Ivan Basso gives every impression of a man glad to be alive.
He is not out of the woods yet – he has an important check-up on September 1 – but to see him in a London café with his son, and with friends, old and new, is to watch a man enjoying every moment. Having undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumour only six weeks ago, he has every reason to smile.
Perhaps I am doing Basso a disservice (this is the first time we have met, after all). He might be similarly joyful on any given rain-soaked Wednesday, and not only in an atmosphere as conducive as lunch in the Look Mum No Hands café, with sunlight streaming through the windows, La Vuelta on the big screen, and only occasional, respectful interruptions for photos and autographs to contend with.
Basso is a man recently stepped from a whirlwind. A crash on stage five of the Tour; a pain that did not subside on subsequent stages; an examination, a lump discovered on his left testicle; a rest day press conference hours later, then, immediately, a flight to Italy for surgery the following day.
Moments of solitude (“Oh fuck, man,” his thoughts in the moments when he was finally alone), a blizzard of texts, Tweets, emails, including from Lance Armstrong offering treatment in the US if Italy fell short, then the operation, recovery, a month off the bike, and now, in London, riding again.
The ‘smiling assassin’ is smiling again, but this is not the grimace of effort from which he earned the nickname. Basso is relaxed, confident, comfortable in his own skin (he acknowledges the two-year suspension for implication in the Operación Puerto affair with references to “my past”), and – there is no better phrase – happy.
“Honestly, I never felt alone,” he says of what must be the most harrowing period of his life. “I felt support from private messages, from Twitter, from all the team in the Tour de France, from people outside my house. Everywhere.”
Good times, bad times
Perhaps only those who have been diagnosed with cancer can understand its significance, so I will not pretend to. Basso is serious, but not sentimental. We are not talking about a headache or a nosebleed, he concedes, but by the same token, the tumour he suffered is one of the more treatable. He never felt in fear of his life.
“I went in the morning, really early for the operation. At 10 o’clock in the night, I’m alone in the hospital room. That was the moment I thought, ‘Fuck, man.’ But I never felt afraid. Firstly, because I had good information. I thought, ‘We have a good doctor, good treatment, good everything. I have to be optimistic and smile and just go’.”
It is stupid to talk of racing or comebacks before he has even passed the first, crucial check-up, he continues. But he is extremely pleased to be back on the bike; that much is obvious. He rode for the first time since surgery on August 16 in Italy, and on the morning of our interview, has ridden out from Putney with participants of Saxo Bank’s Ride Like a Pro programme into the Surrey Hills and back.
“It’s one thing to have a ride like today – fun, you stand up, you talk, you stop – and second is right there [gestures at the screen and La Vuelta]. It’s an extreme position, it’s full gas. In my opinion, now it’s really important to be on the bike. When you are on the bike you feel happier, you feel stronger in the head, but it’s too early to talk about racing.”
Basso’s health scare provides a dramatic jumping off point for the discussion we might have had in any instance: an exploration of the changing role of a two-time Grand Tour winner, entering the twilight of his career in the service of a still greater champion, whose friendship he values so highly he will not discuss it in detail.
Basso’s role at Tinkoff-Saxo, the team he joined this season as super domestique to Alberto Contador, is one he relishes and if he refuses to reveal the particulars, it is only to be expected: trust is sacrosanct to the Spaniard, the one thing he demands from his team-mates, as Carlos Arribas described in Issue 55.
“I never talk about Alberto, before or in the future,” Basso says. “But what I can say is that every day when he wakes up, it’s like he’s forgotten that he is Alberto Contador. He works like a neo-pro. He is a work machine. That makes a difference. He is not [just] another rider. He is the strongest in the Grand Tours of his era.”
If his service to Contador is the most important aspect of Basso’s role at Tinkoff-Saxo, it is only one part of it. The team is the subject to which he returns again and again. Basso clearly finds some validation in the response of his colleagues, whether it be Contador, former team-mate Davide Formolo (to whom we will return), or team owner Oleg Tinkov, a man he describes as a fan rather than his boss, and with whom he has been friends for eight years.
