Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov, thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France after testing positive for an illegal blood transfusion, insisted that he is a reformed character following yesterday’s stunning win in Revel, which came just 24 hours after he had almost pulled off an equally daring victory at Mende.
Yesterday, the Kazakh launched a devastating attack with just 8km to go and crossed the line 13 seconds ahead of a chasing peloton led by HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, while on Friday he was the last survivor of a day-long break and came home in third place, seconds after Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez and his own team leader, Alberto Contador.
Together, the two stages mark a return to form for the enigmatic 36-year-old, competing in his first Tour since receiving a two-year ban for that positive test in 2007, but in the absence of any public apology for his past transgressions, Vinokourov continues to be a controversial figure.
After his win yesterday, however, he insisted that he was a changed rider, and when challenged to state that he was riding clean, the Kazakh, with his comments quoted on the Tour de France website, said: “Yes. It’s like I said after the win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, ‘Vino is coming back. This is the new Vino’”.
Vinokourov continued: “With my victory there, I asked why I always must prove my reform. This is the new Vino and I think everybody understands that now. I must win my popularity in France and I think this victory in the Tour helps… but I don’t want to talk anymore about 2007. I rode well in the breakaway and was great today and I’m happy,” he added.
Regarding yesterday’s victory, the Astana rider, five times a past Tour de France stage winner, although he was subsequently stripped of the two he won in 2007, said: “It’s nice to win here again and it was a good victory. I’m very happy for my team, especially, because I think I helped give some good morale for the team.”
The 196km stage saw Team Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha get into a three man breakaway with Pierrick Fedrigo of Bbox Bouygues Telecom and Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, all three past stage winners in the race, and although the peloton, led by HTC-Columbia, kept a close watch on the trio and reeled them in as the final climb approached, the Spaniard was satisfied with his efforts.
“When you’re in an escape, you never think about if you can make or if you cannot make it,” he said. “You just focus on what you’re doing at the moment. Once you’re in the breakaway, who knows if it’s possible. The truth is that you’re out there and you’ve got to have hope otherwise it’s not worth fighting for.”
Reflecting on another day on which Team Sky were left waiting for their first Tour de France stage win, he continued: “What was important is that we tried, we tried hard. We were in the breakaway, then with Edvald [Boasson Hagen] in the sprint and we still protected Bradley [Wiggins] the whole way. It wasn’t an easy day for the bunch with crosswinds and everything.”
He added: “We don’t talk about disappointment today,” but conceded that Friday’s stage, when an 18-strong escape group got away early on, “was a little frustrating because it was a big breakaway that went up the road with no one from our team there. There’s no reason to blame us because sometimes you need a little bit of luck as well as strength to stay away,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre-Farnese Vini, third yesterday, once again moved ahead of Cervélo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd at the top of the points classification, who came home in eighth place, making yesterday the third stage in a row that the green jersey had changed hands between the pair.
During this year’s Tour, Hushovd has been off the pace in the sprint, which he attributed to the disruption to his build-up to the race following his training accident in May when he collided with a little girl in Italy.
“I am just a little bit disappointed and confused that I am not sprinting as well,” said the Norwegian. “Two months ago I broke my collarbone and haven’t done any sprint training, and I am paying for this now.”
Last year, Hushovd consolidated his lead over Mark Cavendish at the top of the classification by picking up intermediate sprint points on stages in the Alps, and has employed a similar strategy so far this year on some of the less sprinter-friendly stages, but he believes that there will be fewer opportunities to do that in the Pyrenees.
“I think it will be difficult, because the intermediate sprints come in the flats early in the stage or after the big climbs,” he explained. “I am climbing well, but I think it will be difficult.”
With the race today hitting the Pyrenees to celebrate the centenary of the Tour’s first ever visit to the mountains, with four stages that together include five Hors-Categorie and five Categorie 1 climbs, Hushovd’s team leader, the 2008 overall winner Carlos Sastre, expects the racing to be tough.
“When we previewed the Pyrenees before the Tour, we knew it was going to be hard,” said the Spaniard. I am trying to stay calm. I don’t know what to expect. I felt good on the climb at Mende [on Friday’s Stage 12] and the team is riding well.”
Today’s 184.5km Stage 14 begins innocuously enough as it heads towards the mountains from Revel, with no categorised climbs in the first 100km, although there are a couple of small ascents to negotiate.
Once the race crosses the River Aude at Esperaza, however, that all changes as the gradient gets gradually steeper as it heads through the gorges carved by the river towards the Port de Pailhères, first visited by the Tour in 2003 when Sastre took his first ever stage win and Lance Armstrong almost cracked under pressure from Jan Ullrich.
After that ascent, where the gradient in places hits more than 10%, it’s a vertiginous descent into Ax-les-Thermes before a 10km climb at an average gradient of 8.2% to the finish in the ski resort above the spa town.
Sastre said that today “is a true mountain stage, so that will tell us a lot.” He added: “I am taking it day-by-day. Anything is possible. I have good memories of Ax-3-Domaines from my victory there (in 2003). This Tour has been hard, with a lot of heat, stress. Now we have the Pyrénées, and the climbers will have a chance to do something. It’s all about having good legs and good sensations at the right moment.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.