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VeloPress Book Selection: The 2005 Tour de France
By John Wilcockson and Andrew hood
This report filed October 27, 2005

Just in time for the announcement of the route for the 2006 Tour de France, VeloPress's annual wrap up of the Tour is now ready for delivery. "The 2005 Tour de France: Armstrong's Farewell," by John Wilcockson and Andrew Hood, tells the fascinating story of Lance Armstrong and his ride to his history-making seventh-straight victory. But this plot encompasses 21 teams and 188 other riders battling for stage victories and hoping to unseat the American champion.

VeloNews reporters Wilcockson and Hood provide a detailed account of the action in each stage, capturing the color and character of the race and analyzing how each stage unfolded.

The text also features 20 detailed profiles of the most prominent riders in the peloton, including David Zabriskie, Floyd Landis, Alexander Vinokourov, Chris Horner and George Hincapie.

We're pleased to offer a selection from "The 2005 Tour de France: Armstrong's Farewell," here on VeloNews.com and have chosen to highlight the story of one of the men considered to be a favorite for next year's Tour de France, CSC's Ivan Basso:

Chapter 31

Ivan il Terrible: The Charmed Life of Italy's Hottest Star

Ivan Basso was all smiles on the Tour's first rest day in Grenoble. He had survived the harrowing first week with nary a scratch. Now the mountains were looming and Basso was preparing to step center stage. As he lounged by the swimming pool at his hotel, he fielded softball questions from a press corps anxious to make inroads with the man everyone expects to win the Tour de France some day. It was a good day to be Ivan Basso.

"I'm feeling good physically, but we still don't know how the opponents are," Basso said. "Everybody says the Alps will be decisive, but I think that the Pyrénées will decide the winner. There are two summit finishes with a lot of climbs. That's going to be really tough, especially after the stages here," he decided.

Basso's CSC team was riding a wave of optimism and good vibrations. Jens Voigt had been the team's second rider to wear the yellow jersey, following Dave Zabriskie's early capture of the coveted prize, and even the young American's early departure from the race couldn't dampen the team spirit. The upcoming Courchevel stage loomed high in everyone's thoughts, especially those of Basso and CSC team boss Bjarne Riis, who had worked seven hard months to get ready for this moment. The world would soon find out if Basso had what it took to dethrone Armstrong. "I am not pessimistic," Riis growled. "I am optimistic."

There was plenty to be optimistic about. Over the years, Basso had taken one positive stride after another on his steady, methodical approach to his Tour career. First came the best young rider's jersey in 2002, then a strong top-ten finish in 2003, followed by 2004's impressive third-place finish and a stage victory ahead of Armstrong at La Mongie.

At that Tour and in the months that followed, Basso soldiered through the painful experience of watching his mother sicken from pancreatic cancer. He had kept his deepest thoughts private during the off-season until the news broke just before the start of the 2004 Tour. Armstrong, calling on his connections to the cancer community, offered to help Basso find the best doctors, but nothing could stop the deadly tumor. His mother died in January 2005.

Basso carried that burden into the new season, where, surprising everyone, he set his sights on the Giro d'Italia-not the Tour de France. Even the normally unshakeable Riis was thrown for a loop. But Riis had to agree that Basso's reasoning was convincing, if unconventional: Focusing on the Giro before tackling the Tour was a fresh challenge, the latest of many goals Basso's set for himself since he was a junior racer.

"I did a very nice Tour last year, but I still lost six minutes to Lance. That's a lot of time," Basso said. "I decided to race the Giro because it's a new challenge. The Giro is a different race. I can win the Giro."

As the Italian tour began, Basso did indeed appear to be on a winning trajectory. He grabbed the maglia rosa after the opening climbing stage in the Dolomites, riding with a command and a rhythm that appeared unbeatable. But he caught a stomach bug before the next tough stage, and he barely survived the fearsome climb up the Stelvio. He lost 45 minutes on the unrelenting, 25-km mountain climb and it looked like his Giro was over.

