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this day, to reattach my number on the back and try to recapture those feelings that I miss so much. … It’s as if I am starting another career.”
Basso, who turns 30 next month, insists he won’t repeat his errant ways. And to prove it, he’s working with Italian physiologist Dr. Aldo Sassi of the Mapei Cycling Center and will publish biological parameters on his website.
“I asked a year ago to be controlled by all the agencies, adhering to any kind of protocol,” he said. “In the coming days, along with professor Sassi, I will publish online the details of my training on my website and on the Liquigas and Mapei center’s sites. Everyone can see what I am doing every day.”
Basso appeared looking fit and anxious to put the Puerto scandal behind him. Earlier this week, Basso rode a simulated one-hour time trial on a velodrome.
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.
It will be curious to see just how much Basso will want to confront his past as he moves forward with his comeback.
Basso made it clear that he wants to turn the page on the Puerto scandal and suggested he won’t be a rider who will want to be a voice against doping in sport.
“I’m not the one who has does the investigating and it cannot be my concern about doping and the latest cases,” he said. “Re-living certain situations hurts me, so I need to think positive. And I am the person least-qualified to talk about the problems of cycling.”
Basso’s name was linked to the Puerto investigation in the middle of his winning ride at the 2006 Giro d’Italia. He was among nine riders kicked out ahead of the 2006 Tour de France for alleged links to Puerto, but was later cleared for lack of evidence and signed a big-money contract with Discovery Channel.
Basso raced early in 2007, with his final competition at the Vuelta a Castilla y León in late March, but the Italian authorities re-opened the Puerto investigation after it received the green light to test bags of blood thought to belong to Basso.
Under pressure, Basso quickly admitted that he was indeed the “Birillo” code name found in the Puerto papers. He stopped short, however, of admitting that he doped, instead insisting that he only “intended to dope.”
Basso is one of only four riders to serve bans for the Puerto investigation, which allegedly includes up to 60 professional riders. Jorg Jackshe and Michele Scarponi also served bans while Gianpaolo Caruso is appealing a ban.
“I paid my debt with a two-year ban and this gives me a sense of tranquility, but the sense of embarrassment, at least the beginning, remains,” Basso continued. “I don’t know if I am the one who’s paid the most and I don’t want to think about the others.”
Frank Schleck, a former CSC teammate of Basso’s, recently admitted that he made a payment of nearly 7,000 euros to Puerto ringleader Eufemiano Fuentes in 2006, but is also denying that he doped. Luxembourg officials are widening an inquiry.
Earlier this week, Basso closed the book on his links to Operación Puerto, at least in a legal sense. He paid a fine of 10,800 euros to Italian authorities and was handed a suspended six-month jail term.
Giro clash vs. Armstrong
Basso says his primary goal for 2009 will be the Giro, where he will likely butt heads with former rival Lance Armstrong, who’s also revealed his intentions of winning the three-week Italian tour as part of his comeback.
“Recapturing the maglia rosa is my number-one goal,” Basso said. “But the presence of Armstrong will make him the top favorite.”
Basso will open his 2009 racing season in January at the Tour de San Luís in Argentina, then race at the Tour of California in February before turning his attention to European races, most likely Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro del Trentino, to prepare for the Giro.
Basso is also expected to race the Vuelta a España ahead of the world championships, which will be held next year in Mendrisio, Switzerland, just down the road from his home in Varese, Italy.