Alexandre Vinokourov is back at the Tour de France three years after being ejected due to a failed doping test, when it was found he transfused blood, and the Kazakhstani rider is grateful for the opportunity to once again ride the season's biggest race.
The controversies of his comeback seem to be behind him - he was booed in Belgium after winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April - and was warmly welcomed in Holland as he embraces his role of super lieutenant for defending champion Alberto Contador.
Two months ago, the Dutch public already showed their sympathy for Vinokourov at the start of the Giro d'Italia. As the unique captain of Astana at the corsa rosa, he managed to wear the maglia rosa for five days but failed to win a stage and make the final podium. His sixth place overall proved his capacity of performing at Grand Tours again.
He hasn't raced since the end of the Giro in Verona on May 30th. "But I've been to the beach!" he told Cyclingnews, smiling. "I've been for four days to Kazakhstan to visit some sponsors and friends and to eat Kazakh meat. After that I've taken some days off with my family in Monaco. Then I've prepared for the Tour."
Vinokourov isn't a fan of the reconnoitre of stages prior to a Grand Tour, preferring altitude training camps. "But I didn't go to Saint-Moritz or Tenerife, the places that some people don't like me to go to!", he added with a laugh.
Controversial cycling doctors Michele Ferrari and Eufemiano Fuentes have organised training camps in Saint-Moritz and Tenerife in the past. After winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Vinokourov had been harassed with questions by reporters about the location of his training camps.
"I went to Sicily on the Etna volcano this time", he revealed. "It was something new to me. It was wonderful. I had great weather conditions for the 12 days I was there. I think my form is very good for the Tour de France. I've done my own tests on the road and I know myself very well.
"It's special for me to return to the Tour de France. It brings me a good feeling. It's a communication with the public and I thank the organisers for letting me back in the race."
Vinokourov isn't at the Tour at the age of 35 only for the pleasure of participating. "We have a good chance of winning the race", he said. "There aren't many Tours left in my career. This one is one my last ones so I want to give my best for Astana to win it. I'm confident in Alberto [Contador].
"As I've said for a long time, I'll ride for him only. I'm excited about the first few stages. It's been a long time that I haven't ridden on the pavés though but if I have good legs, it will be no worries. I like the course of stage two as well."
This is on the roads of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In late April, Vino's comeback was still controversial. But two months later, after Ivan Basso'a win at the Giro d'Italia, the riders who have served their ban seem to be no longer a target for media and fans.
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