Vuelta a Espana

Vino’ only looking ahead

As if the last two years hadn’t happened at all, Alexander Vinokourov is back at the Vuelta a España and back on the Astana team. Ignore that two-year racing ban for illegal blood transfusions and forget about the behind-the-scenes power struggle at Astana involving Johan Bruyneel, Vinokourov and the power cadre of Kazakh backers. At least that’s what Vinokourov wants everyone to do.

‘I don’t want to talk about the past.’

By Andrew Hood

Tanned, rested and ready: Vino's ready to ride.

Tanned, rested and ready: Vino’s ready to ride.

Photo: Andrew Hood

As if the last two years hadn’t happened at all, Alexander Vinokourov is back at the Vuelta a España and back on the Astana team.

Ignore that two-year racing ban for illegal blood transfusions and forget about the behind-the-scenes power struggle at Astana involving Johan Bruyneel, Vinokourov and the power cadre of Kazakh backers.

At least that’s what Vinokourov wants everyone to do.

“I don’t want to talk about the past,” Vinokourov said with a shrug Thursday. “I have turned the page and only think about today, so I am looking forward to racing the Vuelta and the worlds.”

Looking fit and tan, Vinokourov doesn’t want the past tumultuous 24 months to blur his view as he makes an anticipated return to elite racing this weekend with the start of the 64th Vuelta a España.

He’s all but thrown in the towel of going for the overall, but if his winning time trial performance at the Tour de l’Ain earlier this month is any indication, Vinokourov expects to come out swinging.

I don’t want to talk about the past.

“I am happy and proud to be back in an Astana jersey. It’s been (two) years since I’ve raced, so I don’t know what to expect. My goal is to try to win a stage and be ready for the worlds,” Vinokourov said. “My dream is to win the rainbow jersey.”

Vinokourov’s presence at a press conference Thursday seemed unlikely just a few days ago.

He snagged the final spot on the Vuelta nine with Astana earlier this week after “administrative issues” were ironed out, short-hand for a cloak-and-dagger fight in the shadows between Bruyneel and the Kazakhs over the future of the team.

Bruyneel is leaving and Vinokourov is back, just as if the past two years haven’t happened at all.

“I don’t think Bruyneel didn’t want me to come back. It took some time to work out some administrative issues. There are no personal problems,” he said. “I talked with him on Sunday. We have a professional relationship.”

The blond-haired Kazakh won the Spanish tour in 2006 in his first and only grand tour victory barely six months before his career would spiral out of control when he tested positive for homologous blood doping at the 2007 Tour.

The proud Vinokourov was slapped with a two-year racing ban and quickly denied all allegations. He made noises about retiring, but after some time away from the spotlight, he realized he still missed the action of the bike.

“The first months (of the ban) were the hardest. I rediscovered family life and I spent a lot of time with my wife and children, something you cannot do when you’re a professional cyclist,” he said. “Cycling is my passion, that’s why I came back. I want to do something beautiful in the sport. I still believe I can do it.”

I don’t think Bruyneel didn’t want me to come back … There are no personal problems.

During his ban, Vinokourov – who turns 36 on September 16 – retained the support of the powerful Kazakh backers who bank-rolled the multi-million-dollar payroll at Team Astana, created in the wake of the Operación Puerto doping scandal to keep Vinokourov and a bevy of young Kazakh riders gainfully employed.

After Vinokourov and fellow Kazakh star Andrei Kashechkin both tested positive for blood doping, the Kazakhs surprisingly decided to stand firm, waiting for their prodigal sons to serve out their racing bans.

They tapped ex-Discovery Channel boss Bruyneel to run the team, and the Belgian did an impressive job, winning the Giro d’Italia, Tour and Vuelta in the interim, thanks in large part to the climbing legs of Alberto Contador.

But neither Contador nor Bruyneel are here.

Bruyneel is leaving the team to create the new RadioShack squad with Lance Armstrong, while Contador is reportedly looking for ways to get out of the last year of his contract with the Kazakhs.

Vinokourov said he hopes Contador stays with Astana.

“Contador still has a year’s contract with this team. I hope that he stays with Astana,” Vinokourov said. “I want to help him win another Tour next year. It would be very important for cycling in Kazakhstan. We are a professional team. There will be no problems (with Contador). It gives me extra motivation to try to help him the Tour again.”

Bruyneel with Swine flu?
The Swine flu is spreading throughout the peloton and now Astana manager Johan Bruyneel might the latest to come down with the H1N1 bug.

Team spokesman Philippe Maertens said doctors are trying to diagnose Bruyneel’s condition, but said it “must be indeed a kind of flu.”

Columbia-HTC’s Craig Lewis was diagnosed with the flu strain earlier this week in the first documented case in South Carolina.

Both Lewis and Bruyneel attended the Tour of Ireland last week and likely caught the bug there.

More than 20,000 cases of the latest flu breakout have been reported across Europe.

Bruyneel is not directing the team at the Vuelta a España and is currently in Spain, but he wasn’t planning on spending any time at the Vuelta this year. Sean Yates is slated to serve as the team’s sport director during Spain’s grand tour.

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