Vinokourov backs Contador at Astana

Having recently returned to professional cycling, Alexandre Vinokourov has weighed in with a message of support for Alberto Contador following the war of words between the Spaniard and teammate Lance Armstrong. The net result may be Contador staying at Astana for next season.

Europa Press reports that while Vinokourov has made it clear that Armstrong and team manager Johan Bruyneel would have to accommodate his return or find another team to build - which they have done in recent weeks - the Kazakh rider threw his cards on the table and announced that Contador would be a leader within his outfit next season.

"The goal is to construct a team around you [Contador]," said Vinokourov. "I would work for him, but the decision belongs to him [whether he wants] to stay."

In early July Vinokourov had held a press conference in Monaco - in the same hotel as the Astana team - ahead of the Tour de France start to announce his return and declare that the Astana squad would be making room for him in its roster, citing the fact that he had helped establish the outfit.

His actions effectively alienated Bruyneel from the squad, establishing the 35-year-old Vinokourov as a self-appointed rider-cum-manager.

Following the end of the Tour, Contador declared that the relationship between himself and Armstrong was "zero", the result of tensions that built throughout the three weeks of the race. While Armstrong and the team continually denied there was a rift between the pair, events after the finish in Paris on July 26 indicated otherwise.

The two riders traded insults via Twitter and had cycling fans in a twirl as each openly aired his true feelings. While the seven-time Tour winner had to take a back seat to Contador during the race, the battle for hearts and minds was being waged via the social networking website.

Given the events in Monaco and three weeks later in Paris, Vinokourov's support for Contador is logical after Armstrong announced he was establishing his own team, sponsored by US electronics retailer RadioShack and boasting Bruyneel as the likely team manager. Speculation has been rife as to where Contador will ride next season, although this latest public statement may answer some of those questions.

As for Vinokourov's own comeback from a two-year suspension for doping, the Kazakh rider - who finished third in the 2003 Tour de France - is enthusiastic. "It's a unique feeling, like being at home again," he said, although it would be "some time" before he is back in race shape.

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