Alexander Vinokourov received an emotional finish-line hug from Astana teammate Alberto Contador moments after winning the 13th stage of the Tour de France on Saturday.
Just 24 hours after Contador’s attack up the final climb above Mende all but ruined Vinokourov’s chances of winning Friday’s stage, the Spanish climber was overjoyed to see his team captain cross the line first to give Astana its first stage win in this Tour.
“To see Vinokourov win today is better than if I had won myself,” Contador said. “He’s not one to share his emotions, but when I hugged him at the line, I almost started crying myself. It means a lot to him and it means to this team. It was an extraordinary victory.”
Friday’s explosive finale up above Mende had tongues wagging, because Contador’s attack neutralized Vinokourov’s chances of winning out of a breakaway, and the effort only earned Contador 10 seconds against yellow jersey-holder Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank).
“I certainly wasn’t attacking Vinokourov. It was a decisive moment of the race and I saw that Andy (Schleck) was in trouble,” Contador said. “The ear-pieces weren’t working very well and no one knew how far ahead Vinokourov was of the front group.”
Vinokourov – 12th at 6:12 back – said he’s living up to his promise to help Contador in the fight for the overall.
Those close to the team say Vinokourov and Contador get along well and that there’s none of the tension within Astana that racked the squad last year when Lance Armstrong and Contador were in a bitter struggle within the team.
“I was disappointed not to have won, sure, but I don’t blame Alberto,” Vinokourov said about Friday’s finish. “We are here to win the Tour with Alberto. I also glad to have won a stage because it was very important for our team and for Kazakhstan.”
The victory is a huge boost for Vinokourov, who was disgraced after testing positive for blood doping during the 2007 Tour. After serving a two-year ban, Vinokourov returned to Astana last year and won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April.
Vinokourov said he’s settled his business with trying to win a stage in his controversial return to the Tour de France following his 2007 doping scandal and now vows to help Contador to win the Tour just as the race turns into a quartet of decisive climbing stages in the Pyrénées.
“To be in this Tour is a victory, so to win a stage is like a dream,” said Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban for blood doping. “I was disappointed after not winning Friday. Now I will help Alberto to win the Tour with Astana.”
Vinokourov, 36, has been the unknown factor in Contador’s otherwise solid Astana squad coming into this year’s Tour.
Not only did his presence threaten to create unnecessary distractions with nagging questions about his doping ban, but many speculated that Vinokourov would ride for his own chances at the expense of Contador.
Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli said Vinokourov can play an important role in four decisive stages in the Pyrénées.
“Alexander will be our wild-card. He will be one of the last riders to help Alberto and he can also go on the attack to provoke the reactions of others,” Martinelli said. “We have a stronger team (than Saxo Bank) for the mountains, so have to use that to our advantage. Alexander’s experience will also help Alberto in the tense situations.”
Contador might be leaning on Vinokourov more than ever. Two of his Spanish sidekicks crashed in Saturday’s stage, with Dani Navarro – who has proven to be the strongest of the Astana fleet so far – and Jesus Hernández both hitting the deck on the eve of the showdown in the Pyrénées.