Basso showed his class by bouncing back to win a mountain stage and then the final time trial ahead of eventual winner Paolo Savoldelli and teammate Dave Zabriskie. The victories erased his disappointment and brought a smile back to his face. In that way, at least, the Giro fit in nicely to the pattern of Basso's amazing cycling career. Since a very early age, everything has been onward and upward, almost without interruption.

"This is what we work for," Basso said while sitting poolside at his hotel in Grenoble. "This is what's great about cycling. Win or lose, these moments are magical."

Basso's pro career has been marked by steady, methodical progress, but his amateur days were full of prodigious leaps that made him one of the hottest amateurs to come out of Italy. Born November 26, 1977, at Gallarate in northern Italy, Basso was raised in a family with deep bonds to cycling. His father was a passionate lifetime fan who taught Ivan the joys of bike racing at a very young age.

In fact, by age six, bright-eyed Basso was already winning local events. He was a natural-born attacker who rode so hard and so fast that he often finished solo, the other kids trailing far behind. In 1993, he won Italy's top junior race, the Coppa d'Oro, putting him in the company of such homegrown cycling stars as Gianni Bugno and Giuseppe Saronni. Basso earned the nickname Ivan il Terrible. He took that aggression into the 1995 world junior road championship, but an unlucky puncture with about 10km to go cost him the victory.

Encouraged by his results, Basso dreamed of a professional career, but his parents insisted that he finish school. He complied, putting his burgeoning cycling career on hold until he finished his prep studies in technical geometry. "I could see their point," he said. "Racing bikes is a hard profession, so they wanted what was good for me."

Basso began to keep meticulous notes of each training ride, the distances, heart rates, conditions, and routes. That attention to detail and self-discipline paid off handsomely in 1998. With his studies behind him and his focus squarely on racing at the elite amateur level in Italy as part of the Zalf team, Basso won 11 races and entered the world championships in the Dutch city of Valkenburg as one of the favorites for the under-23 road race. On a cold, windy day, Basso rode alone across the line to win the rainbow jersey, making up for his disappointment three years earlier.

He would then demonstrate the loyalty that has come to characterize his career. Despite wearing the rainbow jersey as the under-23 world champion, Basso delayed turning pro for half the next season out of gratitude to Zalf, the amateur team that stuck with him during his time in school. He bagged four more wins with Zalf before accepting an offer from pro team Riso Scotti-Vinavil in May 1999, just in time for his debut at the Giro d'Italia.

Basso described the transition as a passage from Earth to Mars, saying, "The two greatest memories from those days were winning the world title and starting my Giro. It still gives me goose bumps." Basso abandoned that first Giro, but vowed to come back some day to win. His ambitions were limitless, but he quickly realized the pro ranks were unforgiving.

In 2000, he moved to the Amica Chips-Tacconi Sport team, racing alongside Russian legends Evegni Berzin and Viatcheslav Ekimov. He snagged his first wins as a professional during the Regio Tour, taking the first stage and a short time trial two days later-results that were good enough to help him finish second overall. He also completed his first Giro, coming home in 52nd place. Basso's stock was on the rise.

In 2001, Giancarlo Ferretti came calling. Ferretti was the team director for the power-packed Fasso Bortolo squad and a tireless recruiter of new talent. He had been impressed by Basso's aggression in the amateur ranks, and Basso's all-round riding abilities seemed to tip him as Italy's newest breakout star.

And sure enough, Basso quickly got to work by winning the difficult Mont Faron stage of the Mediterranean Tour in February. But a crash in stage 4 left him with a broken collarbone that forced his early exit, denying him what would have been his first stage race title. (That honor wouldn't come until the 2005 Tour of Denmark, when he won an incredible four of six stages en route to the overall victory.)

