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The Smiling Assasin: Ivan Basso Part 1
By Guest Contributor
Date: 4/29/2006
The Smiling Assasin: Ivan Basso Part 1

The Smiling Assasin: Ivan Basso
Part one of a profile of credible le Tour de France and Giro d'Italia contender Ivan Basso the man from Gallarate.

By Michael Akinde

We saw it a lot last year, the devilish grin. With his teeth bared in something halfway between a smile and a sneer, and a hard glint in the eyes that few people would have associated with the mild-mannered rider from Gallarate that the world had grown accustomed to, Ivan Basso dealt out a world of hurt to the competition.

Ivan Basso, eyes focused and teeth bared in a trademark shark’s smile puts the hurt on Armstrong at the Tour de France. © Tim de Waele 2005

“He’s a Cannibal; he should leave something for the others”, one disgruntled race official is said to have muttered during the Tour of Denmark last year, while Ivan “il Terribilo” – Ivan the Terrible – as adoring fans soon named him, won everything from flat stages over hilly stages to the time trial. It was a startling display of dominance, and one few people would have believed possible just a few years ago, when his professional victory was more than two years in the past.

Like many Italians from the cycling mad Varese region, Ivan Basso started racing at an early age. Living door to door with such cycling legends as Claudio Chiappucci, it was perhaps inevitable that he would be infused with a passion for cycling. His victory in the Coppa d’Oro (Goblet of Gold) in 1993 – the most important race in the Italian Student category – demonstrated his potential.
That potential was reaffirmed in 1995 at the Junior World Championship, where only a puncture on the last ten kilometres of the race, cost him the victory. At Valkenburg, three years later, he took his revenge when he crossed the finish line to capture the U-23 World Championship.

Ivan fine tuning his time trial position in the MIT wind tunnel
A major factor in Basso’s development into a credible Tour contender has been the meticulous training he has put into improving his time trialling. Photo courtesy Cervelo and Team CSC.

Already then, Basso was gaining a reputation as a methodical racer. He was rumoured to take notes on everything: distances, times, weather, cardiac frequency – everything was noted down, to be studied and evaluated later. A rider, it is said today, who spends as much time in front of his computer analyzing his training data, as he uses on the training itself. That precisely Ivan Basso, today, is considered one of the potential heirs to Lance Armstrong is perhaps no coincidence.

2005 Tour Ivan attacks! Photo © Tim de Waele 2005

When Ivan Basso turned professional in 1999 with Amica Chips – Tacconi Sports, he was one of the glowing new stars of Italian cycling from the generation 1976-77, together with compatriots Danilo Di Luca (3rd in 1998) and Giuliano Figueras. The three of them had raced each others constantly throughout their youth, and were the three most successful youth riders of their generation.

The Italian media were happy to play on that rivalry – especially in the wake of Di Luca’s comments that he could have won the World Championship in 1998 if not for team tactics – boasts that were only accentuated by the brilliant first years of his career. Figueras joined mighty Mapei, but has never lived up to the great expectations placed on his shoulders. Danilo Di Luca’s talent burned bright for a while at Cantina Tollo, but then went quiet for a period of several years until he smashed his way back on the Cycling stage last year with his brilliant Pro Tour campaign last year.

Unlike his two “rivals”, Basso’s career started slowly. First taking the time to finish his education in Technical Geometry, Basso turned professional in the summer of 1999, at first with Riso Scotti-Vinavil and then Amica Chips from 2000. While at Amica Chips, he would take his first two victories (including a hilly time trial) at the Reggio Tour International in 2000, and participate in the Giro d’Italia for the second time.

Ivan Basso’s breakout year came in 2001. That year he married his fiancé, Micaela, and joined the Fassa Bortolo squad of Giancarlo Ferretti. At the Tour de Médditeranéan, he demolished the field on the legendary Mont Faron, and only a crash that led to a broken collarbone prevented his first stage race victory. A few months later he was back in action at the Fléche Wallone, and although he could find no answer to Rik Verbrugghe’s brilliant ride, second place was a good result for the 23-year old. He took two more impressive mountain-stage victories with dash and panache in 2001, before arriving in France for the Tour de France.

