Recently-crowned Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso has promised to compete with the few real contenders for cycling's prestigious yellow jersey after pledging to race the Tour de France in July.
Basso, who finished runner-up to seven-time champion Lance Armstrong in 2005, secured his second pink jersey from the Giro d'Italia on Sunday only two years after completing a doping ban. The clean cut Italian has since been advised to bask in that win, achieved after a solid campaign by his Liquigas team throughout three weeks of thrilling racing.
Italian cycling legend Felice Gimondi, the 1965 yellow jersey champion known for his epic rivalry with Eddy Merckx, doubts Basso's ability to compete with a tougher field at the Tour.
"He should rest up, and focus instead on coming back stronger to the Tour next year," said Gimondi. "At the Tour the competition will be a whole different level altogether, riders who will be far stronger than the opposition he faced at the Giro."
However Basso has a score to settle, and believes he can be a main protagonist come July.
When the 'Operation Puerto' drugs scandal erupted in May 2006, he, from dozens of cyclists and a reported 200 athletes in total, was one of the first casualties. All set to succeed the recently retired Armstrong, the Italian was instead thrown off the race before a pedal had been turned in anger.
After taking a significant step back to redemption on Sunday, Basso - who has claimed he is racing 100 percent clean - is hoping a return to his beloved Tour will finally bury the sorry memories of his expulsion in 2006.
"I just have to race the Tour. That's where my career was shattered (in 2006), and it's there that it will really start again," he said. "I haven't even looked at the race route, but that's the first thing I will do when I get home on Monday."
Basso said he will rest and then reconnoitre key mountain stages on the race in the coming weeks, during which his rivals will be honing their own preparations.
Although Armstrong, Andy Schleck, Basso, Cadel Evans and Britain's Bradley Wiggins will all be expected to challenge for the yellow jersey, Astana's Alberto Contador will be the name on everyone's lips when the Tour begins in the Dutch port of Rotterdam on July 3.
In 2009 Contador showed as much mental as physical strength on his way to repelling all-comers - including Lance Armstrong, who began the race pledging to help the Spaniard but, at times, seemed his biggest rival.
In the end his climbing skills, and a penultimate stage time trial victory which effectively stuck two fingers up to all his challengers, sealed the deal.
Armstrong had to battle to finish third at 5min 24sec behind the Spaniard, with Luxembourger Andy Schleck a deserved runner-up at 4:11.
Like last year, Contador will hone his skills during the week-long Dauphine Libéré race beginning Saturday in southern France.
Armstrong, who in recent weeks has faced down more damaging allegations of doping, will race at the Tour of Luxembourg on June 2-6 before taking his preparations up a level at the hilly Tour of Switzerland on June 12-20.
Basso admits Contador, a Tour champion in 2007 who also won the Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain in 2008, is a notch above everyone else.
"Contador is the number one, ahead of everyone else," added the Italian. "Behind him there's a bunch of outsiders such as (Cadel) Evans, Schleck, Armstrong and myself."
But the Italian insists he won't be competing just to make up the numbers.
"Winning this pink jersey has given me back my confidence, and my ambition. I'll go to the Tour with humility, but, with a solid team behind me, with belief that I can compete with the best."
Ivan Basso facts
Birthdate: 26 November 1977
Birthplace: Gallarate (Italy)
Teams: Riso Scotti (1999), Amica Chips (2000), Fassa Bortolo (2001-2003), CSC (2004-2006), Discovery Channel (till May 2007), Liquigas (from 2008)
One day races:
Junior world championship 1998
Tour of Emilia 2004, Acht van Chaam 2004
2005 Tour of Denmark (including four stages), 2006 Criterium international (1 stage), 2009 Tour of Trentino
Tour of Italy: Won 2006 and 2010, 4th in 2009. Winner of six stages.
Tour de France: 2nd in 2005, 3rd in 2004, 7th in 2003, 11th in 2002. 1 stage win (2004). Best young rider 2002.
Tour of Spain: 4th in 2009
© AFP 2010