News feature, December 3, 2006.
Not without controversy
Ivan Basso, last seen in action in Milano on May 28, will be back in the peloton in 2007 riding for his new team, Discovery Channel. On Saturday, December 2, in Milano, Italy, the rider from Varese was officially introduced by Johan Bruyneel just hours before the presentation of the 2007 Giro d'Italia. The 29 year-old is out of the red and white colours of CSC, distanced from former manager Bjarne Riis and allowed to resume racing after Operación Puerto, an investigation which consumed the latter-half of 2006.
In the blue colours of American squad Discovery Channel, Basso will point towards a comeback of sorts; redeeming himself in the Tour de France, where he was not allowed to start in 2006.
Bruyneel has the know-how to deliver a rider to the Champs-Élysées in the Maillot Jaune; he did it seven years with Texan Lance Armstrong. But just how will Basso fit in to the Discovery system? "I feel very well, because I just spent the month of November in vacation," said Basso, dressed in a dark blue shirt with the Discovery Channel logo. "After many month difficulties, this is a relaxed start and with a new team. It gives me great sense of security. Now I will be able to face the objectives that I was not able to face this year ."
"In a short time we were able to find an agreement. At the same time, I reached an agreement with CSC. There was no longer a place to work together, so he [Riis] left the door open for me to go." - Ivan Basso on the timing of his switch from CSC to Discovery
Lance Armstrong, the team's ex-leader, originally announced Basso's arrival to the team on November 8th, saying "It's done". With the Italian, the team had signed a potential winner of the Tour de France; Basso had finish third in 2004 and second in 2005 edition. "[The team] always gave me respect. It felt right to join Discovery Channel. I have the guarantees to win the races that I want win. I wanted to sign with them back when Armstrong was on the team, but for other reasons I stayed with CSC and continued my work with Riis.
"After the decision by CONI [Italian Olympic Committee] and FCI [Italian cycling federation], I then started talking with Discovery," continued Basso, who was rumoured to be talking with Discovery Channel as early as July. "They gave me a lot of respect, even the days of US Postal. ... In a short time we were able to find an agreement. At the same time, I reached an agreement with CSC. There was no longer a place to work together, so he [Riis] left the door open for me to go."
Basso is referring back to the events of Operación Puerto, which led to him not being able to ride his major objective of the 2006 season, the Tour. On the eve of La Grand Boucle he was ordered by Riis to go home due to the Ethical Codes that the ProTour teams must adhere to.
After an ensuing legal battle in Italy, where Basso's case was effectively shelved by CONI, he was set free to ride again. However, as the questions from the press gathered in Milano would indicate, there is still concern over his alleged involvement in the Spanish investigation of Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
"It is clear that it was difficult to talk in this time. There was no time. It was a cold wake-up call," Basso said when asked why he left the Tour so hastily, out the back door of the team's hotel. "I got the news my team was sending me to home. In that moment I was a CSC rider and I followed the orders of the team."
Team manager of CSC, Riis, and Basso were viewed to be the best of friends, supposedly spending most of their time together preparing for the Giro and Tour. Their relationship dwindled and eventually snapped because of the events of Operación Puerto. "He was neither like my dad nor my brother, but we had a close relationship, like all of my teammates did with him. We talked a lot because of the nature of the work. It [leaving the Tour] was not a personal decision of Riis, but of the Ethical Codes.
"After the Tour I made an interview saying that I had no involvement in Operación Puerto. I was waiting for the documents to arrive at CONI [to continue my defence]. Not if the documents were valid or not, just we had to wait for them to arrive. ... I missed racing; the documents were not arriving; it was not my fault; I wanted to race. I wanted to go forward but we had to wait for CONI."
Basso's lawyer, Massimo Martelli, who guided him through the Italian investigation, was present in Milano to support his client. The lawyer from Cremona added, "We were waiting for the documents to prepare a defence. There was no need to talk to the press in this time without the evidence. Ivan kept getting his payments from the team; he was following the orders. ... We were respecting the contractual agreements of CSC, because they asked him not to speak. Ivan respected the decision of his boss."
