Ivan Basso

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The Giro d’Italia winner turned blueberry farmer experiences a change of pace on the family estate in northern Italy. The Smiling Assassin’s reasons to be cheerful

Photographs: Paolo Ciaberta
Ivan Basso

It’s forty degrees Celsius and the blistering sun is beating down on Ivan Basso as he rides through a luxuriant green field of blueberries. His blueberries.

Four years have passed since his retirement from the world of pro cycling and his life goes at a much slower pace now.

The tall, tanned Italian squints under the cloudless sky. Basso is still a “smiling assassin”, except now his machine is a seaweed green Bassan tractor. “My little toy, my passion,” as he calls it. 

“Have some!” he shouts over the engine rumble. He takes a handful of blueberries, eats them and carries on surveying his 5,000 plants. What was once a barley field is now a farm, a local business and the home of the Basso family.

We find ourselves in Oasi Boza, a protected natural park just outside of Cassano Magnago. Ivan grew up in this hill town of 21,000 inhabitants between Milan and Varese in northern Italy.

He started growing blueberries in 2011 with his wife Micaela. It’s what his grandparents used to do in Valtellina, a valley bordering Switzerland, some 130 kilometres north-east. As a kid, he often visited them in the mountains during their harvests.

“Hand-picking fruit with our families was one of our favourite activities during our childhood, so we thought: why not do it here too?” he says.

Ivan’s homeland is rather different to their Alpine landscape though. “No apple orchards or vineyards,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. The Varese province is, in fact, a highly-industrialised area, specialising in textile production. Farms and fields are hard to find here and that’s why Ivan and his wife have decided to go controcorrente – against the flow.

“Here in Italy, everybody’s always talking economic crisis: no jobs, financial insecurity… But I’m sure that our land is the answer. We need to re-start from here,” he says while glancing at the grass beneath our feet. He’s got his right hand wide open, the palm pushing down firmly towards the ground, as if pressing on the soil. So firmly that I can almost feel the deep connection he has with his land.

Ivan Basso

It’s mid-July, the peak of the blueberry harvest season, and many people have come to gather fruit this morning. Most locals arrive on their bikes, which they park on the white gravel lane that separates the house from the field. Others walk up the green hill just outside of town to reach the property.

They all venture into the field in summer clothes, hats and flip flops, armed with bags, plastic cups and containers for blueberries. Kids come too, helping their families, but mostly running around, eating fruit and playing hide and seek among the rows of plants. Just like Ivan used to do with his grandparents.

“This is one way to do it and it’s called auto-raccolta: you pick your own fruit,” he says. You can also buy the blueberries over the counter or find them in a little shop in town for the same price. Local restaurants, pasticcerie and gelaterie also draw from Ivan’s harvest, which is now a seven-year-old business, serving a community of more than 25,000 people. 

Once they’re done, they head to the big shed just across the gravel lane, which contains a wooden table with two scales. Micaela, Ivan’s wife, and Domitilla, the second of their four children, are helping clients. Braided blonde “Domi” weighs one couple’s bag of blueberries on the retro aquamarine scale, then she takes the money and thanks them for visiting. 

The whole Basso family is gathered on the auto-raccolta days, everyone giving a hand whenthey can in between short play breaks in the sun when the shed is not too busy with clients.

Thirteen-year-old Santiago, the oldest, has just come back from a bike ride. “He’s managed to break a saddle today,” Ivan says, giggling in disbelief. His younger brother Levante is playing football with a couple of kids on an impromptu pitch. And here comes four-year-old Tai, the youngest of the four, sprinting towards us on a mountain bike with stabilisers. “Look how fast he goes on a learners’ bike!” Ivan exclaims.

“I want them to be able to talk about their father for what he does now too,” he says, glancing at the field. Be it his successes, his defeats or the scandal that followed Operation Puerto in 2006, “it’s all out there”. The media, he adds, keep asking him about his past, about that two-year ban. “I don’t want to erase that from my life. But time has passed and cycling has changed for the better,” he says. 

Dwelling on the past is pointless, he argues. “Today’s cyclists value me for the work that I’m doing nowadays, not for my career.”