Basso bounced back from the early-2001 injury to win the toughest stage of the Bicicleta Vasca ahead of Spain's Tour de France podium star Joseba Beloki. He also won a hard mountain stage at the Tour of Austria, and earned his ticket for Fassa Bortolo's Tour team. Basso's Tour de France debut started well enough, and his style of riding was indicative of the glory that awaited him in the French race. He attacked in the first mountain across the Vosges and sparked the day's five-man winning break, from which Laurent Jalabert won the stage and Jens Voigt snagged the yellow jersey. However, Basso faced a far less desirable finish, crashing on the descent to the finish in Colmar and breaking his collarbone for the second time that season. He gamely finished the stage, but his first Tour was over.

Basso's 2002 season started well. He placed second in the Tour of Valencia and took third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At the Tour, he rode with incredible depth in the mountains, often staying with the big guns, including a strong ride up Mont Ventoux, to seal 11th place overall and the white jersey for the best young rider.

Ferretti, however, had lost patience with Basso's steady development and instead organized his team entirely around the impressive sprinting legs of Alessandro Petacchi for the 2003 Tour. Basso went along for the ride, but the team was clearly working for Petacchi, who won four of the first six road stages. What happened next, though, was entirely unexpected: Food poisoning gutted the team at the end of that first week, leaving just three Fassas in the race by the time the Tour turned into the Alps. Basso, who had worked over the winter to change his ponderous pedaling style to emulate the faster cadence of Lance Armstrong, was one of the few riders to stay close to Armstrong in that nail-biting Tour. Basso finished in seventh place, the best placing by an Italian for the second year running.

How was it, though, that Basso was racing and doing well in the Tour, but didn't ride the Giro like most Italians? "At Fassa, no one ever wanted to race the Tour," Basso explained with a shy smile. "We had GC riders like Frigo and González for the Giro. So I went [to the Tour] instead."

Basso's willingness to ride the Tour and his top-ten finish in spite of minimum team support wasn't enough for Ferretti. "Basso is a classy rider, he has a lot of skill and he's very dedicated, but he never wins any races," said the man of iron. Only victories could satiate Ferretti's appetite. So after Basso's second winless season, it was clear that a Tour top ten wasn't going to cut it with Ferretti.

Basso went looking for a new boss.

Bjarne Riis doesn't just sign racers; he looks for personalities who can fit into his unique team structure. For the 1996 Tour champion, building Team CSC in his own iconoclastic vision has become an obsession. And make no mistake: In Bjarne's army, there is only room for one general.

"I study riders before I offer them a contract. I look for individuals who can work as a team," Riis said. "In Ivan, I saw those qualities. I also believed he could become a big leader. He needed someone to work with him."

Basso quickly learned that Riis was not your typical director and Team CSC wasn't your typical team. The Dane speaks fluent Italian, but he insisted that Basso learn English to communicate with his international line-up. Another surprise for Basso was the team's annual boot camp during its December get-together, when riders, staff, directors, and even mechanics undergo a series of grueling, Outward Bound-style exercises for thirty-six straight hours.

During one such challenge off the coast of the Spanish island of Lanzarote, riders had to jump into the ocean 2km offshore. There was only one problem: Basso didn't know how to swim. The team pulled together, towing Basso back to shore on a surfboard. The bonds created there would last all season.

What was most important for Basso was that in Riis he had found the sport director he was aching for. They seemed an unlikely pair: a balding, middle-aged Dane hovering over an elegant Italian with mama-boy good looks. But they spoke every day on the phone, building a relationship that went deeper than just a contract. "Riis is like a father to me," Basso said. "When I need advice on something in my life, something that has nothing to do with cycling, Bjarne is the first person I call. He's more than just a director."

With Riis's endless support, Basso began to flourish as a leader both on and off the bike. Basso also reclaimed the aggressiveness that had gone missing under Ferretti.

For 2004, Riis narrowed Basso's focus to the Tour de France. Team CSC ripped through the spring, with Jörg Jaksche winning the Mediterranean Tour and Paris-Nice, while Basso rode quietly in the shadows.

In May, Basso, his teammate Carlos Sastre, and Riis traveled to Boston for wind-tunnel testing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hone the riders' time-trial positions. Basso's form, never a thing of beauty, improved markedly, and the next month he recorded a second place in the Italian national time trial championships. Other important tests came at the Tour de Romandie and the Dauphiné Libéré, where Basso's strong results confirmed he was on target for July.

