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Andrey Kashechkin aims for Vuelta a Espana in comeback bid

You couldn’t blame fans and reporters for doing a double-take when they spotted the familiar face of Andrey Kashechkin among those lining up at the starting line of last Saturday’s Clásica San Sebastián.

Kashechkin looking lean, mean and clean (?) at the Clasica start on Saturday

The Kazakh rider returned to competition last month after a nearly three-year absence, having signed a deal to finish out the season with Lampre. Kashechkin’s short-term contract marks the end of a difficult path back to the sport following his two-year ban for blood doping in 2007. The Italians believe that Kashechkin can find his old form and are willing to risk signing the controversial rider.

Kashechkin, 30, said he’s hoping the cycling community will give him a second chance, too.

“I want to regain my old level,” Kashechkin said briefly before the Clásica start. “I am starting over. I hope to do well in the Vuelta.”

Kashechkin tested positive homologous blood doping in an out-of-competition conducted while he was on vacation in Turkey weeks after the 2007 Tour de France, the race in which his former Astana teammate Alexander Vinokourov was found to have committed the same violation.

While Vinokourov was welcomed back into the Astana team with open arms, there’s been a surprising silence when it comes to Kashechkin. The pair had a major falling out and there are even whispers that one fingered the other to anti-doping authorities, but at this point neither man will speak openly about his past.

Kashechkin, who finished third in the 2006 Vuelta behind winner Vinokourov, finally found a ride with Lampre.

In a longer interview with the Spanish daily El Diario Vasco, Kashechkin says this year’s Vuelta will be a major challenge.

“I want to see if I can regain my form. I believe with work and with time I will,” he told the Basque daily. “I’m 30, I’m confident I have some good years ago of me. That’s what I kept in my head during my suspension. I trained, stayed fit. When I found out about the positive test, I was only 27 and still had my best years ahead of me.”

At this point, Kashechkin’s deal with Lampre is only to finish out the 2010 season. He returned at the Brixia Tour in July and will race the Tour of Portugal this month ahead of the Vuelta. He still doesn’t know for whom he’ll ride next year.

“The only thing I’ve done my whole life was race bicycles. I started when I was nine years old. I came to Belgium in 1999. I’ve never done anything else. I always knew I would come back,” Kashechkin continued. “I still have a long way to go to regain my old level. I am missing the touch of the race, the speed, the instincts. It will come with time.”

When asked if he hoped to ride the Tour de France again, he replied: “Why not? I’ve paid with three years.”

If Vinokourov was allowed back to the Tour without a blink of the eye from race organizers, Kashechkin is hoping for the same treatment. Everyone can only hope he’s learned the right lessons.

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