PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM
Team CSC boss Bjarne Riis tonight paid Ivan Basso's climbing the highest compliment by claiming that his Italian proteg is "stronger than Armstrong on the hills" as the Tour enters its final 72 hours.
Riis had just received new evidence to back up his thesis on the Cte de la Croix-Neuve, where Basso forced Armstrong onto the defensive on today's 18 stage of the Tour between Albi and Mende. On the 3.1km, 10.1% ramp which provided Thursday's grandstand finish, only Armstrong, Cadel Evans and Jan Ullrich could follow Basso on slopes which on paper looked too steep to suit the Italian's slow- burning attacks. Basso didn't drop Armstrong but he did convince Riis and many neutral observers that Armstrong may be retiring just as the balance of power is shifting in Basso's favour, at least when the road tilts uphill.
"Armstrong had to ride on the defensive," Riis told journalists at the Arodrome de Mende this evening, a few hundred metres from where Basso had cruised home in 14th position. "We had planned to try something this morning. Ivan executed the plan to the letter. He may not have dropped Lance but I think that he is the strongest man on the hills now. Once, he might have hesitated to attack on that finale, but not now. When you feel as strong as Ivan does at the moment, confidence comes naturally.
"He may not dropping Armstrong, but now he knows that he can hurt him," Riis concluded.
A few metres away, team CSC motivational guru BS Christensen could scarcely conceal his delight at Basso's positive performance. "He has no Armstrong complex anymore. He doesn't even look at him anymore. He looks straight ahead and goes."
Basso's new-found focus was evident when, asked whether he had been surprised to see Cadel Evans keep pace with him, Armstrong and Ullrich on the Croix-Neuve, he replied deadpan: "I didn't even notice him."
"I wanted to try something today because it was my last chance - the last summit finish. I'm not taking my second place for granted," Basso, still one minute clear of third-placed Michael Rasmussen on GC, continued. "The Tour's not over until the Champs Elyses on Sunday. Before that there's a very important time trial in Saint Etienne on Saturday. Did I feel stronger than Lance on the climb? I don't think that the answer to that question really matters."
He may be on his way to becoming a better climber than LA, but Basso still has some work to do if he is to become a better quote merchant.
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM