It's been 15 years but Alexander Vinokourov still remembers the first and last time he raced the Tour de Langkawi in 1997, as a member of the Kazakh national team. This week, the leader of the Astana squad is back in Kuala Lumpur to start his final season in the pro-ranks.
Le Tour de Langkawi triggered Vinokourov's career as a professional bike rider, as it was during the 1997 event that the Kazakhstan caught the eye of Gilles Mas, directeur sportif at Casino, who brought him to the French team as a stagiaire in August that year. Vinokourov signed his first professional contract in 1998 with the squad directed by Vincent Lavenu.
"It's fantastic to be here once again in my final year as a professional," Vinokourov told Biciciclismo. "I've always remembered my first time here in 1997 and I've always wanted to come back. But it was never included in my team's calendar, or suited to my race programme."
The 38-year-old returns to racing after fracturing his femur in a crash at the 2011 Tour de France. He competed in the Chrono des Nations last October but to him, "This is the first big race since I crashed in the Tour de France last year and it will be a good start into the new season for me, to get back to full fitness before travelling to Europe for the Classics."
Vinokourov is set to leave his mark on the race, together with his teammates Valentín Iglinskiy, Aleksandr Dyachenko, Assan Bazayev, Andrey Zeits and Dmitriy Gruzdev. "We have a strong team with the potential to win the general classification. My work here will be to help my teammates achieve the victory," he said.
After Le Tour de Langkawi, Vinokourov is scheduled to compete in Italy at the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali at the end of March.