Basso’s first acquaintance with the Tour was to be hard and bitter. Attacking on the wicked descent of the Col de Fouchy on Bastille Day, Basso created the winning break consisting of Laurent Jalabert (Basso’s idol, then riding for Team CSC), Jens Voigt (who would capture the yellow jersey on the day), Laurent Roux and Inigo Cuesta. It was not to be: on the descent to Colmar, Basso went down hard, breaking his collarbone for the second time that year. Though he rose to finish the stage (finishing 1:38 behind his breakaway companions in fifth), he was forced to abandon. It was doubly bitter, in so far as he had been clearly the strongest rider in the break, as stage winner Laurent Jalabert would later admit.

Team Photo c. Fassa Bortolo
Basso’s success in 2001 was put somewhat in the shadows by the triumphs of his compatriot, Danilo di Luca, but even so the young rider was noticed – not least for his aggressive riding and willingness to go toe to toe with established stars like Joseba Beloki, Laurent Jalabert, and Rebellin. “Almost too aggressive”, some critics grumbled; as critics tend to grumble over any young rider: if he would just use his obvious strength better, he would soon have a big pro victory.
But if that was something to worry about, Ivan Basso was at the right place: under the “Iron Sergeant”, Ferretti, Basso would have to learn how to harness his joy in riding, submit to discipline, and put his legs at the service of the team. 

2002 was the year in which he was taught this lesson. At the service of Alessandro Petacchi and Michelle Bartoli, Basso repeatedly sacrificed his own chances of success. He came close to success on his own at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but the combined strength of Mapei team mates Garzelli and Bettini was too much for the young Basso to overcome. His only notable success that year was in the Tour, where Ivan Basso would demonstrate the new, higher cadence pedaling style that he had been working meticulously on over the winter, capture the white jersey of the best young rider and finish 11th overall.

By 2003, most of the world had realized that in Ivan Basso, Italy had a potential future Tour de France star. All, perhaps, other than his team boss Ferretti: “Where are the victories?” he is said to have grumbled. He had set out to discipline the aggressive riding of the young Basso, but instead, he had succeeded in breaking Basso’s spirit.

In the closed and increasingly Petacchi-centred environment that was his world at Fassa Bortolo, the Ivan Basso the world had known had lost his joy in riding, and was contemplating retirement at the age of twenty-five.

Naturally, things were not helped by the meteoric rise of the sprint King – a man who could give Ferretti the victories that he craved. Ivan Basso languished in anonymity at the team, and while Petacchi and two thirds of the Fassa Bortolo squad abandoned on the first mountain stages of the Tour, Basso struggled on with only a single team mate left. So anonymous was his ride that almost no one noticed that Basso lost only few seconds in the mountains against Lance Armstrong that year. His ride earned him seventh place; the time trials costing him nine of the ten minutes that he would lose to Armstrong in the overall.

Persistent rumours that year had it that US Postal was trying to sign him, but in September of 2003, Ivan Basso signed with the Team CSC of Bjarne Riis. Bjarne Riis was looking for a new team leader, after loosing Tyler Hamilton to Phonak, and Basso was looking for a new start to his career. It was a decision that neither has so far had cause to regret.

Team CSC’s famous military style training camps have played a key role in developing Ivan Basso into a strong team leader. © Tim de Waele 2005

Part 2 of Michael Akinde's profile "The Smiling Assasin: Ivan Basso" will be published shortly.

Rider Stats
Name: Ivan Basso
Country: Italy
Born: 26.11.1977 (28 years old)
Height: 182cm
Weight: 70kg
Pro since: 1998

Web: (Italian) (English)

Career Highlights

Criterium International (Overall and Points Jersey)
Criterium International, Stage 2
Circuit de la Sarthe, Stage 2b (ITT)
Giro d’Italia, Stage 17
Giro d’Italia, Stage 18 (ITT)
2nd Place, Tour de France
Tour of Denmark (Overall and Points Jersey)
Tour of Denmark, Stage 1
Tour of Denmark, Stage 2
Tour of Denmark, Stage 3
Tour of Denmark, Stage 5 (ITT)
Tour de France, Stage 12
3rd Place, Tour de France
Giro dell’Emilia
2nd Place, Tour Méditerranéen
3rd Place, Giro di Lombardia
7th Place, Tour de France
2nd Place, Clasica San Sebastian
Best Young Rider, Tour de France
11th Place, Tour de France
2nd Place, Giro dell’Emilia
3rd Place, Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Tour Méditerranéen, Stage 1
Bicicleta Vasca, Stage 5
Österreich Rundfahrt, Stage 5
2nd Place, La Fléche Wallonne
Regio Tour, Stage 1
Regio Tour, Stage 3B (ITT)
U-23 World Champion

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