LONDON (AFP) — With a turbulent past that saw him banned from cycling for two years, Alexander Vinokourov was always going to face special scrutiny after he won the Olympic road race on Saturday.
But though questions about drugs threaten to cast a shadow over what should have been a joyous Olympic celebration, Vinokourov says that his doping past is well behind him.
“It’s not the time to talk about these issues but I think cycling has changed and a lot is being done to fight doping,” said Vinokourov. “I’m totally aware of the problem and I do what I can for the sport.”
Thanks to a never-say-die attacking style on the bike that has secured him a number of big wins, including two Liège-Bastogne-Liège titles, Vinokourov has plenty of fans in bike racing.
And 12 years after winning silver in the road race behind Germany’s Jan Ullrich, Vinokourov finally achieved his Olympic dream in the shadows of Buckingham Palace.
But when fans look back on his past, they will see the stain of a ban for blood doping in 2007, when he and his Astana team were forced off the Tour de France in disgrace.
And since his return to competition in 2009, he has been fighting to convince scandal-weary fans— many of whose heroes have been revealed as drugs cheats — that his performances are legitimate.
When he won his second title at Liège in 2010 the lack of celebration at cycling’s oldest one-day classic was palpable. Indeed, some fans jeered and booed.
But in two drama-filled years since the ban that could have ended his career he has so far shown that he is clean and still capable.
“I came back to the sport and I showed people that I can still win,” Vinokourov said Saturday.
“Since I made a lot of effort to come back to the sport, I said to myself I would do one more year to try and end my career with the cherry on the cake.”
Having failed to achieve his other dream — wearing the yellow jersey on the Tour de France, which he completed last week — Vinokourov came through in stunning fashion in London, despite the big-name teams and riders who were more fancied.
If the authorities’ sustained efforts to weed out drugs cheats do not disprove his claims that he is a clean Olympic champion, Vinokourov may finally find peace in his life after cycling.
For the Kazakh, whose career began as a teenager when he was sent to Almaty, thousands of kilometers from his home in northern Kazakhstan, close to Siberia, it is a fitting end to an unforgettable career.
After years of ups and downs on and off the bike, the 38-year-old promptly announced his intention to retire — for good this time — after next week’s time trial.
“It’s magnificent to end it like this,” he said. “All the big champions like (Laurent) Jalabert and (Richard) Virenque went out on top and I wanted to do the same.”