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Back Pocket Previews '09: Liquigas

Back-pocket-2_mediumWhich came first, Ivan Basso's signature on a new contract, or Liquigas' remaking as the Italian stage race squad? I wouldn't go confusing them with US Postal circa 2001 just yet, but for a team that has a history of broad focus (or maybe just lack of focus), Liquigas is forging a new identity.

But at what cost? Ivan Basso's return counts as probably the sport's largest crisis on tap for 2009: the repatriation of an Operacion Puerto rider into the top echelon of the sport. Yes, other OP guys are hanging around, thanks to muddled evidence and other factors which made their exclusion impossible or at least unnecessary. But unlike the uncertain cases against, say, Alejandro Valverde, we more or less know what Basso did. He cheated, and prospered. We also know that, unlike various cases where OP names can't get hired, Liquigas went out of their way to thumb their noses at the gentlemen's agreement to extend bans to four years, hiring Basso as soon as he could get a license. And unlike diminished returnees like Tyler Hamilton, we will find out soon enough if Basso is still an elite grand tour cyclist, the answer probably being yes. Not good times.

Did it have to be this way? Liquigas had seen its fortunes of the last several years rise and fall on the efforts of Danilo DiLuca, and when DiLuca's own troubles brought him a short suspension, Liquigas cut him loose and set about building a different team. Not that I don't love Il Killer di Spoltore, but the resulting squad was a huge improvement: Daniele Bennati came aboard to win some stages and help Filippo Pozzato in Belgium and France. DiLuca's middlin' grand tour abilities no longer blocked their formidable young talents like Roman Kreuziger and Vincenzo Nibali. The Killer would be missed in the Ardennes, but while the team toggled between 17th (on the CQ rankings) and 3rd depending on one rider's efforts (and Pozzato's customary 1000 points), in 2008 they settled into 6th place on the backs of an array of diverse, talented, and largely improving young riders.

Dropping in Basso short-circuits the remake of Team Liquigas, co-opting it into Team Basso instead. Instead of being an interesting team to watch at the Giro, they are hands-down favorites to win, and to threaten any Tour de France champions if ASO ever extends Basso an invite to le Grand Boucle. You can't blame head-honcho Roberto Amadio for jumping at this chance, but the question going forward will be, was it worth it? The headaches, the salary, the fan reactions...? Or would Liquigas have prospered anyway, and more gracefully?

Attributes: Incredible stage-race depth. As hinted above, this team was somewhat loaded before Basso came on. Now youngsters like Kreuziger and Nibali, as well as B-lister Franco Pellozotti, can slot comfortably into support roles in the grand tours. Liquigas also spirited away Sylvester Szmyd from Lampre, adding some chrono muscle to a squad that already knew how to bust out a team time trial: first at the 2007 Giro; 8" back at the 2008 Giro; first at the 2008 Vuelta. You can wonder why Liquigas chose Basso, but there's little secret as to why Basso chose Liquigas.

Problems: Chances of winning outside the Giro. Pozzato left for Katyusha, leaving Liquigas thin for the cobbles. Manuele Quinziato and maybe Daniele Bennati will have to hold down the fort. DiLuca's departure created a hole in their Ardennes squad that hasn't been patched, two years later. Basso would be a contender but it may be a while before ASO cares to invite him; meanwhile, Kjell Carlstrom isn't going to sneak up on anyone. Then there's Bennati, potentially a green jersey winner in France. Will he have to go it completely alone against the Columbia juggernaut?

Key Rider: Roman Kreuziger. If you make Kreuziger and Pellizotti and Nibali base their season around helping Basso, it seems like kind of a waste. Hopefully they'll be given real chances to shine in some one-week races, out of fairness at least. But in Kreuziger's case it's particularly important to figure out how to make use of his talents. At age 22 he won the Suisse Tour and finished 12th in Paris -- an age 22 season that speaks of truly elite talent. Conceivably Basso can focus on winning the Giro this year and hope for clemency and a Tour shot for 2010, which means Kreuziger could include a Giro win in his to-do list as early as next year. The two could make a formidable duo for the next few years, until Kreuziger is ready to be a true captain, and a reformed Basso might be the perfect shield for a young emerging rider (see La Vie Claire, circa 1984). But with Basso out of the Tour this year and hogging the Giro limelight, there's simply less to do, meaning now is a good time to see what young Roman can do in places like the Ardennes or some Spanish one-week events, with little pressure.

Key Moment(s):  May 21, 2009. Also known as the date of the year's most grueling time trial, the 61km jaunt from Sestri Levante to Riomaggiore. One would expect Basso to race more conservatively, tracking his rivals, over the Cuneo-Pinerolo stage, coming as it does two days before the mega-chrono where he stands to put a huge dent into the other climbers. But is Basso 2.0 the hardman he was back in his CSC/Birillo days? And what happens to your legs after a monster stage like the Cuneo jaunt, when you've been out of racing for two years? If Liquigas have gone all-in on Basso, Basso himself has gone all-in on the Centenary Giro, and he's likely to sink or swim at the GC level based on his ability to crush his rivals along the roads of the Cinque Terre.

Passing Thought: Change is in the air, and it's not an empty buzzword; it's a complicated one. In the current political environment, we are being asked to face up to our comfortable way of doing things, as individuals and as a body politic. As President Obama told us Tuesday, America suffers from a "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." Avoiding hard choices is nothing new, nor uniquely American or political, and at the risk of torturing the metaphor, I'd say it applies to Cycling rather well. Ivan Basso's return to Cycling is a painful reminder of a past in which the sport steadfastly avoided hard choices. Basso himself chose to consult with Dr. Fuentes in search of insurance against his Tour aspirations. But he did so in an environment which pointedly failed to punish people for such choices, which is tantamount to endorsing them, even requiring them.

Now Basso returns to a changed sport. Nobody is declaring total victory, but the consequences of cheating are real, even surprisingly so. Imagine how Riccardo Ricco felt when someone told him that the Tour was testing for CERA, only months after Ricco seemingly acquired an untraceable drug. Look at the biological passport program, the internal checks, and the terrible punishments being handed out to star riders, once thought immune to justice. Two yellow jerseys disgraced, stage winners and high finishers like Kohl, Sella, Piepoli, Schumacher all unemployed. Cycling is making the hard choices nowadays, even if they had to exhaust the alternatives first.

Basso puts us fans in the position of making a hard choice: seeing him as permanently stained, or letting bygones be bygones. I admit, I don't have an answer yet. Maybe one will suggest itself more clearly as we watch him race. It becomes easy if he can't keep up -- we don't have to care either way. But I really don't think we fans will have that luxury. I expect him to win big, and it becomes pretty hard to check your opinions when a guy pulls on the maglia rosa. Not to overstate it, but Basso is the ultimate test of your ability to move on from the horrible scandals of the last several years, and the future of cycling depends in some small part on how we resolve the past. As I said, I'm withholding a decision for now, but for what it's worth, I think I know what President no-drama Obama would do...