Italian star Ivan Basso admitted the emotions were in full flow as he prepared to complete his return to the Tour de France today.
Basso, with a strong Liquigas team, returns to the race for the first time in four tumultuous years, although in 2006 the Italian ace did not even get to turn a pedal in anger.
Implicated in the Operación Puerto doping scandal that erupted in May of that year, the then-reigning Giro d’Italia champion was thrown off the race by organizers who determined the evidence against him was quite damning.
Basso’s career took a more decisive turn a year later when, while racing with the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team, he was eventually banned for “attempted” doping in relation to the Puerto affair when DNA evidence linked him to seized blood bags.
After completing his suspension and joining Liquigas, Basso has since vowed he is racing 100 percent clean. He finally capped his return to the top echelons of the sport by winning the Giro last month for a second time.
Now among around a dozen potential challengers to Alberto Contador’s Tour de France crown, Basso says he just wants to appreciate the experience before thinking about his own chances of victory.
“It’s a special day,” said Basso.
“The important thing is to be here, to compete. I really want to savor every moment. I don’t want to start talking up my yellow jersey chances yet.
“But if we continue to work as we have been since the start of the season, including the Giro, the results will come by themselves.”
Basso’s Liquigas team was one of the main protagonists in the Giro, where the Italian stage racing star finished nearly two minutes ahead of Spaniard David Arroyo after a series of powerful displays in the mountains.
Although Vincenzo Nibali completed the podium for Liquigas, the Sicilian ace is not competing at the Tour, where instead Czech racer Roman Kreuziger will be aiming to be Basso’s right-hand man.
Having finished an impressive 12th overall on his debut in 2008 and ninth last year, Kreuziger will be one of the men to watch in the mountains.
“It’s my third Tour campaign, but it’s the first one I will start with a real objective in mind,” he warned.
Basso meanwhile will hope to rekindle the form he held at the Giro, although the Varese-born ace, who took a week off the bike after his triumph before spending time training at altitude and going to reconnoiter key Tour stages, played down his chances.
“It’s impossible to keep the form I had at the Giro until the end of the Tour,” he said.
Basso, however, has finished in the top five of every major three-week Tour in which he has participated and, as runner-up to Armstrong in 2005 and a third-place finisher in 2004, cannot be discounted.
But he knows that even his skills will be tested by a large field which, for the first time in years, has sliced the race wide open.
“The strongest (stage racing) riders are all here. It will be a very tough test.”