News feature, September 12, 2006
'We can win this race'
Battling Astana duo Alexandre Vinokouov and Andrey Kashechkin said on Monday that they were determined to keep fighting to the end in this Vuelta a España, and that they were hoping that the third week of the race would expose a chink in the armoury of Alejandro Valverde, the current race leader.
"Kash and I are in a similar situation and both of us can still win," said Vinokourov at the team's press conference at the NH Cuidad de Almeria hotel. "Kash is only 48 seconds back and I am 1'38 down, so we can play one off the other to attack tomorrow and in the days ahead.
"I think that for us, the best thing is if the course is as hard as possible. If the group gets thinned down before the final climb then that is best for us."
"Maybe Vino is better than me at doing bench presses, but maybe I can be stronger on a bike here in this Vuelta." -Andrey Kashechkin's response when asked who was the stronger Astana rider.
Both riders took the fight to Valverde on the last big mountain stage contested so far, namely the race to the Alto de la Cobertoria on stage nine. The duo attacked early on and opened up a significant gap, although Valverde was able to respond in the final few minutes of racing and overtake Kashechkin. However, by that time Vinokourov had already flown the coup, and although the Spaniard chased hard in the hope of overhauling his rival as he had done two days earlier, he was unable to do so.
Kashechkin said that they would be aggressive in the days ahead. "It is not hard to attack," he said. "You just need the legs and the head. It is now the third week and things are much harder for everyone, so if you are strong, then you can attack and really change the general classification.
Vinokourov agreed, saying that, "the stage to La Pandera is hard, very hard. We will try to work together, finding the right time and conditions to attack there.
"I last rode this race in 2004 but it is hard to say what the mountains to come will be like. I don't know the parcours well, but if I have good legs then that is enough to go for it."
Team directeur sportif Herminio Díaz Zabala said that they would chose their moment wisely in trying to isolate Valverde. "We have to see the situation and how it is before we attack. There is no point in going for it in the first mountains if Valverde has his whole team there, ready to help him. That would be suicidal. We have to wait and see, but also be able to improvise if needs be. CSC are a good team and they will also put the pressure on Valverde."
Vinokourov was expected to take time out of the Spanish race leader in the race against the clock on Sunday, but the Cuenca TT didn't turn out as good as expected for him. "Valverde showed he was very strong in the time trial," he admitted. "I hoped to get back more time but he was going well. We are racing in Spain so it is the same boost for him as if we were racing in Kazakhstan. The response of the public can help you, as can wearing the leaders jersey. It is the third week now, though, and I hope to make the difference in the mountains and after in the time trial in Madrid."
Given that the eight second gap between them in the Cuenta TT was so small, Vinokourov was then asked if Valverde's ride in the time trial meant that he was now the race favourite. Unsurprisingly, he played down such talk. "You can't necessarily say that," he answered. "I won two stages earlier on, including one in the mountains, and I think that is important to remember.
"Having the yellow jersey can give you strength. You could see that in the time trial, where Valverde only finished eight seconds behind me. But I will do everything I can in the mountains to take the lead."
Kashechkin will, of course, do likewise. He said that if the final reckoning occurs in next Saturday's TT, he will be confident, even after losing time in Cuenca. "I think the two time trials are totally different. The last one is much better for me because the other one was very complicated, with many chances of rhythm; that suited Valverde."
He said that it was important to consider the other rivals. "I think that it is illogical to only talk about Valverde against us," he told the media. "I believe that Sastre may be stronger than Valverde towards the end of the three weeks. He has shown that in the past, although doing three Grand Tours this year may mean that he is more tired than usual. But I think that he can do a very good race and is dangerous."
Vinokourov also faced a question about his intentions with regard to the world championships in Salzburg later this month. He said that it was a target, but so too the Tour of Spain. "The worlds is still a big objective for me. I will race hard here and then I have a week to recuperate. For now, I am concentrating on the Vuelta and when that is done, I will think about the Worlds."
Perhaps the strangest answer of the day came when the two riders were asked who was the strongest between them. Kashechkin was, if anything, more quietly spoken than his notoriously word-sparse team-mate during the conference, but piped up to provide a non-standard response.
"It is a bizarre question," he said. "Maybe Vino is better than me at doing bench presses, but maybe I can be stronger on a bike here in this Vuelta. Or when swimming, perhaps.
"It is important to be strong, but also to have luck. It is necessary for things to work out right so you can get the correct moment to attack and take advantage."
Vinokourov also didn't want to be drawn into a comparison. "It doesn't matter which of us wins, myself or Kash, as long as one does. We will chose the best tactics and do what we can to win this Vuelta."