ANTEQUERA, Spain (VN) — With 41-year-old Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) riding high on GC, this Vuelta a España is being called by some the “Vuelta de los abuelos.”
They’re not quite grandfathers, but it’s true that older, veteran riders are doing well in the season’s third grand tour, with four riders in the top 10 into their mid-30s and beyond.
One of them punching center stage is aging Italian warhorse Ivan Basso. The Cannondale captain, 36 in November, burst into contention with a strong ride Saturday up Peñas Blancas, charging across the line fifth on the stage to claw his way into 12th overall at 1:28 back.
“It was a very good day that left me satisfied, even though it’s only the first of many tests that we have ahead of us,” Basso told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “After the two climbs [Sunday and Monday] and the time trial [Wednesday], then we’ll be able to make an evaluation of my real capacities in this Vuelta.”
The strong ride by Basso is the first real indication that he might be up for a challenge for the podium in this Vuelta. Cannondale was slow out of the gate in the team time trial, riding to 17th at 1:26 back, and Basso has been hiding in the pack since then.
On Saturday, he shot clear with a fierce determination not seen since he won the 2010 Giro d’Italia. In the following seasons, Basso has struggled with injuries and sub-par results, at least for a rider who was once touted as a possible Tour de France winner.
His involvement in Operación Puerto tarnished his image, but Basso has been adamant that he’s been racing clean since coming back in 2008. In fact, he posts his training numbers regularly on Twitter, something other top riders are loath to do.
Cannondale sport director Mario Scirea told VeloNews that Basso still believes he can win a grand tour.
“Basso is a big champion, and he is still ambitious to win races. This year, he had some bad luck, and was angry that he could not race the Giro,” Scirea told VeloNews before Sunday’s start. “He comes to this Vuelta with high hopes. A stage win or the podium would make him very happy.”
Scirea said Cannondale is taking Basso’s GC chances “day by day,” but said Saturday’s performance was encouraging.
“He wanted to win the stage, but it didn’t work out, but he was very satisfied because it shows that he’s in condition to challenge against the top riders here,” Scirea said.
“Once we get into the Pyrénées, then we will see who can truly challenge to win this Vuelta. These next few days will settle things out, but the real battle is still to come.”
Scirea also confirmed to VeloNews that Basso has re-upped with Cannondale to ride in 2014, so there’s no talk of retirement yet.
With the rise of Peter Sagan and other younger riders, such as Damiano Caruso and Moreno Moser, Basso takes over the role as veteran road captain.
“Ivan still has an important role on the team. We have some young guys coming up, but they’re still a few years away from leading in a grand tour,” Scirea said.
“I still believe Ivan can win some big races. It would mean a lot to him if he could win a stage here or finish on the podium. I believe it’s possible, but we will see how things go.”
Scirea also said that the American market will continue to grow in importance for the team, thanks in large part to the continued support from title sponsor Cannondale.
“We will race more in the United States, and look at U.S. riders,” he said. “The U.S. is big for us. You saw how Sagan is racing in California and Colorado. We will continue to be a presence there.”
For the here and now, it’s all about the Vuelta. Basso’s only raced the Vuelta once in his long career, riding to fourth in 2009 in what was an important step in his comeback.
Finishing even higher would mean the world to Basso, but it won’t be easy.