By Miwako Sasaki
The 17th Japan Cup has been shaping up to be a historic battle between two Italian stars. The newly upgraded "HC" UCI - category race will start next Sunday, October 26 and feature Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre) as the two top crowd favorites.
Basso will compete just two days after the end of a two-year suspension he is serving after admitting his intention to dope in conjunction with Operaciòn Puerto.
''The team wanted to give me a gift and they are allowing me to participate in the Japan Cup. I go into it with great motivation and in satisfactory condition," said Basso. It will be the first time his Liquigas team participates in the Japan Cup.
Not having raced during his suspension, no one knows what to expect of Basso. On the other hand, recent Giro di Lombardia winner Damiano Cunego is a surer bet as a favorite at the Japan Cup, which he will race with his Lampre teammates. Cunego won the race in 2005, and the 2008 edition will mark his team's seventh appearance, so he and his teammates know the course well.
''I couldn't go to the race during the past few years because I just had other appointments," said Cunego to the Japanese magazine Cycle Sports back in June. "But I have a special memory of Japan. I remember that a lot of fans cheered me from the roadside.''
A third man, another Italian, has thrown his hat into the ring and will mix it up with the favorites. Giovanni Visconti (Quick Step), a former national champion and maglia rosa wearer, finished fourth in Saturday's Giro di Lombardia.
Teams for 2008 Japan Cup: Lampre, Liquigas, Quick Step, Bouygues Telecom, Skil - Shimano, Trek - Marco Polo Cycling Team, Giant Asia Racing Team, Aisan Racing Team, Matrix Powertag, Meitan Hompo - GDR, Team Bridgestone Anchor, Nippo - Endeka, Japan National Team