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Ivan Basso - the man who can't stop smiling

Peter Stuart
11 Dec 2015

After two Grand Tour wins, a cancer diagnosis and a long career, Ivan Basso tells Cyclist about bowing out of the pro peloton.

Ivan Basso wears a broad smile. It’s the same one that has been fixed to his face throughout his career. Whether climbing with Lance Armstrong on the Tourmalet, or dropping Cadel Evans on the Mortirolo, Basso maintained this glowing grin while a world of pressure weighed down on him, leading to him being nicknamed ‘The Smiling Assassin’. On the day we meet in London, it is just one month after Basso had a cancerous tumour removed and he’s still uncertain whether the cancer has spread, yet his smile is still in place.

‘I recovered very well from the operation,’ he tells Cyclist. ‘I have to wait for a scan result to see if it’s under control.’ His cancer was testicular. A crash on Stage 5 of this year’s Tour de France left him with lingering pain. A few days later an inspection showed up a small cancerous lump and on the first rest day he bid goodbye to his teammates, and the Tour, to undergo treatment.

Ivan Basso laughing

‘Everything happened in two days,’ Basso recalls. ‘I’m lucky. Yes, I have cancer, and yes I have a bad family history of cancer, but there is no metastasis and with this cancer 98% of the patients will live,’ he says. ‘So there was bad news, but straight away there was good news too.’ Ironically his crash may have brought the issue to light at the best possible time. ‘I’m really lucky because if I didn’t crash maybe I would have gone to the doctor six months later, and then it’s a problem.’

Today has been a good day for his recovery. He spent the morning riding into Surrey with SaxoBank employees and clients, part of team sponsor SaxoBank’s ‘Ride Like a Pro’ programme ( For Basso, riding has been key to recovery both physically and psychologically. ‘When I can ride my bike I feel OK. The bike is part of my life – I can use the bike to race and I can use the bike for my recovery.’ 

To sum up his positive outlook on life he says simply, ‘I think the answer is the big smile.’ 

Fighting form

As we talk, the weather turns on us and soon rain is lashing down. Basso recollects a similar day in the pro peloton. ‘We were in real trouble at the Giro in 2010. We had a long stage, 275km, and the weather was like this all day,’ he says, pointing out of the window. ‘There was a small climb at the start and we really had to control the race. We entered a long dark tunnel and people started to attack. We couldn’t see what was happening. Out of the tunnel we saw a big, big group rounding the corner ahead. It was raining so hard.’ He shakes his head with a fond but slightly pained smile. It turned out to be the hardest day in his pro cycling career. 

‘After two minutes, the DS came through on the radio, telling us there are 56 riders in the front group with a 57-second gap. Astana wouldn’t chase, they thought Nibali and I [both Team Liquigas] should close the gap, so it just grew and grew. The break gained 16 minutes. It was a disaster. When we saw there was 225km to go, we had to pray. We pulled on the front all day long and it just kept on raining. Finally, we arrived six minutes or seven minutes behind the break, and we slipped far down the GC.’ 

Ivan Basso gym

Despite the gruelling day, Basso went on to win that Giro d’Italia. It was his second win in the event, cementing his position among the royalty of Italian cyclists. 

‘When I was young I loved the Giro because, of course, I am Italian and I loved the pink jersey,’ he says. ‘But when you ride the Tour de France for the first time it’s like when you see the woman of your life,’ he adds with widening eyes. Unsurprisingly, winning the Tour was a constant yet ever-elusive target for the Italian.

Having finished in the top 10 four times, and on the podium twice, Basso has been tantalisingly close to the overall win. He even became heir apparent when in 2004 he beat Lance Armstrong to the summit of the Tourmalet on Stage 15 of the Tour, finishing third overall. But it was long before this that his talent had begun to flourish.

‘I started to race when I was seven,’ he says. ‘From seven to 15 it was just small regional races. Then I went into the national team and I started to move around Europe and the world. That year I came second at the Junior World Championships.’ Despite that early display of talent it was a few years until Basso was able to showcase his ability in the pro ranks. His breakthrough came with a win at the World U23 Road Race Championships in 1998, at the age of 20. From there it was straight into the pro peloton with Italian team Fassa Bortolo.

‘I feel like in the last 16 years, time has run too fast,’ he says, but with no flinch from his broad smile. His rise through the pro ranks was swift. In 2002 he finished 11th in the Tour de France, and was seventh in 2003. He moved to CSC-Discovery in 2004 and more success followed. He won the Giro in 2006 by an emphatic margin of over nine minutes, taking three stage wins in the process. A string of top finishes at all three Grand Tours followed and he seemed destined for greatness.

Ivan Basso interview

‘My idol is Indurain,’ Basso states proudly. ‘When I was 18 I met him at the Giro. I remember that man well. He was really big and always friendly – a gentleman. I said to myself if one day I’m a professional I would like to be like this.’ Basso looked to have the ability to emulate his idol in terms of Grand Tour victories, and in 2005 many expected him to fill the gap left by Armstrong. But fate, and the Spanish police, had other ideas.

Past and future

After finishing second in 2005, Basso approached the 2006 Tour as hot favourite having just notched up his first Giro d’Italia win, giving him every possibility of scoring the elusive Giro-Tour double. It was then that Operacion Puerto intervened and Basso was excluded before the race began. The Spanish police investigation into doping practices among professional athletes implicated Basso, along with Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Jan Ullrich. The report alleged that he had employed the services of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes to enhance his performances with blood doping. Basso admitted the charge of consulting and paying Fuentes, but denied ever actually doping. He faced a two-year ban.