Ivan Basso

“Let me show you inside,” Ivan says, taking us into his office, a welcome escape from the morning heat. It’s less of a bureau and more of a champion’s bat cave, a big open space, where the grey walls contrast with the bright pink of the Giro’s souvenirs. Ivan is preparing coffee in one corner of the room next to a black indoor trainer.

He returns with the espressos and sits on the sofa. To his left, there’s a big canvas from the 2006 Giro – his first victory – where he rides on pink carpet inside Verona’s famous arena with a giant smile. He’s smiling now too, as he looks at that picture and recalls the turning points of his career.

“It all started in 1984. I was in Verona with my parents when Moser won the Giro. My passion for cycling began right there,” he says, pointing at the picture again. “That interest became my main sport, then my job. And riding a bike is still my favourite thing to do.

Ivan cycles for fun, whether it’s alone, with friends, or his kids, though he doesn’t want them to focus on cycling just because their father was a pro: “I think that children, up until the age of 16, should try out multiple sports and do it not to become athletes, but first and foremost to grow healthy and be better people.

“Sport teaches you values like sacrifice, method, perseverance, love and friendship – and pain too,” he says.

Since leaving the world of pro cycling in 2015, Ivan has experienced how tough climbing can be, especially when riding with oldest son Santiago. “He’s light, he’s fast. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with him,” he laughs. “I used to do the Stelvio in less than an hour. Now, it’s an hour and forty minutes, if I’m going easy.”

And so he’s rediscovered the pleasure and freedom of cycling, of taking it all in and stopping for breaks whenever he pleases, “something you can totally forget about when training as an athlete”. Leg pain, he explains while touching his quads, is now optional and up to him, rather than his training plan or the peloton’s accelerations. 

Ivan Basso

Ivan does miss the adrenaline rush that such a life can offer though. He left cycling abruptly, after stage nine of the 2015 Tour de France after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. “I had no time to prepare mentally and physically for retirement. It just happened,” he says. 

2015, he recalls, was one of the strangest years of his whole career. He knew that he had never trained better or been so healthy in his life. “But something was off and I didn’t know what it was… I didn’t have an answer,” he says. Then he shakes his head and takes a deep breath. 

That year he tried to hold onto optimism until, one day, while climbing the Terminillo during Tirreno-Adriatico, reality struck him in the face. 

“We were doing crucial work for Alberto Contador. I tried to move up and pass some rivals, but I just couldn’t. I was struggling. In the 30 years of my career, I had never been left behind. I was a climber!

“That day we went back to our rooms and I told Contador I knew it would be my last year on the road.”

Then the crash during stage five of the Tour happened, where he started feeling testicular pain, and the cancer diagnosis came days later. It was time for Ivan to let go. “You need to fill your life with other things and deflate your ego, otherwise you risk collapsing,” he says.

He points again to that canvas of Verona, showing the end of the 2006 Giro. “It’s unusual, me riding inside the Arena, with 8,000 people cheering and applauding me. I just realised that reaching such a peak again would have been unrealistic. I must have done 2,000 races in my whole life, and I lost 1,980 of them. In cycling, it’s hard to win.”

Ivan Basso

When you stop being an athlete you have two options, Ivan explains. One is living off your past fame and achievements, the other is starting afresh and using what cycling has taught you to begin new adventures.

“Starting a new career means learning everything from scratch,” Ivan says. It requires determination, commitment and steadiness – “all values that a rider must have.”

Cycling, he reflects, has left him with “a lot more than watts, kilometres, successes and money”. His ambition, the love for his family and his incurable optimism have pushed him to put together a cycling team with Alberto Contador (“Calls, trips, meetings: I never stop”), start a career as a real-estate entrepreneur and navigate the uncharted waters of agriculture.

One day, a few years ago, Ivan met a farmer who told him: “You know, Ivan, when farmers have little work to do and the harvest season is over, they always find something else that they can work on. We find ways to reinvent ourselves.” And those words stuck with him. So, after his retirement, just as a farmer would do in quiet times, Ivan dedicated himself more to the blueberry farm, which had already been looked after by Micaela for a few years.

