Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) has cut a decidedly low-key figure in what is his final Tour de France, but the divisive rider from Kazakhstan eventually showed himself in the closing kilometres of stage 13 to Le Cap d'Agde, powering off the front in the company of Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) as crosswinds buffeted a significantly the peloton along the Bassin de Thau.
Such winds are a notorious characteristic of racing in this particular corner of Languedoc, and Vinokourov himself had already showed his aptitude in the area during his infamous 2007 Tour, when his Astana squad split the field on the road to Montpellier. That race, of course, was to end in disgrace for Vinokourov, as he tested positive for an homologus blood transfusion that will forever overshadow his achievements.
Nonetheless, Vinokourov was able to return to the Tour in 2010, winning a stage at Revel and was set to retire after last year's race until he suffered a broken femur on the road to Saint-Flour. Determined to bring the curtain down on his controversial career in a more dignified manner, Vinokourov opted to continue for one further season, and this Tour and the London 2012 Olympics will be his final bows on the world stage.
Although Vinokourov had spoken before the Tour of his desire to sign off with a stage victory, he admitted afterwards that his move with Albasini was born purely out of chance. "In the Tour, there are always stages like this with small roads, wind and echelons," he said. "Everybody wants to place their leader at the front but it's not always possible. I was actually trying to place Janez Brakovic and then I found myself off the front so I thought ‘why not try something?'"
The sharp climb of Mont Saint-Clair – a staple of the lamented Midi Libre – had split the field with 24 kilometres to go, and in a high-speed finale, only the strongmen remained at the front of the race. 16 kilometres from home, Vinokourov drifted clear with Albasini, and the duo quickly decided to take their chances.
"Albasini is a good rouleur too, so I thought we had a good chance," Vinokourov told reporters after the finish line, recalling how the pair had built up a lead of 25 seconds at one point. For a brief moment, the 38-year-old Vinokourov must have felt his former self, sowing disarray and panic in the 40-man group that was scrambling to organise itself behind.
With André Greipel still in the group and marshalled by four of his Lotto Belisol teammates, however, the cards were stacked against Vinokourov and Albasini's late raid. In a past existence, the Kazakh might well have defied such odds, but instead all he could do was rage against the dying of the light. With a shade over two kilometres to race, as the race reached Le Cap d'Agde, Vinokourov and Albasini's resistance was quenched.
"We tried but it was hard to go to the line," Vinokourov said quietly afterwards. "Still, we tried nonetheless. I was missing a bit of force and Albasini and I were both a bit tired."
A weary Vinokourov allowed the chasers to engulf him and then eject him out the back of the group, and he rolled in to the finish alone, 46 seconds down on the stage winner Greipel. After pausing briefly beyond the line to give a gruffly optimistic account of his efforts to a French television crew – "It's a good sign, I'm coming back," he said flatly – Vinokourov pedalled off towards his team bus alone.
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