Since the scandals of this past summer, there has been more and more of a push for riders to submit to DNA testing. The ProTour teams came to a gentlemen's agreement to begin these types of tests but the legal ramifications are still unclear. During the time Basso was being investigated by CONI, he was noted as refusing to give his DNA sample, but shortly after signing for Discovery Channel he said that he would agree to submit to DNA testing if there were future criminal-type investigation. Riis has recently said that if Basso had agreed to DNA testing then he could have stayed with the Danish squad.
Basso did not agree, and said, "It was not this difference that ended our agreement; during the investigations of CONI I gave my word to give DNA. There where many things written in the press, but basically my relationship [with Riis] had changed."
The official investigation against Basso by his federation [FCI] has been shelved but the Italian judge noted that the case could be reopened if there was found more evidence to warrant such action, although this has rarely happened in the history of the FCI.
"The case is open, but only in an official sense," Basso said. "The documents, the fax and the recorded telephone call all talked of me in third person. And how many people around the world were talking on the telephone about the winner of the Giro? Many."
As for his connection to Dr Fuentes, "How can I make an explanation? There are many things said, but simply my name is not there on any documents. My name has been on a fax, but you have ask why? Who wrote the fax? You have to ask them? It is not my fault they wrote my name."
"The only time his name was mentioned any of the documents was the fax," interjected Martelli. "We don't know who mailed it, and it is not significant. Basso was never mentioned in name in any other documents from Spain."
The Italian is embarking on a new mission; to redeem himself while riding under the direction of Bruyneel. On Sunday, December 3, the two will travel to Austin, Texas where there will be a short camp and the team will begin to make plans for the 2007 season.
Bruyneel did not view signing Basso to be a problem even though he was one of the big names allegedly linked to Operación Puerto. "It was not only this year, but last year that we were interested in Basso," the Belgian director said. "This decision [to eject riders] that was made at the Tour was a rushed decision and maybe not made by qualified people. I am an ex-rider, but when there are matters I don't understand I ask others. Before we signed Ivan, I talked to lawyers, and the FCI and CONI made their decisions. If they all said this [Basso is approved to race], then who am I, who are you, the press, to say otherwise?"
The organizers of the Deutschland Tour have recently come out and reported that they would not allow Jan Ullrich or Ivan Basso to race in their 2007 event, no matter what decisions were made in the national federations' investigations. "We read it in the newspaper. It is not official, but if it is then I have questions," continued Bruyneel. "Is Discovery Channel a ProTour team? And is the Deutschland Tour a ProTour race? I think the discussion ends there. ... I think everyone has to make their own decisions. I feel confident with my team. We made a decision to sign Ivan and it was not a one-day thing, we did our homework, we followed the rules, and I hope that everyone else [other race organizers] does this in making their decisions."
Basso knows that his reputation has been damaged by the events of 2006 but wants to continue racing; signalling that he is still the same rider that he has always been. "I have raced since I was six years-old, winning in all the categories, gradually improving," Basso noted. "My podium at the Tour was not a surprise. I always have lots of fans waiting for me; they want to meet me and ride with me when I train. I believe that the best response to all of this is to go forward, racing in the Giro and Tour. Continue to better myself in my profession."
Bruyneel was pressed on the issue of Manolo Saiz, ex-team manager of Liberty Seguros-Würth, and talked about the Spaniard's possibility to keep his ProTour license. Bruyneel noted that although this may not be the "correct" decision, the UCI has to follow the rules. Inversely, he did not see the correlation to whether or not it was correct to sign Ivan Basso, who although has been found not-guilty and allowed to race, is still very much linked with Operación Puerto. Basso and Bruyneel will have time to reflect on the 2006 events and prepare for 2007 in Austin. The season will be demanding, with the goal being a Giro-Tour double, as too, as indicated in Milano, will be the questions from the press, who are still concerned with what happened last summer.