Alexander Vinokourov believes he can do with Alberto Contador what he could never do with Jan Ullrich: beat Lance Armstrong.
The controversial figure of Vinokourov ─ who returned to cycling last year following a two-year suspension for blood doping ─ will play a key role in the coming months as the battle for the Tour de France heats up.
“I fought alongside Ullrich to try to beat Lance, now I will do it together with Alberto,” Vinokourov told the Spanish daily MARCA. “Except for an accident, I don’t know anyone who can beat Alberto in the mountains. Right now, after training together a few times, Alberto is already very strong in the mountains. I don’t believe that Lance can beat him.”
Vinokourov vows that he will sacrifice his own chances for Tour glory to help Contador, who only begrudgingly stayed with Astana when he couldn’t break his final year of his contract with the Kazakh-backed team.
“I will be the road captain, because I have experience, but Alberto will be the team leader. I will try to help him when I can, if I can later have the possibility to win a stage, even better,” he said. “Contador can win at least five Tours, maybe even six. He’s only 27 and until he’s 32-33, he can competitive on the bike because he began racing very late, at 15, so he’s still fresh.”
The return of Vinokourov last season created a breaking point within the already troubled Astana team, which was not paying riders and staff midway through last season. Ex-team manager Johan Bruyneel didn’t want the tainted Vinokourov back on the team and eventually left Astana to help form the new Radio Shack
Vinokourov, as could be expected, has his own version of events.
“That’s just an excuse (Bruyneel) used to leave for the other team. He used my name, my image. He had one more year of contract with the team and the Kazakhs had no problem that he could continue,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I be able to come back to the team that was in part created for me? Why didn’t Johan want me? I didn’t choose this road, but I never understood why Lance could race at Astana and not me.”
Astana was created in large part for Vinokourov, with the sponsors stepping in to take over the Liberty Seguros team after it was caught in the center of the firestorm of the Operación Puerto doping scandal in Spain in 2006.
Title sponsor Liberty Seguros immediately ended its relationship with the team following revelations in the Spanish media, but Astana stepped up to keep the team afloat. The team was prevented from starting the 2006 Tour despite Vinokourov’s name not being on the Puerto list.
At 36, Vinokourov remains unapologetic about his doping ban. He never made a public apology or offered excuses. He simply took his medicine and plotted his return last year, hoping that he would be welcomed back into the cycling community that has much changed during his absence.
Vinokourov won three races after his comeback late in 2009 – a stage at the Tour de l’Ain, the Asian time trial title and the Crono des Nations – and rode aggressively at the world championships and the Giro di Lombardia.
“I never lost any motivation, but the truth is I feel like this is a second childhood after the ban. I am once again with the team, with Alberto, and I want to show that this is the best team in the world,” he said. “The objective for everyone is to win the Tour again with Alberto.”
Vinokourov believes he’s not too old to make some big results, though he admitted that winning the Tour is perhaps beyond reality. Vinokourov will race the Giro d’Italia in May, he says to put a three-week tour into his legs ahead of the Tour.
Vinokourov said he still believes he can win big races, even if it’s not the Tour. Races such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which he won in 2005, and the world title are his goals before he retires within two or three years.
“You have to be optimistic. If Lance, who is two years older than me, finished third, why not me?” he said. “I believe I lost a chance to win the Tour in 2006 when they wouldn’t let me start (when Operación Puerto kept Astana out of the race). They robbed me. To win, I believe it’s too late.”