By Andrew Hood
Alexander Vinokourov is back from his two-year doping ban, but his immediate future is anything but certain.
In fact, the only thing certain about the charismatic Kazakh rider and his racing plans is shrouded in uncertainty.
Besides a few vague public comments, almost no one is willing to go on the record to answer some basic questions on whether or not Vinokourov will be racing in an Astana jersey, a sure sign that something is cooking.
The 35-year-old Vinokourov raced Tuesday for the first time since serving a two-year racing ban for homologous blood doping, an alleged offense during the 2007 Tour de France that he has never confessed to.
Instead, the unrepentant Vinokourov is planning a full return to cycling this month, yet nothing is settled in terms of where he will race and with whom, at least not publicly.
Vinokourov lined up Tuesday in the French Castillon-La Bataille criterium without a formal team, racing instead with a jersey emblazoned with his photo in an Astana jersey and the phrase, “Vino 4ever.”
“This is my big comeback,” Vinokourov told reporters Tuesday. “It’s a special feeling. It’s like coming back to your family. The form is pretty good, but I am lacking some race rhythm. That will come soon enough.”
Vinokourov’s first major race back is expected to be four-day Tour de l’Ain starting Sunday in France. A preliminary start list shows Vinokourov participating with a Kazakh national team, not with his former team Astana, which is also competing in the race.
Astana is a team in flux, with current team manager Johan Bruyneel and at least a half dozen of the team’s biggest stars, including Lance Armstrong, leaving at the end of the year to form the new RadioShack in 2010.
Bruyneel traveled to UCI headquarters in Switzerland this week to discuss the team’s future.
Whether Bruyneel ever acts as sport director again this season for Astana remains to be seen, but his exit from the team is making room for Vinokourov’s comeback.
The Astana team was created from the ashes of the Operación Puerto doping scandal and the departure of American sponsor Liberty Seguros in May, 2006. The Kazakh cycling federation stepped in with a consortium of sponsors to support Vinokourov, an Olympic-medal winner who is considered a hero in his native Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh cycling federation decided to continue backing the team despite the blood doping positives involving Vinokourov and the team’s other star rider, Andrei Kashechkin, both in 2007.
Bruyneel was tapped as team manager and successfully steered the Astana team through turbulent waters in 2008, including a veto by officials to race last year’s Tour de France, and directed Alberto Contador to solid victories in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta.
The team nearly flamed out this spring, however, when payments from the Kazakhs to Bruyneel dried up, allegedly over disagreement on the return of Vinokourov to the Astana fold.
With Bruyneel and Armstrong exiting, Vinokourov is expected to come back to what he called “my team,” and could race the Vuelta a España later this month in an Astana jersey. One start list circulating on the Web lists Vinokourov on the preliminary roster of Astana riders.
Another major question mark is whether or not Tour winner Alberto Contador will fulfill his remaining final year of his contract with Astana.
The Spanish rider allegedly has a multi-year, multi-million-euro offer from the Kazakhs, but reports suggest Contador is considering offers from other teams and does not want to risk being left out of next year’s Tour for sins involving Vinokourov and the Kazakhs.
Vinokourov, meanwhile, said he’d be happy to work for Contador.
“We want to build the team around (Contador),” Vinokourov said Tuesday. “I would work for him, but the decision lies with him.”
There’s little doubt that Vinokourov will end up in an Astana jersey sooner or later. It remains to be seen, however, just who will be there with him.
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