Armstrong was gunning for a record sixth Tour title in 2004, and it soon became clear that Basso was the only rider who could even stay close to the American's ferocious charge through the French countryside. And then, on a decisive mountain stage finish at La Mongie, Basso led Armstrong across the line to take the win while Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, and Iban Mayo floundered in their wake. It was an impressive confirmation for Basso, who was immediately crowned Armstrong's heir apparent.

Basso didn't finish the '04 Tour with quite the same strength, slipping from second to third overall in the final time trial. Nevertheless, Basso's podium finish was Italy's best result since Marco Pantani won the race in 1998, and Basso had suddenly become one of cycling's hottest commodities.

At Armstrong's insistence, Discovery Channel put a full-court press on Basso during the off-season, offering him a multiyear contract that would make him a millionaire overnight. But Basso's loyalty to Riis proved stronger than money in the bank. In fact, Riis was struggling with his team's budget, even using his own cash to help cover some expenses late in the 2004 season. By 2005, Riis was asking his riders to take pay cuts while he looked for co-sponsors.

Riis told riders they were free to leave their contracts if they got better offers from other teams, and several of the star riders did receive offers, including Basso, Bobby Julich, and Jens Voigt. But nearly everyone decided to stick with Riis. Italian sprinter Fabrizio Guidi was the only rider to depart, taking an offer to become the 25th rider at Phonak to give the Swiss team its necessary minimum to race in the ProTour.

Eventually, software giant CSC came to the rescue, nearly doubling the team's budget for 2005 to $8 million. It was the infusion that the team needed to stabilize and focus on the upcoming season. However, just as things were settling in, Basso announced that he was determined to race the Giro d'Italia. When he told Riis, the great Dane was speechless. "He didn't speak for 20 seconds," Basso recounted with a laugh. "Then he said, ‘Let me think about it for a few days and call you back.' When he called me back, he said he was supporting the idea."

And there was another thing: After racing the Giro, Basso wanted to return to the Tour and make another run for the podium. All of this, of course, was completely at odds with conventional wisdom, which says the modern Giro is too hard for a rider who hopes to seriously contend for the Tour. It was, however, exactly the kind of strategy that appeals to Riis's appreciation for the unexpected.

"I was not 100-percent keen at the beginning," Riis admitted after Basso's 2005 schedule was confirmed, "but after I thought about it, when I remembered his level last February, through the [2004] Tour and good again until October, he's proven he can do that." He paused for a moment, then added, "I think he can do it. He'll prove it."

Basso's audacious Giro dream fell short because of the stomach virus that zapped his strength. He had to stop three times on the climb up the Stelvio for calls of nature. But true to form, he was quick to get over his disappointment. It's always sunny in Basso's world, and by the time the Tour hit its first rest day, he couldn't wait to get to the hills. That's where the real fun would begin.

Basso also was not afraid to attack Armstrong in the mountains. The charismatic Italian's leg-bending accelerations on stage 14's Port de Pailhères climb, stage 15's summit finish at Pla d'Adet and stage 18's ultra-steep Côte de la Croix-Neuve at Mende were particularly effective. They were the moves that had earned him the second rung on the podium after his mediocre showing at Courchevel, though he salvaged his Tour there by pacing himself to just a one-minute loss. The rest of his final deficit would come from the two time trials.

During the Tour, CSC announced an even bigger budget for the team, extending Basso's contract for three years at a rumored annual salary of $1.8 million. Also benefiting from a contract extension was Dave Zabriskie, the understated American who grew effusive when asked about his teammate. "He's an extremely genuine person," said Zabriskie. "He has a good heart. And he really cares about the team, and doing well. Really a nice guy. He's very competitive. And he takes it very seriously."

At age 27, Ivan il Terrible had finally come of age.

"The 2005 Tour de France: Armstrong's Farewell," by John Wilcockson and Andrew Hood, is available through VeloPress.