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Astana's cold war

Alexander Vinokourov (Astana)

Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) (Image credit: Sirotti)

By Gregor Brown in Tignes

Alexander Vinokourov's Astana may not be living through the brightest of days. The Swiss formation held its conference on rest day one in Tignes on the same day that Eddy Mazzoleni has announced his departure from the team.

The 94th Tour de France could be the last run for Vino and it is in the typical do or die state for the 33 year-old from Kazakhstan. His Tour was put into jeopardy on stage five to Autun when he crashed with 25 kilometres remaining. It sent his entire team on the defensive, expect for Andrey Kashechkin and Andreas Klöden, who were allowed to stay with the front group.

The mishap banged up his knee and a loss of 1'20". Combined with stage eight's loss of 2'32" to GC favourites Valverde, Evans and Schleck, he now sits at 5'23" back on the general classification.

Monday at the Club MMC hotel in the dammed valley below the posh ski resort of upper Tignes, the finish of Sunday's stage, Vinokourov appeared to be in a happy state, smiling and joking with his wife and daughter. However, when the time came for him to speak to the press a different face appeared.

"I am more troubled when I walk than when I ride," he mumbled in barely audible French in a lobby bustling with vacation goers and Tour de France fans. The front seemed to be built in the wake of recent doping news. First, it was Matthias Kessler who was busted for Testosterone usage before the start of the Tour. Now, one of the team's Italians, Eddy Mazzoleni, who finished third overall in the Giro d'Italia, is being investigated by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) for his involvement in 2004's Oil for Drugs case and increasing pressure caused him to annul his contract.

The 33 year-old, already suspended by the team June 29 due to CONI's investigation, announced his departure from Astana on Friday, July 13. However, he is not retiring from the sport, as initially announced by the team. It had issued a statement that said he was stopping, and that "out of respect of his family and teammates, Mazzoleni decided on his own to take this decision."

Andreas Klöden, third in the 2006 Tour, literally kept his head down during the press conference. Eye contact was limited due to the bill of his cap and responses were minimal when the press officer informed, especially addressing the German journalists, that the questions would not be answered if they were related to doping.

Klöden’s domestique duties should be saluted. He dropped back for Vino on Sunday when his captain needed him; that is what he was paid to do when he signed for Team Vino from T-Mobile in the winter. The 32 year-old German pledged his faith to the Kazakhstan-backed team this last March after winning Tirreno-Adriatico. "I ride for Astana, and for Kazakhstan," he declared at the time.

Vino, winner of the 2006 Vuelta a España, might have the assistance of Klöden but there have been doubts about his compatriot Kashechkin. Thanks to his freedom to stay with the front-runners in the stage to Autun and his ride up Tignes, 'Kash' is now 2'52" behind in the GC and on par with the top contenders. His faith in Vino is rumoured to be thinning and a run for the race overall could crack the team armour.

Maxim Iglinsky believes the abilities of both 'Vino' and 'Kash' and may want to spread his wings on Tuesday's stage to Briançon. The 26 year-old won the stage of the Dauphiné Libéré that covered the same legendary ascension and said to Cyclingnews that he is ready to strike again.

"This is the third time for me to do the Tour de France. I feel good and normal. Tomorrow [stage 9], I am already familiar with this stage. I have won the stage in the Dauphiné that covered the Télégraphe... The stage is not difficult but it is one I like.."

The coming weeks' stages, specifically in the Pyrénées, should define the state of Team Vino.

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