April 26, 2010 by Irish Peloton
Vino: It’s like he was never away
I like dopers to be repentant. I like dopers to be apologetic. I like when dopers decide to retire. I would like dopers to sod off! But when they choose not to, when they serve their two year suspensions and return to cycling, I like when they maintain a low profile and not perform at any where the level they were before their suspension, thereby proving to me that they are not as good as they were when they were doping which may result in a belief that they are in fact riding clean now. Alexandre Vinokourov has done none of these things.
The Kazakh rider was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France where he was found to be blood doping. He was subsequently banned for a year (which eventually was rightly extended to two years), a ban which ended last summer. He never admitted to any wrong-doing and as such, he never apologised to anyone. Initially he did retire, but then thought better of it and instead started planning his comeback with an Astana team which was originally built for him, but had since evolved having been taken over by Johan Bruyneel. At the Vuelta a Espana last year Vinokourov did return to racing with Astana, despite the protestations of Bruyneel.
He has had some modest success upon his return, winning a time trial stage of the Tour de l’Ain, the Asian Time Trial Championships and the Chrono des Nations along with the overall at the four day Giro del Trentino stage race last week. But last Sunday he won one of cycling’s five monument classics Liége-Bastogne-Liége, a race he won previously in 2005. In doing so he has unashamedly announced his return to the top of the sport of cycling. In recent times, this is the biggest victory by a rider returning from a lengthy doping ban.
We have come to expect returning dopers to struggle to find a top team willing to sign them. Thereafter, they also usually struggle to rack up any decent results. As an example, take the highest profile doper around, Floyd Landis. ‘Winner’ of the Tour in 2006, shortly after he tested positive for synthetic testosterone and was handed a two year suspension. Two years later after a lengthy legal battle, Landis found himself riding on the American domestic circuit for the OUCH team. Landis’ performances have been paltry compared to the doping-powered form he displayed in winning the Tour de France. His best result since returning to racing was probably a 2nd place in the recent Tour of the Battenkill. Two riders implicated in Operation Puerto in 2006 were Francisco Mancebo and Oscar Sevilla, both of whom have also had careers which have spiralled downwards. Both are previous winners of the Tour de France young rider classification but have recently been part of the Rock Racing team, again achieving very little on the American domestic circuit.
The highest profile doping case next to Landis and Vinokourov is that of Michael Rasmussen who was fired by his team while clad in yellow at the 2007 Tour de France. He was suspended for two years but returned to racing last October and is now with the Continental level Miche team. He is yet to win a race since his comeback and his results have been nowhere near indicative of a potential Tour winner.
All of the above riders have displayed what is expected of returning dopers, a significant drop in performance level from their pre-ban racing days. However, it must be noted that each of these riders is now at a team which is no longer competing at the top level. Budgets are lower, training plans are less sophisticated, racing schedules are less attractive and as a result perhaps there is a lack of motivation (especially when attempting to ride clean!). Unlike Landis, Rasmussen etc., Ivan Basso is a rider returning from a suspension who did manage to sign for a Pro Tour level team. In fact, Liquigas broke an agreement with the other Pro Tour teams to sign Basso, an agreement which stated that no Pro Tour team would sign a returning doper until four years after his suspension began. Until last week, Basso was the returning doper with the most impressive set of results. He is yet to win a race since 2006, but last year he finished 4th in both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. Although it is comforting to know that he is nowhere near the pre-ban form which saw him dominate the 2006 Giro.
Vinokourov is providing us with no such comfort. He will now be forever in the history books as the unrepentant cheat who won Liége-Bastogne-Liége in 2010. With this victory, coupled with his refusal to acknowledge any prior wrong doing, Vinokourov has raised plenty of debate as to whether any of these riders should be allowed to race again at all.
What are we to believe? That he doped before but he isn’t doping now? How is he winning one of the sport’s biggest races if he doped then but isn’t doping now? Let’s not forget that he is almost three years older now than when we saw him drag the 2007 Tour in to the muck. Despite this fact, at the age of 36 he has now become the oldest ever winner of Liége-Bastogne-Liége (I think, ’tis quite tricky to pin down birthdays for all the pre-war winners, but he certainly is the oldest post-war winner). He has also become the oldest winner of any monument classic since a 38 year-old Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle won Paris-Roubaix in 1993. These facts do not fill me with confidence that Vino is now riding clean.
Or are we supposed to believe that he was clean in 2005 when he won his first Liége-Bastogne-Liége and he is clean now? After all, this is what the records show. He didn’t fail a dope test until 2007. Perhaps doping during the 2007 Tour was an effort to convert himself from exciting all rounder who could win a classic and challenge for a podium of a Grand Tour, to genuine Tour de France favourite. Or perhaps his blood transfusion at the Tour was a decision made on a whim after he had a nasty crash and needed a booster for a time trial next day? Or, should we believe that he was doping in 2005, he was doping in 2007 and he is still doping now?
I’m inclined to believe that he is a slíabhín and is still doping. As cynical as it may sound, winning a monument classic after a two year ban at the age of 36 just seems far too implausible. He should be performing at a lower level than we’re used to, instead he seems to be the same old Vino we’ve always known and all signs point to him being a serious contender at the Giro next month. He hasn’t apologised for doping in 2007 nor has he acknowledged any wrong-doing thus far. Having watched Gilbert and Evans take well deserved victories (what can we do but assume they are clean?), watching Vinokourov win on Sunday has left me disgruntled and with a sour taste in my mouth. Should dopers be allowed to come back to the sport at all? I’m not in favor of lifetime bans, but surely the least we could get is an apology?