News feature, January 20, 2007
Having won most of the races he wished to in his career, Alexandre Vinokourov is staking everything on the big one this year. The Tour de France is his sole target and he's hoping that this time round, everything will come together. Shane Stokes of Cyclingnews reports from the Astana training camp in Mallorca, Spain.
Alejandro Valverde may be increasingly regarded as being amongst the biggest of contenders for the Tour de France, but the rider who beat him in the 2006 Vuelta a España is heading into the season with the goal of coming out top of the pile once again.
Four months ago Vinokourov bounced back from the disappointment of missing the Tour by producing a career-best ride at the beginning of the autumn. His absence from competition meant that he was a little rusty heading into the Vuelta, losing time on the first big mountain stage, but from that point on he became stronger and stronger as the race progressed.
"I have nothing really to say about the salary of Valverde." - Vinokourov minding his own business.
Valverde's incredible burst at the end of the seventh stage to the top of the Alto de El Morredero (Ponferrada) showed he was by then in peak condition, but his Kazakh opponent was the one whose form was continuing to grow. Vino won stages eight and nine, and then seized the maillot oro en route to finishing second on stages 17 and 18. He then copper-fastened his grip on the race with an impressive win in the penultimate day's time trial, ending the three-week race 1 minute and 12 seconds ahead.
That represented the first ever grand tour win for the Astana rider and, confidence solidified by the victory, he is staking everything on success in France this July. As a result, the former winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège will forfeit the chance to chase a second victory if this means he is going to be in better condition at the Tour start in London.
"I will not go to Liège aiming to do something," he said at a press conference held in recent days at the team training camp in Mallorca. "The Tour de France is my main objective for the season. However, I will take part in Liège-Bastogne-Liège because it's good training for me. I will go there to help Kessler and Kashechkin. I already won this race once so it is not my main objective this year."
When asked if it was not a bit risky to stake everything on the month of July, Vinokourov played down such concerns. He feels that victories in other races are not important enough for him to change his desired schedule. "I have already won what I wanted to win in the sport, with the exception of the Tour, and that is my big dream. So it is not really too risky in that respect. I will therefore prepare in the best way possible for the race."
At this point, he is clear about who his main rivals are likely to be. "I think Ivan Basso and Valverde. They showed last year that they are strong in the big races of three weeks; they are in good condition for that length of time. So they are the two that stand out."
Valverde has been in the news in recent weeks due to the leaking of information that he had been in discussions with T-Mobile about a possible transfer. In the end, he opted to stay with his current team, Caisse d'Epargne. T-Mobile general manager Bob Stapleton told Cyclingnews this week that he thought it quite possible that Valverde and his agent played one team off the other to ensure the highest possible salary. That goal has been achieved with a rumoured agreement of over nine million euros for the next four years.
Vinokourov was asked his reaction to the news that Valverde had become the best paid rider in the sport. "Well, just because he is the highest-paid doesn't mean that he is going to win the Tour de France," he answered. "Okay, he is very young, he is in good condition, and maybe that is why his team has paid such a high price to keep him there. But I have nothing really to say about the salary of Valverde."
Given that Vinokourov was reportedly unhappy with Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden during the 2005 Tour de France due to counter-productive team tactics, many were surprised to learn in recent months that the latter would be joining him at Astana in 2007. Initial reports back then suggested that Klöden would be acting as a super domestique, but a different line was being taken by the team this month. Both general manager Marc Biver and Vinokourov himself said that Klöden would have equal status as a leader heading into the race.
"Andreas showed before that he can do very well in the Tour," said Vinokourov, in response to a question about the hierarchy in July. "There will be two leaders and the team will play it tactically to ensure we do as well as possible. The main objective for Astana is to win the Tour de France.
"As regards the likely line-up, it is not really for me to say. It is more something for the directeurs. But I think that Klöden, Kessler, Kashechkin, Savoldelli and Mazzoleni are for me strong riders to have in the mountains."
He said that he is happy with things thus far, both in terms of how the team is shaping up and also its line-up. "Everything is going well. I am happy with things... I have worked on this a lot. I talked a lot with Marc Biver and with Walter Godefroot [when the team was being set up]. It was before and during the Vuelta that we spoke a lot to each other and I said what I wanted to say about the composition."
Thus far he has done 4,000 kilometres in training. He states that he needs to amass "20 to 25,000 kilometres" before he is in the condition needed to win the race. Some of those will be covered in competition, with the Tour of Murcia, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Catalunya and the Dauphiné Libéré helping to hone his form prior to the Grand Départ in London in July.
Fuentes, Saiz and the future
At the press conference, Vinokourov was also asked about the recent article by the Spanish newspaper ABC which said that a list of several names was found in Fuentes' wallet the day he was arrested in Madrid. According to the article, the card was from the hotel Silken chain in Madrid and had "Ale," "Manc," "Vino," "Popo" and "Valverde" written on it.
Vinokourov is often referred to as Vino but he played down any suggestions that he was involved in Operación Puerto. "You can find my name on pieces of paper everywhere. Even you [the press], after this interview, you may have a piece of paper with my name on it. So it means nothing. For me, there is nothing to say about this."
When asked if he would clarify on record that he had never worked with Fuentes, his answer was brief and to the point. "I have never even seen the man."
The Puerto affair had big repercussions for the team, due to the fact that enforced withdrawals from the Tour de France line-up meant that Astana did not have enough riders to be allowed start the race. This cost Vinokourov his chance of riding the 2006 edition, and later necessitated a lot of work to make sure that things would be sorted out for this season. He also had a contract with Manolo Saiz which, theoretically at least, would have held him to Active Bay for this season, except for the fact that the Spaniard lost his sponsor and then his ProTour licence due to the after-effects of the scandal.
"I was not too worried about the contract with Manolo," Vinokourov stated. "But that period was a lot of stress and it took a lot of energy from me to sort out a new team, find sponsors and prepare for the Vuelta. My contract with Active Bay was not cancelled until the point Manolo had his license taken away from him, but now everything is fine. Active Bay has no longer any claim, my contract is with Astana for 2007 and beyond."
Given that Roberto Heras, Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis have all been linked to doping scandals, it means that Vinokourov is the only grand tour winner since the 2005 Giro not linked to problems. He was asked his view on that statistic.
"In cycling there is a lot of scandal but I don't want to think about that," he replied. "I prefer to think about competition and to win the Vuelta was for me like revenge after not being able to start of the Tour de France. I could also show myself that I am able to win a competition of three weeks. That was a strong motivation for this year's Tour."
As for a chance at repeating that win in Spain, nothing is decided as yet. But it is looking doubtful. "For the moment, I don't think I will do the Vuelta this year," he stated. "I am concentrating on the Tour de France. Afterwards we will see what my condition is like. If I am still in competitive shape then maybe I will take part, but I can't say right now what my plans are after the Tour."
If things pay off and he does take home the biggest race in cycling, would he be prepared to work for younger team-mates such as Klöden in the future? "Yes, why not? I am not Lance Armstrong, I cannot win seven Tours. So if I can help Klöden or Kashechkin, then I don't see why not."
And further ahead? "I am not thinking about the end of my career now," he answered. "At the moment everything is 100% for the Tour; I will look after [that point]. I have signed a three-year contract with the Astana team and after that, we will see."
As to the question about his role in the team, Vinokourov plays down any suggestion that his close ties to the sponsors mean that he could be considered as one of those in charge. "I don't believe I am like a directeur. I worked only to improve the ambience on the team. It is not my role to do more - as I am a rider; it is not for me to be a manager. My only role is to create a good ambience on the team and also to help young riders to feel at ease and to be disciplined, as well."