He learned that farming is no easier than cycling. “When I used to race, the leg pain after a five-hour training session was the least of my problems. But when you’re working the land for eight to ten hours a day, under the sun, picking fruit on your knees, you end up with hand pain, foot pain, back pain… It’s tough. Though, like climbing, this is such a wonderful thing to do.”

Ivan looks out of the window; his children are playing on the grass, screaming joyfully. “I do it for them. I want to be a good example for my kids.” As I turn to follow his gaze, I can’t help but notice a tiny model bike lying on the table just by the window. Its front wheel is a clock.

It’s 11:55, five minutes before closing time, and the last clients of the day are rushing to the shed to weigh what they have collected and pay for their blueberries. It didn’t use to be that way when it all started. Back in 2011, it was less of a business and more of a hobby. The Basso family didn’t even live next to the field. “We were fearful. We weren’t sure whether or not this would work,” he says. 

Ivan Basso

People would just go in and ask to collect some blueberries, pay for it and leave. Then, with time, word spread and Ivan would come home to find 60 people hand-picking fruit in his field. He realised that a tiny kitchen scale and a tent would no longer do. So they decided to give their little business a structure. It would be open nine to twelve from mid-June to mid-August, and they would employ a farming business to help them take care of the land.  

“The production process begins in late August,” Ivan explains. “By October, the plants lose all their fruits, so we trim them up and use natural fertilisers in preparation for the winter season.” This is the quietest period, where they water the plants, ready for spring and the south winds that carry seeds. “Then the hard work begins,” says Ivan. “We are constantly removing wild weeds from the land, which would otherwise suffocate the plants.”

The fruits of their labour are visible during our visit. The heavy rains of the previous week have ensured that the plants are lush and full of succulent blueberries. I pick a couple from the wooden box on the shed floor and bring them to my mouth – in the words of Ivan, they don’t need to be washed, they’re biological and safe to eat as they are. The Basso blueberries would make a nice apéritif: not too ripe, juicy and refreshing.

“Last summer, we managed to sell 60 tonnes of them,” says Ivan, coming out of his office. “Shall we go grab some lunch?” he adds, smiling.

Ivan Basso

Restaurants in the north of Italy serve lunch quite early, so we head down the hill to Cassano Magnago in Ivan’s grey Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Incidentally, he says that every cyclist should do the Stelvio at least once in their lifetime. “No matter how long it takes you, and how much you may struggle, once you’ve done it you’ll feel immensely proud and satisfied. It’s the best feeling of all and you’ll remember it forever.”

Marconi is one of Ivan’s favourite restaurants. Since he retired, he’s discovered how much of a buon gustaio, or food lover, he is. We haven’t booked a table, but the owners know Ivan very well. They greet him with a friendly tone and make sure we are seated and served within a few minutes.

We order a fish starter each, then Ivan suggests we share a mountain of fried seafood as the main course. He thinks they make a delicious one here. “I love to treat myself now,” he says. “Imagine eating energy bars and gels for 30 years, it’s disgusting.” Mangiar bene, eating well, is not an option in pro cycling, he says while sipping from a glass of Prosecco. “The same for drinking too!”

After concluding our meal with an espresso, we head back to the villa. Everything’s silent in Cassano Magnago, as if the whole town is taking a nap. Even quieter is Ivan’s home. As we head underground to his car park, he glances at the field on the right and then at his garden, just in front of the villa. There’s not a soul, just a lonely robot lawnmower trimming the grass.

Right next to his parking lot, a door leads to a small, intimate “bike bunker”, as Ivan calls it. Here, he collects all the bikes that he rode during his career, from the red, steel Benatti that his parents bought him in 1984 – his first road bike – to the carbon frame that he used in his last race. The walls are covered in pictures and front pages, especially the pink ones of the Gazzetta dello Sport.

Ivan Basso

It’s a true museum, full of memories and victories, of which Ivan is visibly proud. But it’s part of the past, as he says. So he closes the door and takes us back upstairs to where his home, office and blueberry fields are.

As we leave, he waves at us from the quiet, green patch. He still has the same giant smile he had when racing.

Originally published in Rouleur issue 20.3, on sale now

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