Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ivan Basso Rebuilds a Career and a Reputation

Ivan Basso gives his fans a kiss before today's 20th stage.

“I was away from the sport for two years, and I didn’t think it was right that I made the decision,” said Basso, the winner of the 2006 Giro and a favorite at this year’s race. “But I think we need to apologize to the fans. I’m coming off a very tough time, and I’m trying to do something good for cycling.”

Basso is in his first season after a two-year doping ban, and he is treading carefully in his first Grand Tour race in three years. He was implicated in a doping ring in Spain, using the name of his dog, Birillo, as his code name at a blood-doping clinic. He admitted not to doping, but to thinking about doping.

But his redemption among his fans, competitors and countrymen started long before this race. Basso, 31, once thought to be the next coming of Lance Armstrong, spent two years thinking about it, creating it and acting on it.

“It is important that I try to get the fans to believe in me again,” he said. “But I know I have three types of fans. Those who were with me all the time. Those who had big delusions about me but decided to follow me again. But some fans want to kill me for what I’ve done.

“There will always be a group who are unhappy, and I’ve learned to understand that.”

“There was something broken in 2006 when Basso was involved in doping, and it was the point of no return for many of his supporters,” said Paolo Tomaselli, a reporter who covers cycling for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “He once had a clean image as a good guy. People loved him. But they don’t trust cycling anymore. They might respect Basso, but no, they will never again be able to love him. Here in Italy, this is the worst thing for a sportsman.”

Basso said he thought of that during his two-year exile. He wondered how fans would greet him, or if they would accept him.

To keep his head from spinning, Basso would turn to his wife, Micaela, and his two young children, Santiago and Domitilla, for support.

“Whenever I’d be thinking about my big problems, I’d sit on the bed, and my children would jump on me and want to play,” he said. “This is the only way I could get through this.”

But then came a revelation. He needed to return to cycling and prove to everyone he was clean.

So Basso contacted someone with a solid reputation in Italy for training athletes the right way: Aldo Sassi. In February 2008, Basso traveled to the Mapei Sport training center, where members of Italy’s national ski team prepare for competition. He asked Sassi to train him.

Sassi said yes, but only if Basso agreed to be subject to rigorous testing, which included periodically measuring the hemoglobin mass in his blood. Sassi, looking for a near guarantee that Basso was clean, said that variations in hemoglobin mass could indicate doping.

“We knew cycling was in an emergency because of doping and thought it would be good to support an athlete who wanted to race clean,” Sassi said. “Basso said, ‘Yes, but I want to be totally transparent, 100 percent, and you can test me every time you want.’ I strongly believe that he is clean now.”

Sassi posts all of Basso’s training data, blood data and drug testing data on the Mapei Web site. There are pages of graphs and information, with the latest data — hemoglobin mass and blood test updates — posted on May 7. Basso’s personal Web site also has a link to the data.

“Basso’s way of doing it is the best,” said Michael Ashenden, a blood-doping expert from Australia. “I couldn’t ask any more of an athlete than to do what he is doing. I don’t know how an athlete could manipulate all that data without being discovered.”

Some riders, including David Millar, have applauded Basso’s efforts. Millar, who served a two-year ban for admitting he had used the blood-booster EPO, said: “In all honesty, he’s coming back the right way. You have to remember that in Italy, cycling is a national sport, and he’s been vilified very little here.”

Still, Basso said he felt pressure to succeed so he could rebuild his name. But he is convinced that winning need not come right away.

“I don’t need to convince people in 21 days that I am doing things the right way because I know it will take two years, three years to do that,” he said of this three-week race. “I prefer the fans wait to judge me. Now I just need to work and just shut up.”

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