LORIOL-SUR-DROME, France (AP) — Ivan Basso won the white jersey for best young rider in the 2002 Tour de France, setting up what looked like a glittering career for the Italian. It's been a long nine years.
Far from a favorite this year, the 33-year-old Basso was fifth overall after two weeks, just over a minute behind Andy Schleck and 44 seconds ahead of defending champion Alberto Contador.
Basso and Contador are the only riders among the group vying for the title who've won a major tour before — the Italian is a two-time winner of the Giro d'Italia — and he knows that experience could be invaluable.
"In the final week, the legs are important but the head makes the difference," Basso said.
"It's been one of the hardest tours, for the weather, for the route, for the new sprint rules," he added, pointing out that the lack of a dominant team of the sort that existed when Lance Armstrong was racing has meant no one is really controlling the race.
Basso has made the Tour podium twice, in 2004 and 2005. But he was excluded from the 2006 race because of his involvement in the Operation Puerto doping affair, and was given a two-year doping ban.
He returned to cycling following the ban, but chose not to race the Tour in 2009. In 2010, following his victory in the Giro d'Italia, he failed to shine, finishing 32nd overall.
Very few riders have managed to do well in both the Giro and the Tour in the same year, and maybe the fact that he chose not to defend his Giro title this year should have been the clue that it was far too soon to leave him off the list of Tour favorites.
Nonetheless, there was little talk of Basso's chances when he began the race. But his performances in the mountains have brought him into the spotlight. Basso credits much of the success to his Liquigas team.
"We've only had one black day and that was the team time-trial," he said. "Apart from that, the team has done everything to allow me to dream of the yellow jersey."
Basso isn't underestimating his opponents. He sees Cadel Evans as possibly the favorite — the Australian is ahead of his major rivals in the standings, so could win without doing anything dramatic. Brothers Andy and Frank Schleck have the substantial advantage of being able to rely on each other — though Basso warns that there can only be one victor, so at some point there will have to be a shakeout.
Contador, nursing an injury and facing that problem of trying to win the Giro and the Tour back-to-back, has struggled. But he's still up there, and Basso says you ignore him at your peril.
"He is the only one at this moment that can change this race with one attack," Basso said.
Basso also has good words for current leader Thomas Voeckler, whom many — including the Frenchman himself — have ruled out as the final victor.
"He's not only had a great race, he's had a great season," Basso said. "He has an advantage that isn't easy to overcome. The yellow jersey is really strong motivation."
The doping issues have haunted Basso for a long time, and he's still living with the consequences — Italy's cycling federation recently announced that any rider banned for doping for more than six months cannot wear the national team jersey or compete in a national team championship, excluding him from all future Olympics and the world championships. But Basso is being positive and looking at the opportunities ahead of him.
"It was a page of my life. And now everything has changed," he said.