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News feature, July 22, 2007

Return of the 'Vino'

Vino is back and Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé reports from Albi on the flying Kazakh's weeks past and the outlook for the coming days, which aren't necessarily a good forecast for his opponents.

Alexander Vinokourov (Astana)
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After an afternoon that was spoiled with rain showers the skies opened up when the GC-favourites unleashed their forces near the beautiful city of Albi. Pre-Tour favourite Alexandre Vinokourov was one of the first to head out and despite the fact that he still was riding on partly wet roads he confirmed that the Astana move of stage 11 was the first sign of the Kazakh resurrection. The labourer from Petropavl plotted his way through the hilly and turning roads near Albi and at the finish he shattered the time of Bradley Wiggins, blowing the Britain's hope for an unexpected stage win.

In the shadow of St-Cecilia's cathedral in Albi la Rouge, as the city is often referred to, 'Vino' the Turquoise granted the media a few words on his time trial. "I'm happy with my performance, this is my revenge for Briançon," 'Vino' referred to the stage where he lost three minutes on his main GC-rivals. "I want to thank everybody who supported me to make it through the Alps. Now that I found my legs again I want to attack in the Pyrénées; we have a couple of days left to do something," Vinokourov predicted firework for the upcoming stages.

"Now that I found my legs again I want to attack in the Pyrénées; we have a couple of days left to do something."

-Alexander Vinokourov promises his rivals an unpleasant mountain crossing

When asked if the patron had returned to the peloton Vinokourov agreed, "as many people had already written me off already." Then the sober Kazakh general got back on his machine and rode to the team bus, guided by some he-men.

About an hour later a dismayed Alejandro Valverde was the last to cross the finish line; the Spanish rider was the favourite to take over the yellow jersey from Michael Rasmussen in the time trial but he found out that his TT-abilities are still not good enough to battle for the yellow jersey in Paris. On the other hand there was Rasmussen, floating on his yellow cloud, and the Dane rode the time trial of his life, keeping a minute of his overall lead against Cadel Evans.

At the post-race press conference a proud Vinokourov pointed out that he's not defeated yet. "'Vino' is back," the Kazakh rider said in his typical Russian-French mumbling. "I was very motivated for this time trial," he said. Then the Astana leader launched some pep talk. "Today the Tour really starts for me, it is not over yet," Vinokourov claimed. "I lost a lot of time in the Alps but the Tour is only over in Paris."

Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) is back
Photo ©: Sirotti
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When looking back on his past week the Kazakh general didn't have the best memories, which is no surprise since he had an unlucky crash on stage 5 that caused him to struggle through the Alps, resulting in a eight minute deficit on Michael Rasmussen in the GC. "The first two weeks weren't funny at all, it was a hard week for me and I had to give it all I had. After my crash I hoped that there wouldn't be an infection in my knee, the doctor did a great job in the hospital; also the masseur did good work for me. I must be grateful to those who helped me through these hard times. I also want to thank the fans along the course, it's thanks to them that I didn't abandon," Vinokourov indicated he was on the verge of breaking down last week. "I feel better now and I'm happy that I'm back. It all worked out and today I found my legs again."

It's no surprise to see Vinokourov overpowering the opposition in a time trial as he is a specialist. The treacherous course took some casualties as guys like Fabian Cancellara, Vladimir Gusev and team-mates Kashechkin and Klöden all crashed in one of the many tricky and slippery corners. "I didn't take risks in the descent as I knew it was very dangerous. I was very careful and maybe I lost time on other riders there, but it was important to stay calm," Vinokourov explained.

When asked if he still had a chance for the overall win in Paris 'Vino' was realistic. "The team still believes in me as captain of the team. The team said that it wasn't over, that they still counted on me. Today I'm still five minutes down on Rasmussen but I showed that the Tour is not over for me, I stay motivated for the rest of the Tour." How the Astana team will organize their team remains a question and 'Vino' couldn't help us much further. "We don't have the pressure of the maillot jaune and we will show that we're back during the next days, the tactics will be discussed later," 'Vino' handed out a warning to his rivals.

But first a well-deserved drop of water.
Photo ©: Sirotti
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General manager Marc Biver is in a luxurious position although everybody knows that the ideal scenario for the Kazakh team end in a win for national hero Alexandre Vinokourov. For now the most important rival from Astana is the under-fire Danish climbing goat from Rabobank, Michael Rasmussen. "He was impressive today as he lost only three minutes on me, I expected he would lose more time; nevertheless I'm not scared even though he is also a good climber," Vinokourov went on.

"You can always have a bad day and we'll see what he does as the following stages are very hard, we will attack," Vinokourov guaranteed he would take initiative in the mountains. The Kazakh didn't want to say much about the doping problems of Rasmussen as he said that he didn't know the details. "I don't understand that his federation didn't speak before the Tour de France, now the Tour de France has to go on," was the only statement he made on the issue.

The Astana team pulled off a magnificent performance as their three team leaders were all positioned in the top five. In the GC they're now all in the top ten, offering them an attractive tactical position. Emperor Alexander wasn't surprised by the strong performance of his team-mates. "Andreas was always very good so I'm not surprised. Andrey [Kashechkin] improved a lot but he also made good time trial in the Dauphiné Libéré. Personally, [two weeks ago] I wanted to win the Tour in the time trials and persist in the mountains. I was ready to be here but I lost time in the Alps; but again, like I said, the Tour is only over in Paris."

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