An interview with Alexandre Vinokourov, July 24, 2005
The predicted script for today's final stage of the Tour de France was that a bunch of riders would attack, tear up and down the Champs Elysées, make a gallant effort to stay away until the end, but be reeled in with one or two laps to go. Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady and Thor Hushovd would then unleash the turbos and scorch down the cobblestoned finishing straight, settling the stage win and maillot vert between them. That's what we expected, anyway.
The thing is, a couple of guys never read that script. One of these was Francaise Des Jeux's Bradley McGee, a former world pursuit champion who wanted to use that speed to salvage a disappointing, injury-hampered Tour.
The second was Alexandre Vinokourov, the swashbuckling T-Mobile rider who has been one of the main animators of this year's race. He's had real high points and several low ones in the Tour, bursts of speed which dynamited the bunch in the mountains and also moments of weaknesses which saw him slip right back. The Kazakhi's unpredictable but exciting, a born attacker who rides on adrenaline and impulse rather than plans and logic. And it was that same aggression that paid off today.
When Vinokourov beat Levi Leipheimer to take the first bonus sprint of the stage, it was clear that he was in a mean, take-no-prisoners frame of mind. This morning, just two seconds had separated him from the Gerolsteiner rider's fifth place overall. Winning the sprint moved him level on time, but when the time trial fractions were calculated, Vino was still marginally behind. The second intermediate gallop could have decided things, then, but the dangerous conditions prompted by the wet cobblestones on the Champs Elysées caused the judges to cancel the bonuses on offer.
There was just one thing left to do. When Laurent Brochard (Bouygues Telecom) kicked with three kilometres remaining, Vinokourov was straight onto his wheel. He continued the effort as the Frenchman started to fade, carrying his friend and compatriot Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2R Prévoyance) clear. McGee saw the danger and jumped across the gap to make his own bid for glory, but a storming, determined Vinokourov had enough left in the tank to sprint home for the win.
"That was victory made of courage and guts," said Vino, delighted with his second stage win of this Tour. "I really gave it all in the last kilometres, although I didn't think it was possible until I crossed the line. I just went 'à bloc' - it's unbelievable, magnificent! I have no words for it...
"It was a great feeling to win here. I sprinted of course in the other bonification sprint, but to finish fifth or sixth now isn't the issue any more with this win. It's a great feeling, a great emotional moment and it makes me very happy." The victory earned Vinokourov 20 seconds in bonuses and with Leipheimer only 86th on the stage, fifth place on GC was Vino's.
Winning on the Champs Elysées is one of the most prestigious things a rider can do. First of all, Paris has a romance, a je ne sais quoi which other cities can only aspire to. Then there are the massive crowds of the Tour, which always raise the stakes a notch, and the prestige of taking the final stage of the toughest sporting event in the world. Victory here has been the exclusive property of the sprinters for the last ten years, and so for Vinokourov to pull this off is really something special. His flair has been appreciated during this Tour and that, plus his never-say-die efforts today, led to warm applause in the salle de presse when he thundered across the line.
"What counts for me is attacking all the time, that is an ability that I have," he said, explaining his motivation. "When you go, you can't think of anything else but the effort. You have to attack, give it everything, concentrate; emotions are for after the finish. Courage and guts are what's needed to succeed."
Vinokourov was always a good rider, taking second in the 2000 Olympic Games and winning the Dauphiné Libéré in 1999, for example. But the breakthrough transition for him was born out of tragic circumstances when compatriot and amigo Andrei Kivilev crashed and died in the 2003 Paris-Nice. Vino went on to win that race, saying that he believed his friend helped him to do so. And he has ridden with the strength of two men ever since.
He still derives motivation from his memory. "Yesterday was a special day with special emotions," he said, referring to the time trial near the place where the terrible accident took place. "There were a lot of fans in St. Etienne and I thought a lot about Andrei Kivilev. I also thought about him today and that gave me extra strength."
Taking fifth in the Tour is a very good result, but he had come into the race hoping for more. Next year he will be with a new squad - a team which will be revealed next week, he says - and so, with that new start and the retirement of Lance Armstrong, does he think he can win the 2006 Tour?
"I hope next year I can make it to the podium," he answers, for once acting a little conservatively. "When I start a race, I always start with the aim of winning and that is why I was a little bit disappointed with the stage to Courchevel this year. I didn't dwell on it, though. I wanted to win other stages and that is what happened."