It was the height of doping prosecutions in the sport. Ironically, even with his prosecution Basso officially remains the highest placed finisher in the 2005 Tour de France, theoretically giving him a right to the yellow jersey after Armstrong’s retrospective disqualification. Basso doesn’t entertain the idea, though, and nor does he spend much time considering the era of his suspension. ‘You must focus on the future and not on the past,’ he says, growing slightly morose for the first time. ‘I worked hard to rehabilitate myself after my problem. I won all the same things after as I did before the ban. After the disqualification I took second in the Giro, first in the Giro, fourth in Vuelta, fifth in the Tour. To do that I used a system – not to look back, but to look forward.’

Basso’s return is one of the better stories of redemption in the sport. ‘When I restarted in 2008, I wanted to make a demonstration that all was clear, and I’m lucky because I did, and I won. I think it’s best to prove things by what you do, not with talk.’ Indeed, some of his best form came in the years after his return.

Ivan Basso

In 2009 he won the Giro del Trentino and finished fourth in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. The following year he took the maglia rosa in the Giro, beating David Arroyo and Vincenzo Nibali in the process. Climbing the Monte Zoncolan on Stage 15, he made one of the most memorable attacks of his career, riding away from the pack in a two-man breakaway with Cadel Evans. With 3.8km to go, seemingly with a beaming smile, Basso kicked away from Evans after a long bout of shadow boxing, putting 90 seconds between them. Another breakaway on Stage 19 separated him from Arroyo to secure the win.

For Basso, the 2010 Giro win seems to hold special significance, even eclipsing his dominant win in 2006. ‘If I had to choose one day that stood out in my career, I think it is when I won the Giro in 2010,’ he says. ‘We had a very special finish. We arrived in the Arena di Verona, which is like a colosseum. I finished the time-trial and I went into the arena and when I stopped the bike and clipped out of the pedals I picked up my daughter and son as the winner of the race. Can you imagine?’

Basso describes a different world of cycling after his return, compared to the years before. ‘What has changed in the last 10 years is that many teams are more professional. The power you see on the television is not only of the captain, but it’s the team. Sky is an example – they don’t work only for Froome, they work for each other to be a stronger team. Tinkoff-Saxo is another example, with Contador, or Sagan, or Kreuziger – we have a lot of very good riders.’

Supporting role

Ivan Basso walking

Indeed, in Tinkoff-Saxo’s superteam, Basso has spent a few years playing super-domestique to Contador, whom he greatly admires. It seems odd for such an eminent rider to work in service of another, but Basso doesn’t give it a second thought. ‘We work really hard to support him because he is the best rider for the Grand Tours,’ he says sharply. His respect for Contador is striking, and clearly even among Grand Tour winners, Basso considers Contador exceptional. ‘Riding with Alberto is like taking a masters course in cycling at the world’s best university.’

Basso seems content, then, to be part of the machine rather than striving for individual glory. It’s not without its challenges, however. ‘Sometimes the wind is on your back and everything is going well, but you have to be ready to go in the opposite direction the day after.’ The last few years have perhaps seen seasons with less wind on the back, as Basso has been plagued with a string of injuries, including a debilitating saddle sore in 2013 that ruled him out of the Giro d’Italia. 

On the day we speak, Basso has yet to announce his retirement in early October and is still dreaming of a return, but laments his recent form. ‘I don’t feel the age, but I’m not super happy about my condition. I work hard and I don’t get what I expect.’ Writing soon after in his local newspaper, La Provincia de Varese, he confessed to constantly searching for reasons behind his fading form, and imagining ways in which he might find his way back to great performances. In the end, though, he concedes that his best days are behind him, and a few days after our interview he announces that his career as a pro rider is over. He is also, thankfully, given the all-clear from cancer.

I wonder whether he will be glad to see the back of the painful days in the saddle, especially given his appetite for attacking on savage gradients. When I put the question to him, he looks slightly puzzled for a moment. ‘I never suffer on the bike,’ he says. ‘If you are really suffering on the bike you are an idiot, because nobody keeps you like that. You decide yourself.’ Putting it in perspective, he goes on, ‘Suffering is when you are sick, or when you have a big problem in your life. When you can’t go on the bike you understand how important that is.’

Ivan Basso thinking

There’s no surprise, then, that Basso intends to not stray too far from his bike. ‘I am a cyclist for life,’ he says. ‘I think I will have to do something close to the bike. I don’t have any experience in anything else. I think the most important thing is that whatever I do, for sure I will do it with the same approach and passion as I have for cycling.

‘In my opinion, the bike is an education when you are young, and it makes you a better man when you become older.’ 

He describes his morning with the SaxoBank corporate clients as part of a programme that sees Tinkoff Saxo riders sharing training advice with financial traders, and the bankers sharing trading advice with riders. ‘Here we have a personal banker, someone that earns a million Euros a month,’ Basso says. ‘He can take a private jet to Paris for lunch, but instead he’s on the bike with me for three hours. With money you can buy anything, but you cannot buy happiness.’

In retirement Basso has already landed a role at Tinkoff-Saxo in a coaching and technical capacity. Will life in the team car be easier than racing on the bike? He considers the question for a moment: ‘The hardest stage is always the one in front of you,’ he says with a smile.

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