By Susan Westemeyer and Shane Stokes
Alexander Vinokourov is hoping to ride the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège with his Team Astana this coming spring, according to reports in the Dutch media. The Kazakhstani rider is negotiating with the UCI to allow him to start as of the beginning of next year, but the world governing body of the sport is firmly against it.
Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France and was given a one-year suspension by his national federation, which ended in July, 2008. The UCI said that at the time that it would accept the one-year suspension, instead of the usual two-year ban, because the rider planned to retire and not return to racing. However, UCI president Pat McQuaid has recently insisted on a suspension of another year since Vinokourov started talking about his comeback.
The 35-year-old former Astana rider was in the Netherlands for a trade mission, accompanied by the Kazakh minister for sport, Anatoliy Kulnazarov, who told Telegraaf, "I assume that Vinokourov will ride next season. Naturally he will be in the Astana team."
Even though Astana spokesperson Philippe Maertens did not wish to comment on the report officially, it thus seems clear with which squad Vinokourov will make his comeback to racing. The question remains when exactly next year he will be allowed to do so.
UCI insists on two-year ban
Responding to the news of Vinokourov's comeback attempt, UCI President Pat McQuaid confirmed that the Kazakh was attempting to return to the sport. However, the Irishman poured cold water on the chances of the rider being part of the Spring Classics.
"I am having a meeting with representatives of the Kazakh federation tomorrow," he told Cyclingnews on Thursday morning. "There is no way he will be allowed back. The UCI does not accept the one-year sanction, it should have been two years.
"We have regulations in relation to when people can come back from an anti-doping sanction. Vinokourov will have to follow the regulations as they are. That would certainly preclude him from riding the Classics next year."
The then-Astana rider tested positive during the 2007 Tour de France. for blood doping. This normally results in a two-year suspension, although a reduction may be given if the rider admits the offence and gives evidence against others involved in the process. Vinokourov never co-operated in this way and so, under UCI regulations, should not return until after the 2009 Tour.
Given that the Kazakh federation went against UCI rules as regards the length of his suspension, it appears that the governing body did not act in an impartial manner. Cyclingnews asked McQuaid if it was time that another body determined the length of bans.
"Under our regulations, the national federation where the rider has his licence is currently the sanctioning body," he answered. "There have been suggestions that it should be taken over by an independent sanctioning body, but we have to look at who would pay for that. Nothing is going to change in the short term, but it might be possible in the long term."
In any case, whether Vinokourov returns to racing in Spring or Summer 2009, he will be doing so with Astana, which has recruited more than one cycling star for the upcoming season. Nevertheless, 'Vino' said he would have no problem riding with Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, the team's leaders. "I think that I could be a good helper to them in the Grand Tours. I have no problem putting myself at their service."