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The ink had barely dried after adding Ivan Basso’s second win to the Giro d’Italia victor’s list when questions started about the Tour de France.
Could Basso storm out of the Giro and take on Alberto Contador in July and become the first since Marco Pantani in 1998 to pull the Giro-Tour double? Italians are certainly hoping so.
“I hope this Giro victory is a new starting point for me. I will be 33 this year, but I proved that I can still be a protagonist in grand tours,” Basso said Sunday. “I am still very ambitious. I know that Alberto Contador is very good and it would be hard to beat him. I am ready to go to the Tour and fight.”
Basso’s impressive Giro victory has stirred emotions in Italy that he can return to cycling’s most important race and bring back the yellow jersey.
Basso finished second to Lance Armstrong in 2005 and was a favorite to claim the maillot jaune when he was prevented from starting the 2006 Tour after his links to the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal came to light. He later served a two-year ban after confessing his role in the scandal.
Basso will return to the Tour this year for the first time since those tumultuous days. He promises he’s a reformed rider, but admits a lot has changed during his four-year absence.
“I haven’t raced the Tour since 2005 and there have been a lot of young guys coming up — Contador, Andy Schleck, Nibali,” he said. “They’re getting better and I am growing older, so maybe someday I will have to change my objectives. Right now, I still believe I can win.”
Basso’s Giro victory is redemption for the proud Italian and the Tour is the next proving ground.
Since his ban and public humiliation, Basso has worked hard to prove that his victories should not have an asterisk next to them. He’s collaborated with respected Italian trainer Aldo Sassi and has published his training data and blood values online to bolster his credibility.
Throughout the 93rd Giro, Basso confirmed that his climbing abilities have returned to world-class levels.
He consistently dropped riders that he will face off against in July, including two-time runner up and world champion Cadel Evans (BMC), 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre (Cervélo), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and Alexander Vinokourov (Astana).
And it was the Tour — not the Giro — where Basso made his name as a rising talent to watch early in his career. He won the best young rider’s jersey in 2002 en route to 11th. In 2004, he won a stage and claimed third overall before challenging Armstrong in 2005 with second.
“I want to go back to the Tour to give what the Tour gave me. It’s a very special race. I have fond memories from 2001 to 2005,” Basso said. “One of the first things I’ll do tomorrow is pull out the road book of the Tour. I’ve had it for awhile, but I was focused on this Giro first. I will have a good look at the Tour route.”
Basso admits that Contador is the man to beat, but he hopes that his strong Liquigas team and his renewed climbing abilities will allow him to challenge the two-time Spanish winner.
“I know that Contador is very good. He’s been impressive these past few years and his top-end speed is fast,” Basso said. “I’ve never squared off against Contador when I’ve been in optimum condition. Inside, I want to believe I could beat Contador. We’ll have a very strong team.”
Basso has been driven to prove that he could win in 2010 with the same dominance that he could before his ban.
He’s done that in this year’s Giro, and now that he’s well into his second full season of his comeback, he’s setting his sights on the Tour.
“I was very satisfied with last year’s season. I was fifth in the Giro and fourth in the Vuelta. The last grand tour I raced was the 2006 Giro,” he said. “There’s a big difference between fifth in last year’s Giro to winning this Giro. My victory today was built upon my last season last year. I still believe I can become better.”
How much better remains to be seen, but Basso’s renewed focus on the Tour will only add to the anticipation and hype for July.