(Photo: Roberto Bettini)
Ivan Basso closed a circle Sunday in Verona, Italy. The Italian returned to win the Giro d'Italia four years after his first in 2006 and after serving a two-year doping suspension.
"When I was solo on the Monte Zoncolan," said Basso, "I finally felt free."
Basso did not win the Giro d'Italia last weekend up the 10.1-kilometer Monte Zoncolan, but he did win the stage and gained an important 1'19" advantage on rival, World Champion Cadel Evans. Spaniard David Arroyo still led the race, but Zoncolan closed out an important weekend that saw Basso's Liquigas team regain control.
The Italian team lost control on the stage to L'Aquila when it failed come to grips a mega-escape group, which contained Arroyo. Liquigas let Richie Porte and Arroyo each enjoy their spell in the leader's pink jersey while it plotted its return in the first high-mountain stages.
Basso's teammate Vincenzo Nibali won the first stage to Asolo by attacking and dropping all of his rivals with a daredevil decent off Monte Grappa. Basso took his turn the next day to Zoncolan, winning the head-to-head battle with Evans. The stage win was his first since he conquered the 2006 Giro d'Italia in Aprica.
In the 2006 Giro d'Italia Basso won by almost 10 minutes over his rival, Phonak's José Enrique Gutiérrez. During the race, Operación Puerto became public in Spain with a series of raids on Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes' offices. The blood bags found – which DNA tests later linked to Basso, Gutiérrez and many others – kicked off the biggest doping investigation since the Festina Affair in 1998.
Basso denied his involvement, but later confessed and received a two-year ban. Over that time, he quietly changed and began working with respected cycling trainer, Aldo Sassi.
"Basso's win was in a different style than his others," said Sassi Sunday. "He not only trained physically to arrive at this point, but he trained to be a man. I felt more involved in this race as a result."
The 32-year-old went on to take the pink jersey in Aprica, five days after Zoncolan. He kept it and won two days later in Verona's Arena by a more believable time of 1'51" over Arroyo and 2'37" over teammate Nibali.
Sassi is suffering from brain cancer that doctors diagnosed shortly before the Giro d'Italia. However, he followed the race closely and called up Basso daily to offer advice. He admits he is a man of numbers and he is trying to beat the odds to survive. He smiled this morning when he picked up La Gazzetta dello Sport to see Basso and his teammates celebrating on the podium in Verona. The headline gave some interesting numbers for Sassi, it read, "Per l'armata di Basso ci sono 850 mila euro."
Basso's team won 450,000 euro in prize money at the Giro d'Italia and sponsor Liquigas kicked in an extra 400,000 euros for winning, totalling 450,000 euro or $549,000. As per team rules, Basso and Nibali will give the money to the team (15% to the team staff and the rest divided amongst their seven Giro d'Italia teammates).
Basso has another prize on his mind, the Tour de France. He finished on the podium twice – third in 2004, second in 2005 – the years Lance Armstrong dominated. This year will be Basso's first time back to the Tour de France since 2006. On the eve of the 2006 race, he left out the back door when Bjarne Riis kicked him out of the CSC team because of Operación Puerto.
Four years later, another Giro d'Italia in his palmarès, Basso is a changed man and ready to win the Tour de France.
"There are five weeks to go until the Tour, but the time flies. I raced very little before the Giro d'Italia, which will be to my advantage," Basso said. "The road book has been in my office for many months, and now is the time to open it and have a look."