After his ride to a stage victory up the steep slopes of the Monte Zoncolan on Sunday, Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo) stepped into the ranks of the top favorites who could win the overall at the Giro d'Italia with less than one week to go.
Basso's next opportunity to regain time over race leader David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) is Tuesday's uphill time trial up the Plan de Corones, where he'll be watched by thousands of Italian fans and a couple of VIPs too, including UCI president Pat McQuaid and Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso, who will be there to support his close friend Carlos Sastre.
"The Zoncolan stage has demonstrated that I have the characteristics of a long-distance racer," said Basso said in a press conference in the Dolomites. "But it's a totally different thing to ride a single hill alone in a time trial," he said referring to tomorrow's stage.
"We got to the Zoncolan after five and half hours of racing. My teammates had prepared me well for the end by pulling for 50km. I'm grateful to all of them, but I give special thanks for Tiziano Dall'Antonia and Maciej Bodnar, who did the first part of the work and still made it to the end of the stage and climbed the Zoncolan well."
Without naming any rider in particular, Basso said that "an effort of approximately 40 minutes suits some riders" more than himself. After checking out the climb again this morning, he was adamant that he remained "serene" - even after his performance up the Zoncolan elevated him to the more high pressure position as a favorite.
"But who knows?" he asked. "It's not impossible that Arroyo will win this Giro. It's not written anywhere that he won't be able to maintain the lead he's got." The Caisse d'Epargne rider has a 3:33 advantage over Basso with six stages to go, including two time trials and two big mountain stages.
Basso doesn't have very good memories of racing uphill time trials during his career prior to his ban in 2007. "I think I'll do better than (I did) up to L'Alpe d'Huez in the 2004 Tour de France," he said. "Well, I finished seventh, not last, but at the time, whoever had to start two minutes before Lance Armstrong had a good chance of getting caught, myself included."
The Liquigas-Doimo rider refused to plan his race beyond the uphill time trial of Plan de Corones. "Tomorrow evening, we'll have a clearer picture of the classification," he said. "I don't feel like predicting too much in advance."
"You've seen what happened in Montalcino (stage 7 with the gravel roads) and L'Aquila (stage 15 when Arroyo and Sastre broke away). Nobody could have predicted that. I can only say that our team will have the same attitude as during the recent weekend; we'll be united. That's what people want to see."
Basso is counting on home crowd support to bring him success in Verona on Sunday. "Many of you attend the sign-in ceremony every morning," he said to reporters. "So you realize how spectators have been nice to me. I can only be happy with that. Cycling enthusiasts have figured out for themselves what happened (referring to his doping ban - ed.)." Basso added a comment that spectators could look into his eyes, full of expression yesterday, and form their own opinions.
"There were many specators on my side. The beauty of cycling is that yesterday, after they cheered me like mad, they also cheered the other riders who came after me."