Basso’s modus operandi is simple: he works as hard he can, and if the team is satisfied then he is happy. It’s an attitude more typical of a domestique, or a rider at the start of his career, and so surprising in a champion, especially one approaching the end of his career. Perhaps it is not only Contador who has the hunger of the neo-pro.
Given the strength of his personal relationship with Contador, as well as his previous working relationship with Bjarne Riis, who was general manager when Basso joined the team, Tinkoff-Saxo seems, to the outsider at least, the only realistic destination following the demise of Brixia Sport, with whom he had raced for six seasons under the banners of Liquigas and Cannondale.
Basso, however, rejects the notion that he would not ride in service of another leader. It seems an unusual, if admirable attitude for one who has led. He is not a Bernie Eisel or Michael Rogers, for example: riders who by years of hard service have gained the experience and tactical acumen required to keep the troops in line and to be the directeur’s eyes and ears when out of radio contact.
“I’m a professional rider. I do my job very well. Maybe I don’t win, but I’m focussed all the time. But I’m glad and happy to be on Alberto’s side. Not everybody is lucky enough to end their career not only on the road, but in the room and at the side of a champion like Alberto.”
Basso discusses the approaching finish to his career in the same matter-of-fact tone as his past. The bike is his life, and he is keen now to move to the next phase. While he trains hard, his body “does not answer very well,” he admits, but, tapping his head knowingly, says that the energy once stored bountifully in his legs has been transferred upstairs. He has every intention of remaining in cycling when he retires from riding.
“The moment I stop, I want to study,” he explains. “What I want to do is to use my time to study and meet good coaches from other sports – football, volleyball, basketball – and try to understand the culture of the sport and bring something from mine.
“I want to do something special for my favourite game. I don’t know [what] yet, but I’ve ridden from three years-old: 35 years, only on the bike. It’s my game, my sport, my fun, my work. You learn a lot.”
He has a protégé already. Davide Formolo, the new darling of Italian cycling, following a victory gained by sheer panache on stage four of this year’s Giro. I spoke to Formolo a few weeks later and when Basso’s name cropped up, the younger man was fulsome in his praise for the rider who mentored him last season. The veteran is similarly effusive.
“If the day comes when I decide the list of riders to buy and keep in my team,” Basso says, only half-joking, “his will be the first name.
“In cycling, we have a lot of good riders. You can train, you can gain a lot of effect – power, threshold, everything – but the difference, you make with this,” he continues, tapping his temple. “He is very strong. He knows very well the sacrifice required. He knows very well how hard you have to work.
“When I go to a training camp, I see very well who is a bike rider and who is a bike racer. That is very easy,” Basso concludes, leaving little doubt that Formolo is the latter.
An Italian in Italy, and abroad
The last time I saw Basso was in Marostica, before stage 15 of the Giro. He had recently emerged from the Tinkoff-Saxo bus and was riding slowly towards the sign-on area, his progress blocked by gangs of well-wishers every 20 metres or so. The response from the fans was generous indeed. More so in Italy than elsewhere, perhaps?
Basso disagrees. Cycling fans are the same everywhere, he argues, recalling a similar response at the Tour of Britain three years ago. They either like you, or they don’t, and those who do are not slow to show their support, even if in some countries they are not so effusive as his homeland. Like Contador’s friendship, the support of the fans at the roadside is clearly something Basso cherishes.
Basso denies that he is frustrated by the ageing process. He can only do what he can do: continue to train as hard as he can and offer the best service possible to his team. If they are happy, he is happy. The critics – journalists and broadcasters – have their job to do, he acknowledges, though it is different to his own.
“The critic is part of our world. My job is to do the race as well as possible. For a journalist, on TV or whatever, the job is to give an opinion. It’s two different jobs, and you can’t make a comment on a comment. I never feel frustrated because I do my job with my heart.” A pause. “I just don’t go fast.” Laughter.
Like many who competed in such a blighted era, Basso suffered his own lapse of judgment, but has come back clean to win again, notably at the 2010 Giro. His greatest victory, however, may still be ahead. On September 1, everyone in cycling will be cheering for him. The hashtag ForzaIvan gained some currency during Basso's shock withdrawal from the Tour. It is likely to do so again next week.
Ivan Basso rode in London as an ambassador for Saxo Bank's Ride Like A Pro programme. Click here for more information.