On Wednesday, news broke that Astana rider Maxim Iglinskiy had tested positive for EPO.
Iglinskiy, winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2012, provided a sample on August 1 that revealed an adverse analytical finding for the blood-boosting substance. A week earlier, he’d ridden into Paris as a member of Vincenzo Nibali’s Tour de France-winning team. The next day, he finished 26th at Clasica San Sebastian.
Iglinskiy’s 30-year-old brother, Valentin, also an Astana rider, was suspended in September for testing positive for EPO as well. Valentin Iglinskiy’s positive sample was taken 10 days after Maxim’s, on August 11, at the Eneco Tour.
The national implications were profound: Kazakh brothers, riding for a Kazakh-funded team led by Kazakh manager Alexander Vinokourov, a man who is no stranger to doping suspensions.
While there’s never a good time for a doping positive, the news came at a particularly awkward time for the Astana team.
As a member of the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), a voluntary group of teams committed to a stricter code of ethics than the UCI demands, Astana is required to auto-suspend itself for eight days, starting on the day of the next WorldTour event.
That would mean the team would miss Sunday’s Il Lombardia, next week’s Tour of Beijing, and, perhaps most importantly, the Tour of Almaty, held Sunday in Kazakhstan, where Nibali was due to compete. (Lombardia and Beijing are both WorldTour events; Almaty, a UCI 1.1 race won by Iglinskiy last year, is not.)
For reference, MPCC rules prompted Lampre to voluntarily keep Chris Horner out of the Vuelta a España, due to low cortisol levels, even though he’d been granted a TUE for cortisone by the UCI. Several major teams, including Sky, BMC Racing, Movistar, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Tinkoff-Saxo, and Trek Factory Racing, are not part of the group. It’s rumored that when Astana joined the MPCC, in December 2012, it was because the team was scared due to the fact that Katusha did not (initially) receive a 2013 WorldTour license.
“Damaging practices in the past have created problems for professional cycling’s future, placing the reputation, image and viability of the sport at serious risk. Neither the doping practices nor the environment that served to enable them can ever be allowed to happen again,” Vinokourov wrote in a letter to MPCC president Roger Legeay. “On the basis of trust and transparency, Pro Team Astana finds the MPCC Code of Conduct to be a credible, voluntary step towards protecting and re-establishing the positive, clean image of professional cycling.”
In telling the media that he’d won the Tour as a clean rider, Nibali cited the UCI’s bio-passport, saying, “A lot of progress has been made and we can see the results now. If there had not been all these controls, targeted controls, the biological passport, maybe I would not be here.” Nibali also cited the strength of his team as the reason he’d won the Tour; Iglinskiy was an integral part of that team. There were no positive tests at this year’s Tour for banned substances.
Back in 2012, I wrote a post-race analysis of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, examining why so many pre-race favorites, former winners like Andy Schleck and Philippe Gilbert, had ridden poorly, while no one had predicted that Iglinskiy would win — just as few had predicted his Astana teammate, Italian Enrico Gasparotto, would win the Amstel Gold Race one week earlier.
Back then, Vinokourov was still racing, not yet an Olympic champion. He had left the 2007 Tour de France in disgrace, after winning two stages, but had returned from a suspension, and in 2010 he became a two-time Liège winner, though that victory was followed by accusations that he’d bought the win from Russian Alexandr Kolobnev.
“The lack of firepower from previous winners will surely raise eyebrows in a sport where inconsistent results will forever be scrutinized,” I wrote in 2012, “as will surprise results from two riders of the same team over a period of one week, particularly as Vinokourov, the figurehead of that team and a quasi-admitted drugs cheat, has been accused of buying his win just two years ago.”
(I wasn’t alone in my surprise over Iglinskiy’s 2012 Liège win; my story quoted several riders and managers who expressed wonder over his monument victory.)
Three months after Iglinskiy’s Liège win — ahead of Nibali — Vinokourov was again suspected of buying a major victory, again from a two-man breakaway, this time from Colombian Rigoberto Urán at the London Olympic road race. Urán’s unusual look back, over the wrong shoulder, was accompanied by an inexplicable swerve that relegated him to silver; to some, it seemed that, for Vinokourov (and Kazakhstan), the value of a gold medal was immeasurable.
On Wednesday, the same day as the Iglinsky news broke, Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) returned to racing, at Milano-Torino. Kreuziger sat out the Tour de France, and then the Tour of Poland, after the UCI’s anti-doping commission contacted him regarding values from 2011 and 2012, when he raced with Team Astana. Frustrated by the lack of a positive test, Tinkoff pushed back, and, ultimately, the Czech Olympic committee cleared its rider after anomalies were found in his biological passport. The UCI is expected to appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
And on Wednesday, the same day as the Iglinskiy news broke, Oslo, Norway, withdrew its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, citing the high cost of hosting the Games, and a lack of public support for the expense.
Those cities remaining in the running: Beijing, China, and Almaty, Kazakhstan — the same city where Astana had planned on riding on Sunday.
The timing of the Iglinskiy positive, and the Tour of Almaty, makes for an interesting dilemma for Vinokourov.
Continue to participate, as planned, and the team’s commitment to the MPCC is immediately exposed as a facade. Withdraw, as the team is bound to do, albeit voluntarily, and it misses an opportunity to trumpet its Tour champion on home soil, at the potential site of a future Olympic Games. A no-show on Kazakhstan soil would seem an unimaginable embarrassment for the Astana team.
An oil-rich country that takes great pride in its athletic achievements, Kazakhstan seemingly sees no limits in what it can achieve, and no cost too high. Even with his doping suspension and bribery allegations, Vinokourov is a national hero, appointed by the former prime minister, who is also the head of the Kazakh Cycling Federation.
Olympic medals, Tour victories, even an Olympic Games — they are all seemingly within reach. Given the cloud of suspicion surrounding the team, the cost for the sport of cycling, however, may be immeasurable.
Will Astana suspend itself from competition for eight days, according to MPCC rules, or will it renounce its MPCC membership and ride in Almaty? Will the team honor its commitment to clean sport, or will nationalistic interests prevail? Time will tell, and ultimately, actions will speak louder than words.
(Update: Astana did not immediately comment for this story. After it had posted, Vinokourov issued a press release, saying,“All Astana Pro Team riders are contractually obliged to respect strict ethical rules and regulations. We will not tolerate any indulgences by any one entity, person or structure that violates these rules. I am very disappointed and angered that this rider could not have understood the basis of our rules and the importance of our ethics. It is especially unacceptable on the part of a Kazakh rider who stands for the image of our team and the image of our country.” The team also announced that Vinokourov would attend a press conference in Almaty on Friday, to promote Sunday’s Tour of Almaty.)