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Ever wonder what a man on a bike thinks about as he climbs a mountain?
I think riding a bike uphill is just about the hardest thing in the world. We've all been there. You're barely moving, creeping like a slug. To complete a half-revolution of the pedals means turning your thighs into burning, fleshy bombs. And before those bombs explode, leaving you light-headed and queasy, you're tempted to say, "Screw it, this ain't the Tour de France, what am I trying to prove? I'll just walk the damn bike up the hill."
So I wanted to know what one of the best cyclists in the world ponders as he churns his way through the Alps in one of the most demanding events in all of sport.
I reached out to Ivan Basso. His team, Team CSC (Computer Sciences Corporation), owned and operated by '96 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis, wouldn't let me actually speak to him, but told me I could e-mail him. So I did a Q&A with him for ESPN The Magazine. And I asked him about his thoughts while ascending a mountain.
"It's not a place where you think too much," Basso wrote. "You're focused and try to read the road and the movements of the other riders."
Basso was reluctant to call himself a "climber," but he did profess his love for the mountains. "Since I was a child I've always been fascinated by the mountains," he wrote. "I climbed the Stelvio when I was 9 years old and grew up wanting to be a professional bike rider."
The Stelvio, in the Italian Alps near the Swiss and Austrian borders, is the highest paved mountain in Italy at 2,757 meters. Basso's attachment to it means he knows how to climb, likes to climb and excels in the mountains. After all, he just dominated the Giro d'Italia, the Tour of Italy, winning by more than nine minutes, the largest margin of victory in 50 years. That's why I wanted to know if he has a simple thought, perhaps a singular idea that keeps the pedals turning.
But I guess it doesn't really matter now. We've reached the fourth stage of the Tour de France, and the favorite to succeed Lance Armstrong is sitting at home in Varese, Italy. Basso, along with fellow contender Jan Ullrich and others, were forced out of the race because they're suspected of blood doping.
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The scandal was born in May after the Spanish Civil Guard raided some folks to find large quantities of anabolic steroids, laboratory equipment used for blood transfusions and more than 100 packs of frozen blood.
Tricked-out blood would get you up the mountain, wouldn't it? It's a matter of red blood cells. The typical adult male's hematocrit -- the amount of his blood that's composed of red blood cells -- is about 45 percent. Red blood cells carry oxygen through the bloodstream, and increasing the number of them allows a man's blood to deliver oxygen to muscles more efficiently, reducing fatigue. A lot of endurance athletes train at high altitude for just that reason. The lower air pressure at altitude encourages the body to generate extra red blood cells. When they're chock full of them, a doctor can draw the blood, store it, and when it's time to get busy, shoot it back into your bloodstream. There's a urine test to detect this, but I've heard it ain't foolproof.
Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes is one of the Spanish doctors thought to be a supplier of anabolic steroids and a possible facilitator of these blood transfusions. But Team CSC sent Basso home simply because of his suspected involvement with the good doctor.
Man, that's harsh.
If you caught a glimpse of this space last week, I wrote about how all things performance-enhancing have become a witch hunt. In Basso's case, we aren't talking about a failed drug test, or a drastically altered physique. Just a rumor that he may have been in cahoots with Fuentes. And he was denied a trip to Paris simply because of that?
Well, he did say he has a thing for the Stelvio. And Riis is still known in some circles as "Mr. 60 Percent," in reference to his suspected gaudy level of red blood cells, high above the normal 45 percent.
But surely Basso doesn't need tricked-out blood to get up the mountain. He surely has other means to supplement his training. Like food. So I asked him what he ate.
"I have a pretty simple diet at the tour," he wrote. "Pasta, omelets, rice and lots of salad and vegetables."
OK, so the diet is solid, but not sexy.
How about the pressure that accompanies being the favorite? Surely the man is fueled by the expectations to fill the shoes of Lance Armstrong, the Tour's most legendary figure.
"I've been on the podium the last two years in Paris," he wrote. "So I'm used to the attention, and the pressure to perform well has always worked in a positive way for me."
OK, so I'll take that as a "no."
But he has something else, another edge. I know he does. He has to. All athletes need a magic elixir, even if it's something whimsically manufactured that resides in some peculiar corner of his brain, waiting to be summoned. Brooks Johnson, longtime Stanford and Olympic track coach, while describing the odd sensibilities and undernourished physiques of elite long-distance runners, said, "Athletes are fit, but they aren't well."
In that context, I thought it was fitting that in his reaction to the doping allegations, Basso chose the words he did. "I'm serene," he told SKY TG24 TV, "but not well."
But I will assume that Basso does have some healthy, not to mention tangible, means of inspiration. He's a new father. "The birth of Santiago has been a tremendous joy for me and my family," he wrote. "My family means everything to me and it was great to come home after the Giro and spend some time with them."
So I'll leave it at that for now. Maybe he'll write me back. Until then, I'm left with the assumption that Ivan Basso is propelled up mountains, both real and imagined, by the unadorned compulsion to reach the summit.
By any means necessary (?).
Alan Grant is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.