Soloing across the line to take his first elite national road championship victory in Almaty last Sunday, Alexandre Vinokourov's quick trip back home to Kazakhstan proved very useful indeed. Like numerous other national champions, Sunday, July 3 - the first road stage of the Tour de France from Challans to Les Essarts - will be the first opportunity for him to show off his newfound champion's jersey.
After a very solid Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, the 31 year-old said he wanted to ride the Kazakhstan national championships as his final warm-up before the Tour, where he and Andreas Klöden will arguably be Jan Ullrich's most valuable team-mates in the German's quest for a second overall title.
"I am satisfied with how things have turned out," Vinokourov said on the team's website, t-mobile-team.com, about his season to date.
"My form is as good as it was in 2003 [Tour de France] when I finished third in Paris. It is more or less 100 percent. Missing out last year through injury was a bitter blow for me; I have really prepared hard and made improvements recently to my time trialling. I did a lot of tests on the track and in the wind tunnel recently to tweak my position on the bike, improve my aerodynamics and hopefully save seconds in the Tour's key TT stages."
Although these last words sound like he is thinking about the possibility of victory himself, Vinokourov denied any thoughts of personal ambitions - "I don't have individual objectives" - and said he won't be there to ride his own race, but to ride for the team. However, he added when team tactics allows it, he will take his chances to go for a stage win, slightly contradicting his earlier statement.
The winner of this year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège also mentioned he's worked extremely hard on improving his ability in the mountains, evidenced on the fourth stage of the Dauphiné Libéré to Le Mont Ventoux, which he won in brilliant fashion. "I've worked a lot more on [climbing] this year than in previous years. I did a training camp at 2000 metres altitude in Kazakhstan for 10 days, then I spent some time in Tenerife in the Canary Islands."
So then, is the T-Mobile team for the 2005 Tour de France one that can beat Armstrong? Vino gave a yes and no answer, but the response leans more towards the latter.
"We are going there with the intention of turning the heat on Armstrong and hopefully force him to crack. But the guy is exceptionally strong and motivated; it is hard to imagine him cracking - he will be in top form. The key is to attack Armstrong, but that is easier said than done. Nevertheless, that is what we will try to do."
Regarding the other contenders vying for the title, Vinokourov names Ivan Basso (Team CSC) and Floyd Landis (Phonak) as riders to watch, with Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) his outside pick - "maybe he will be up there when push comes to shove," he said.
Although admitting to have a number of offers on the table for the 2006 season, where it was most recently reported that French squad Cofidis appears a likely destination, Vinokourov chose not to elaborate too much on his immediate future, but did say he will make a decision after the Tour de France. "The truth is that I am happy to ride for T-Mobile. It has worked well for me, but after the Tour I will sit down and consider my future."