It has been five years since Ivan Basso was last at the Tour de France, and one could sense that it was a special moment for the Liquigas rider as he prepared for the first big show of the event in Rotterdam, the official team presentation held on Thursday afternoon.
"I'm very happy to be here," smiled the winner of the 2010 Giro d'Italia as he sat down with Cyclingnews waiting for his team's call to ride over the Erasmus bridge and onto the podium, surrounded by a substantial crowd. "It's a fantastic moment to be back after five years. We haven't started the race yet, but I am very eager to do my best."
After being excluded from the race one day before the start of the 2006 Tour, and having completed a suspension for his involvement in Operacion Puerto, the Italian raced three Grand Tours before coming back to the French event this year. But what has been a slow come-back for him may also play to his advantage, as his build-up back to the highest level was made steadily.
"After my Giro victory I'm very motivated to do well at the Tour again," he continued. "I hope to have three really good weeks. My form is good, but not super yet. But I know it will rise during the next weeks. I am confident."
Liquigas' plan is for Basso to score another podium placing at this Tour, after finishing third in 2004 and second one year later. "I'm ready - but I also think everybody is ready! There are the world's best riders at the start, so it will be difficult to achieve [a podium placing]. But this is our objective," he confirmed.
The 2010 Tour de France is thus a very open one, despite public attention focusing mostly on defending champion Alberto Contador (Astana) and Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), going for what would be a more than legendary eighth Tour de France victory. Basso noted that there were many other contenders for a top GC placing this year, including the Schleck brothers (Saxo Bank), World champion Cadel Evans (BMC) and Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel), to mention but a few and in no particular order.
"Alberto is the great favourite, of course," Basso commented. "But there are many riders this year that are ready to fight for the podium. What Alberto has done in the last years is impressive - still, we all need to believe that we can beat him."
The Italian was not fazed by the prospect of Northern Europe sidewinds or cobblestones, which could have a serious impact on General Classification in the first week of racing. "I had a lot of training on these grounds - last year at the Vuelta, this year at the Giro. I'm ready," he assured.
Bu the most important thing to him, insisted the Italian, was to enjoy being back at the Tour de France and to compete in the event without pressure, as he has already one Grand Tour win in his pocket this year. "I think I can do a great Tour de France," he said. "I'll definitely go for a stage win, and I hope for the podium. Whether I can win? Maybe not. But I don't want to think too much about this right now. Honestly, I have no pressure, and I don't want to limit myself to this or that objective right now. I just want to ride."