Italian Ivan Basso is back to win the Tour de France six years after he finished second in 2005. He faces one of the race's most important tests today: the mountain stage to Plateau de Beille.
"The difficulty is what we had before," Basso said yesterday. "It's the third day in the mountains, the 14th day of racing. Everything added up, it will be hard."
The 33-year-old of team Liquigas-Cannondale won the Giro d'Italia last year, but skipped it this year to prepare specifically for the Tour de France. A crash in training on Mount Etna nearly derailed his plans.
On the second day of an altitude training camp, on May 17, his front wheel went into a drainage grate and caused him to fly off his bike. He landed on his right side, suffered cuts and bruises and later, received 15 stitches to his brow.
Basso remained in Sicily, but lost around 10 training days. He paid in the Critérium du Dauphiné, his first and only race since the Tour of Romandy in May. He finished the eight-day race 24-36 minutes behind overall winner, Bradley Wiggins.
"The run up to the Tour was not ideal," Liquigas sports director, Stefano Zanatta told Cycling Weekly.
"In the first ten days, however, he's found himself, he's avoid crashes - unlike many others - and he's in a good position."
Basso's positioned only 1-27 minutes behind the highest place overall contender, Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek). He will use today's mountainous run through the Pyrenees to build towards an overall win. The 168.5-kilometre stage finishes with a 15.8-kilometre climb to Plateau de Beille (1780m) and beforehand, includes the Col de Portet d'Aspet (1069m), the Col de la Core (1395m), the Col de Latrape (1110m), the Col d'Agnes (1570m) and the Port de Lers (1517m).
The Tour has only finished on the Plateau de Beille four times, each time the stage winner has gone on to win the race overall. Italian Marco Pantani won in 1998, American Lance Armstrong in 2002 and 2004, and Spaniard Alberto Contador in 2007.
"It's not guaranteed," added Basso, "that whoever wins will win the Tour de France."
In the next week, the overall contenders will face three Alpine stages, the most difficult being the leg to Galibier on Thursday and the leg to Alpe d'Huez on Friday.
Basso is a decent time trial rider, on level with Fränk and Andy Schleck, but weaker than Cadel Evans. He will need to arrive at the final time trial in Grenoble with time to spare if he has dreams of winning the Tour.
"It's clear," Basso said. "I have to think about dropping them. I don't want to over-analyse it; when the situation comes, and if I have the legs, I'll go."
He placed third in 2004 and second in 2005 behind Lance Armstrong, and won the Italian Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia in 2006. However, he received nearly a two-year doping ban in 2007 for his involvement in Operación Puerto.
At last year's Giro, Basso made his return to the top of the Giro. On July 24, he hopes to do the same in Paris.
Classification Overall Contenders
Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek)
Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) 17"
Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 28"
Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) 1'27"
Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) 2'11"
Tour de France 2011: Related links
Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
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