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Tough Tourist aims to go where even Armstrong did not dare

Donald McRae
Tuesday June 27, 2006


Ivan Basso, on his last journey home before the Tour de France begins this Saturday, hunkers down in the back seat of a big black car speeding to Heathrow. As the favourite to win this year's intriguing race, which will finally feature a new champion after seven years of domination by Lance Armstrong, Basso allows himself a moment of respite as his mind wanders to Varese in Italy.
"I will get home tonight at 10," he says, "and be very happy. My wife, our daughter and new son will be sleeping but I go in quietly and relax. It won't be long and then I have to leave my family again for the Tour. I feel ready - but first it will be nice to take these easy moments. There will be nothing easy again until July 23, the day when we see for sure who has the yellow jersey."

Basso gazes at the hazy green shapes of suburban England flashing past his window. For all his amiable charm he seems rightly preoccupied. There would be something amiss if a cyclist as grindingly competitive as this did not brood occasionally as he closes in on such a massive opportunity.

Apart from yearning to be the rider who emerges from the shadow of Armstrong Basso also plans to defy the American's insistence that all energy should be poured into an unremitting assault on the Tour. Basso, instead, is trying the far trickier feat of winning both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in the same year - requiring him to maintain near-perfect form and fitness for 10 consecutive weeks.

Miguel Indurain, one of the greatest grinders of them all and a rider to whom Basso is compared when disparaging comments are made about lack of flair, won this exacting double in 1993. But he was more fortunate that the tours were then separated by less of a break, so he did not have to sustain peak condition for the same protracted period as Basso. Nevertheless the Italian's comprehensive Giro victory in May - his winning margin of 9min 18sec was the largest since 1965 - has strengthened his conviction.

"When I told Bjarne Riis [the formidable Dane who won the Tour in 1996 and now manages Basso's CSC team] that I wanted to ride the Giro, he go quiet for 20 seconds. Last year I try for the Giro and I was leading before I got sick. Bjarne thinks I want to do it again because I'm angry. But it's not for this reason. I want to try for both because, for me, this is the best programme. My head tells me I have the power to go for two goals. Bjarne got convinced when he sees I believe that winning the Giro can help me in the Tour."

There is a clear logic to the ambitious scheme of a 28-year-old who finished second in the Tour last year and third in 2004. "The Giro is my first big win. This is psychologically important. It's not the Tour de France - but it is still the second most important victory and another step between the big steps of finishing second in the Tour and winning it. In the Giro I get the yellow jersey and defend it for 15 days. I was controlling the race a long time and that is good training for me and my team."

Basso is emphatic when asked if he was surprised to win so easily. "No. At the last two Tours the difference between me and Lance on the podium is maybe five minutes. But the difference between me and fifth is another 10 minutes. It is normal to have a big margin between me and the others. In the Tour, only I stay with Lance in the mountains; he drop everyone else for seven years."

Basso's credentials as a time-triallist are, however, less impressive. This comparative weakness was underlined in Italy where one of his main rivals next month, Jan Ullrich, broke away from using the Giro as a training routine to dominate a time trial and beat Basso by half a minute.

"I get better in the time-trials," Basso protests. "You should have seen me three years ago. Ullrich might gain three minutes because, this year, the route of the Tour suits the time-triallists. It is not so good for me because there are less hard mountain climbs. But I can get back that time if I make a big statement in the mountains. Lance do that every year."

If there is widespread relief that this will not be a Tour de Lance, as it has been every year since 1999, Basso is diplomatic. "Me and Lance used to email each other once a month but we don't do so much now because he is travelling a lot. We don't have such a big relationship because, now he's moving into management, he's a rival again. But Lance is a good person. He's a great rider - but for the personal problem I had, he was more special. He talk good to me."

In 2003 and 2004 Basso raced with the burden of knowing that his mother was dying of cancer. Such was the oppressive weight of this knowledge - which was not shared with anyone else in his family - that Basso confided in Armstrong, whose own battle against cancer had long been part of his legend.

"It was tough because my sister was too young to be told and my father, well, he is difficult to talk to about these things. It's hard for a man to hear his wife will be dead in six months. So it was only me who knew that she would soon die. Lance try to help me and I never forget."

Armstrong encouraged his Discovery team to target Basso as his eventual successor. A multi-million dollar contract was offered to Basso, on the understanding he would eventually replace Armstrong as team leader, and it says much for the Italian's loyalty to Riis that he resisted.

"I could have gone because they were very interested and it's a pleasure when a big team likes me. Bjarne was struggling to find a new sponsor. So I tell Discovery that, if Bjarne did not make a team, then they are my first choice. But, if Bjarne gets the backing to continue, then no question: I stay with him my whole career. When someone gives you 100% you show the same. And then CSC came in and everything works perfect."

When Basso first joined the Riis regime he was startled to discover that pre-season training included hardcore exercises with the Danish Special Forces - who told him to jump off a cliff on Lanzarote. The Italian's main problem was that he could not swim. "I still do it," he grins. "Bjarne wanted me as leader and so this was a good test. Anyway there was no big danger. Lots of people in the sea make sure I don't drown."

Basso shakes his head at Riis's imposing reputation. "He is more than this. Bjarne's first quality is intelligence. You see this in the way he change with me over the years. In the start he is my teacher. He say, 'Ivan, do this, do that.' But it get more interesting in the second year. He say, 'Ivan do this, but what you think about that?' And this year it's only 20% where he say 'do this or that'. He has a lot of belief in my feelings and thoughts and this helps a lot."

As Ullrich's former team-mate Riis can also pinpoint any flaws in the German who won his sole Tour in 1997 - although where Armstrong always succeeded in needling Ullrich, Basso prefers a more subtle tack.

"I don't believe Jan is weak in his mind. I start saying in November that he is the favourite. He's been good in this race for 10 years and he is the one to beat - with a few others like [Floyd] Landis, [Alexandre] Vinokourov and [Alejandro] Valverde. I don't know if there is more pressure on Jan because he is older. But I know for sure that I will be a better rider in five years - so I have another seven or even eight opportunities after this to win."

And what of next year, I ask, with the Tour starting in London? Basso's face darkens briefly. "I'm sorry, but this is very strange. London is a good city but it make no sense for the riders. Maybe if I come back here as defending champion it might seem less crazy . . ."

Gliding into Terminal One, I remember the contrasting figures that Basso and Riis had cut earlier in the afternoon when presenting a motivational address for 300 executives at the lavish headquarters of their backers, the computer giant CSC. Riis prowled through the corporate ranks as if this was one last chore to brush aside before his team could focus on the coming battle in the furious time-trials and brutal mountain stages of the Alps and Pyrenees. Basso, meanwhile, looked more like a matinée idol as he signed countless cycling shirts, grinning and shrugging his way down the awe-struck lines of middle-aged businessmen. It was yet another small taste of the fame and adulation which will envelop him should he win the Tour this year.

"Yes," he says, while reaching for his bag at Heathrow, "but I go home first. I see my little boy, Santiago, and that give me more confidence because it was very emotional at the Giro - he was born on the Friday and I win the race on the Sunday. What a weekend. And now I am ready for an even bigger three weeks in France."
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