When pundits are asked who can stop Lance Armstrong winning a seventh straight Tour de France, the list is invariably short. But one name almost always features: Ivan Basso.
The 27-year-old Italian made a strong impression on last year's Tour, finishing third overall and even beating Armstrong in a mountain stage up the Pyrenees.
Armstrong says Basso has made marked improvements in certain aspects of his riding and considers him a serious rival.
"He has improved dramatically in time trials and is always strong in the mountains," Armstrong said. "He will be among the main challengers. I'm a real fan of Basso."
Basso will get the chance to test himself against Armstrong at Saturday's opening stage -- a 19km time trial from Fromentine to Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile on France's Atlantic coast.
Though he appreciated the compliment, Basso wasn't going to be fooled into believing the Texan's aura of invincibility had lessened.
"It's a pleasure for me to hear that," the CSC rider said Friday. "But a race is a race. Lance is here to win again and I'm here to do better than last year. That means either second place or a win.
"I will attack more, but it's not easy against Lance," he added. "Hopefully, I will have the legs to do better. I think I'm ready to do a nice Tour. We have the best team possible, every rider is ready."
The problem is that Armstrong looks as fit as ever, having improved his form since a sluggish performance at the Paris-Nice race and a below-par showing at the Tour de Georgia.
"`I think he's 100 percent and he's still hungry," Basso said. "When a rider wins six Tours he's not a normal person in the head. He's stronger than the other riders, fully motivated."
Basso has not raced since the Giro d'Italia, over a month ago, where he placed 28th overall after suffering from stomach pains, and he feels he'll need a little more time to find his rhythm.
"I am at 90 percent now but after two or three stages I will pick up rhythm," Basso said. "I will not be 100 percent for the first week but for the second part of the Tour I will be ready.''
He is under no illusion of beating Armstrong in Saturday's time trial. He lost both time trials to him last year, and conceded significant time in the opening prologue.
"It's a hard time trial, it depends a lot on the wind," Basso said. "If you have wind on your back it's very fast but wind against makes it feel like 10km more.
Six-time champion Lance Armstrong will pick up a handsome check if he wins the Tour de France. But spare a thought for those who could finish way behind him.
Victory for Armstrong would see him pocket 400,000 euro (US$480,400) -- a sum he traditionally splits between his teammates. Meanwhile, 170,000 euro (US$204,170) is awarded to the second-place finisher and third overall takes home 92,000 euro (US$110,500).
But those who rank 91st or below get a mere 400 euro (US$480) for 23 days of hard slog. That works out at around 17 euro (US$20) per day.
If you finish out of the top 150 (189 riders are scheduled to start) you get nothing.
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NEW LOOK BIKE
Lance Armstrong will appear a little different at the start of this year's Tour.
The six-time Tour winner will take the start line at Saturday's time trial with a sharp new-look bike that bears the hallmark of New York graffiti artist Lenny Futura -- otherwise known as Futura 2000.