The year 2001 would be a watershed year for Basso. Early that year, he married Micaela, his fiancee over the past year and a half. Clear and level riding; at home as well as on the road. A child would follow, in due time; the serenity of family life would provide an important counterweight to the frenzy of life on the road. Basso was ready for the jump into the big leagues. That year he joined the Fassa Bortolo squad of Giancarlo Ferretti.
Early in 2001, Ivan Basso demonstrated why Ferretti had picked him, when he demolished the field in the Tour de Méditerranéen on the way to the leader’s jersey and stage one victory on Mont Faron ahead of Davide Rebellin. Unfortunately a bad crash in the last kilometer of the fourth stage broke his collarbone and destroyed what should have been his first stage race victory. He was back in action by the Flèche Wallonne, part of a breakaway group of 12 riders who escaped after 15 kilometers, and the last man to drop off when Rik Verbrugghe put in the race-winning attack from the peloton, finishing just 5 seconds of the pace.
Tour Méditerranéen 2001
As June came round, Basso showed his form on the penultimate and queen stage of the Bicicleta Vasca, when he counter-attacked Joseba Beloki on the second last climb, putting in 1:20 minutes to win the stage. A few weeks later, he would win the Queen stage of Österreich-Rundfahrt when he attacked after 18km with a teammate and, having been caught by chasing group, put in a solo attack that saw him win the stage by almost a minute over the closest pursuers. It was time for Ivan Basso to become acquainted with the Tour de France.
The first acquaintance, however, was to be hard and bitter. Attacking on the wicked descent of the Col de Fouchy, Basso created the winning break consisting of Laurent Jalabert (CSC’s star rider of the time), Jens Voigt (who would capture the yellow jersey on the day), Laurent Roux and Inigo Cuesta. It was not to be; on the descent to Colmar, Basso went down hard, breaking his collarbone for the second time that year. Though he rose to finish the stage (finishing 1:38 behind in fifth), he was forced to abandon.
He would bounce back to once again capture a respectable Top-10 placing in the Giro dell’Emilia; and with three impressive mountain victories won with panaché and aggressive riding, Basso had given notice of his arrival to the big league.
Basso would spend the winter 2001/2002 in increased honing of his skills. A wind tunnel test in Germany would help to develop his time-trialling skills, while meticulous practice would develop his pedalling cadence. Basso’s preference for the heavy gears was the technique of the past; the Basso of the future would tread a lighter gear.
The year 2002 started well for Basso; helping Petacchi to three victories in a row at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and taking second place in the overall, only narrowly losing out to Alex Zülle on the time trial. It was followed by an impressive ride at Liege-Bastogne-Liege to finish third behind the Mapei teammates Garzelli and Bettini, whose combined strength the young Basso could not overcome.
The Tour 2002 would be the test of Basso’s new pedalling technique. On the first mountain stage, stage 11 to La Mongie, Basso found himself flying beside the likes of Armstrong, Beloki, and Heras. Four kilometers from the summit he put in a strong attack. The attack was too early and too hard, and Basso had made the mistake of going into too high a gear. The blue train swept past him and though seventh place on the stage was a fine result, it was perhaps less than it could have been. Basso took notice, and a few days later on the epic Mont Ventoux stage he climbed the summit among the best, dropping even GC favorites like Beloki in an impressive display of climbing (although Armstrong was, as usual, flying to take the win), and sealing his hold on the white jersey. After the win, Basso was cited to have said:
“I thought Ventoux would be hell, but for me it was paradise.”
Basso would continue to climb alongside the best during the rest of the Tour, clinching an 11th placing in the GC, and taking the white jersey for the best young rider.
As usual, the close of the season saw Ivan Basso riding strong at the Giro dell’Emilia. Forming the winning break together with team mate Michelle Bartoli and Michael Rasmussen (then of CSC-Tiscali), Bartoli and Basso pulled off a perfect one-two for the team to take first (Bartoli) and second (Basso). The close of the season also offered additional impressive rides with several Top-10 finishes and a respectable 15th place in the Giro di Lombardia while helping team mate Bartoli to the victory in the race of falling leaves.
By 2003, it was clear to most of the world that in Ivan Basso, Italy had a future Tour star. But it was also becoming clear that it was not going to be on the Fassa Bortolo team that he would fulfill that ambition. Despite Basso helping the team to the top of the rankings for the second time in a row in 2002, Giancarlo Ferretti expressed dissappointment with his young star in the run-up to the 2003 season for not winning any victories in the previous season. And with the team increasingly being shaped around the meteoric rise of Sprint King Alessandro Petacchi as the year wore on, it was becoming increasingly clear that Fassa Bortolo was the wrong team for Ivan Basso. The spectacular, aggressively riding cyclist of Basso’s early years, had dissappeared, his natural intuition and instinct stiffled by the iron discipline of his team.
Basso started out the year quietly as he focused all of his build-up on the Tour, his only result of note being a Top-10 finish in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He arrived at the Tour with almost no media attention, and rode through it the same way, apart from rumors placing him in negotiations with US Postal. With Petacchi riding spectacularly on his way to the record books, Basso started out in the shadow of his teammates successes. And things would not get easier; after puncturing on the first mountain stage and expending needless strength to recover, two thirds of the Fassa Bortolo squad (including Petacchi) abandoned on the first few mountain stages. Basso would finish the race with only one teammate, and in the absence of any support he would ride a defensive race. So anonymous was his ride in the Tour, that almost no one noticed that – apart from the classic Ventoux stage where Armstrong sealed his fifth victory – Basso lost only a few seconds in the mountains against Lance Armstrong. His ride earned him seventh place; the time trials costing him nine of the ten minutes that he would lose to Armstrong in the overall.
Riis and Basso
Basso would ride strong at the Classica San Sebastian to take second behind Bettini, the only podium spot in a lackluster season. The Basso who had won the World Championship of 1998, blistered the pack with ferocious attacks in 2001, and considered “almost too aggressive” seemed to have dissappeared – and so had the victories. Things were about to take a turn though; that September, after long and hard deliberations, Ivan Basso signed with the Team CSC of former Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis.
“I told myself: ‘Now you are going to do exactly what you want to do. You’re going to choose the team you want to ride for, the coach you want, and the race and training programmes you want.’ Fortunately Bjarne was loking for a new team leader for the Tour de France, and after just a few meetings with him, I knew he was the right person to help me rediscover myself.”