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Giro finale
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An interview with Alexandre Vinokourov, April 22, 2006

One hundred percent for the Tour

Alexandre Vinokourov is widely regarded as one of cycling’s great attackers, a rider you can rely upon to stir things up with his swashbuckling salvos that blow bunches and breakaways to pieces. His fans are hoping he can use that attacking flair to good use in this weekend's Liege-Bastogne-Liege where he's the defending champion. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes made his way to Liege for Vino's pre-race press conference.

Alexandre Vinokourov waits
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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Although his accelerations in last year’s Tour de France sometimes led to implosions of sorts, his aggression was welcomed after years of more controlled racing, whereby the US Postal/Discovery Channel team set a high pace before Lance Armstrong put the hammer down on the final climb of the mountain stages. Vinokourov’s caution-to-the-wind jumps earned him much admiration last July, and when he surged clear in the final metres of the concluding stage on the Champs Elysées, robbing the sprinters of their traditional queen stage, the press room erupted in rare applause.

Yet this year, things may be different. Granted, Vino is a natural attacker and he’ll probably always spike the adrenaline of those watching big races. But in a bid to turn him into a Tour winner, new boss Manolo Saiz is following a different formula, limiting his racing as he prepares for July’s big rendezvous and working with the Kazakhstani on improving his consistency in the big mountains. He’ll be holding back more, meaning that his aggression may be more controlled and planned in the future.

Gone are the days when he wins big early-season races such as Paris-Nice; he won the Tour de Castilla y Léon in March, but the Spanish race isn't quite on a par with the 'Race to the Sun' earlier that month, and this reflects his change of focus. Vino estimates that he'll have about 20 days of racing prior to the Tour this year, as opposed to the 55 he competed in during 2005. As he says, everything is "100% for the Tour."

Vino relaxes and has a joke
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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This weekend, though, he’s back in Liège, the scene of what is arguably his biggest win to date. The race was a big objective last time round; on this occasion, he’s regarding it more as a test of his form. But if the win is there for the taking, he’ll have a green light to go for it from 'el Jefe' [The Boss], Saiz.

Speaking to approximately 15 journalists in a small conference held at the team’s Holiday Inn hotel on Friday, a tanned, healthy-looking Vino spoke about the approach he would be taking. "We are focussed on the Tour de France," he stressed.

"This race is a good test for me, to see how I am going. I was originally due to go to the Tour of Georgia but there is a lot of travelling involved with that, so we changed the plans. It is less complicated if I stay here and do this race instead."

"This year the objective is 100% for the Tour de France," he reiterated. "I am here [in Liège] to experience the sensation of a big race and see how I feel. Besides, we have a good team for these races. I plan on doing a good race on Sunday - I am in good condition, so we will see."

Although Vinokourov is in Liège as defending champion, talk about the Tour as the overriding goal of his season meant that the subject of the press conference quickly turned to his preparations for July and who he sees as his main rivals. Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich are the two most mentioned, and the media were quick to ask if the Giro-Tour goals of the Italian and the delayed racing debut of the German meant that their chances of a top ride in July would be compromised.

Rather than court controversy by faulting either for their approaches, Vino chose to play down the question.

Peace, man...
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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"Jan often has problems with his preparation for the Tour but it's probably his last year to win and I'm sure he will be motivated," he said. "Basso has the goal of winning the Giro and the Tour, but that is his choice."

He was then asked how he differs from other riders, specifically what could give him an edge on those such as Basso and Ullrich. "Perhaps my character," he stated. "I think I am hard, a tough rider. And I have a strong mentality, I can focus 100 % for the Tour, give it everything."

As for the young riders who are coming through, Vino says he doesn’t feel threatened, as yet. "I have given myself two years - this year and next - to try to win the Tour," he continued. "It is true that young riders are coming through, but I feel good and I am very motivated for the Tour. I am going 100% for that."

"There are some good young riders emerging, such as [Luis Leon] Sanchez. But I think the Tour is won primarily through experience. That's what makes the difference. So I think it's difficult for the new guys to win just yet," he said.

This category includes Alejandro Valverde, who impressed earlier this week in winning Flèche Wallonne, but despite that Vinokourov doesn’t seem to fear the young Spaniard for the 2006 Tour. "It's difficult to see it [Valverde winning]. He has improved very much; last year showed that he can win in the mountains, but he didn’t finish the race. I think he needs to get through the whole Tour first, maybe aim for a high placing, and then come back next time with more experience and go for the overall," said Vinokourov.

The rider's decal matches
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
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The Kazakhstani’s best finish in the Tour de France was third, back in 2003. He missed the race in 2004 due to a crash, then placed fifth in 2005. However, despite those explosive attacks, he has also shown some fragility in the mountains in the past. Focussing exclusively on the Tour this year is an attempt to ensure his challenge is rock-solid this time round.

"This year everything is for the Tour de France, so we decided to change the program," he explained. "I enjoy training very much. I have been doing a lot of training in the mountains, for example, so we will see how it pays off in July. I believe that all of this work will pay off. In 2003 I won many races, but at the end of the Tour I started to tire. The change of program is good. I will ride 20 days before the Tour instead 55 in previous years. And do a lot of work in the mountains, checking out the climbs to be used."

"I don’t think it is a risk to focus totally on the Tour. I have confidence in myself, I am working seriously and in order to win the best race in the world, it is necessary to play strong."

Looks can deceive
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

The conversation then turned to his previous team, T-Mobile. Last year their tactics were bizarre, to say the least, with Jan Ullrich and Andreas Kloden appearing to chase down Vinokourov on a number of occasions.

This was one of the factors which saw Vino leave the team and move to Liberty Seguros, where he would be the undisputed leader for the Tour. He was asked if he thought he had spent too much time with T-Mobile and their previous incarnation, Telekom.

"I do not know," he answered. "In 2002 Ullrich went away to Bianchi and I had two more years of my contract, but then he returned. I do not regret anything, because in 2004 I could not ride the race and in 2005 I did a good Tour," he said.

"I was with T-Mobile a long time; I built a lot of experience during my time there. I was riding with Jan and learning. I signed with Liberty because they had confidence in me and what I can do. They have a lot of experience in riding the Tour and I think that for me, they are the best team to fulfil that goal. I am happy with everything. There is a good atmosphere, and the young Spaniards are fun.

"To be happy is the most important thing," he said.


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Images by Shane Stokes/Cyclingnews.com

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