Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Padraig has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Yesterday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us almost everything we look for from a Spring Classic, crashes, attacks, splintering chase groups, breakaways, and an unlikely winner. The name of that improbable champion was the one thing that left something to be desired in the minds of many cycling fans. You could tell from all the booing at the finish line and the wave of articles questioning the result, based on that rider’s checkered past. Despite a stunning and classy win, cycling just isn’t sure about Alexander Vinokourov.
There seem to be two strains of thought as regards the ongoing exploits of Mr. Vinokourov. There are those who view him as an unrepentant doper, a rider who cheated, never confessed and then came back at the top level to plunder anew. Then there is an admittedly smaller group who say the Kazakh has paid his dues, served his suspension and is, therefore, entitled to continue with his career.
I find myself curiously caught between the two. Ambivalent.
Certainly, I have sympathy with the skeptics. I have always been a believer that how you do something is at least as important as having done it. And so, when I ponder the growing field of convicted dopers returning from suspension, I am able to draw some distinction between David Millar, honest, contrite, outspoken and humble, and someone like Vinokourov, who has been seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of his transgressions. He has been neither contrite nor humble. Having served his time, he is back to feed at the trough. Full stop.
But is that a valid distinction?
Millar and Vinokourov both cheated. Both served suspensions. Both have, theoretically, changed their behavior to that prescribed by the governors of the sport. Those are substantive changes, no matter how they’re effected.
Does it matter that Vinokourov has not become an outspoken critic of doping within the sport? If each returning rider cast himself in this role, would the gesture become hollow? And is the sword not, in fact, double-edged? Would the same people who pillory the Astana rider for not being contrite enough, call him a hypocrite if he spent too much time extolling the virtues of clean sport? Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.
At root, are we, as fans, entitled to more bowing and scraping? Or are the sport’s laws and punishments enough?
I don’t know. I ask myself if I’m not maybe simply biased toward riders I like better on the bike. I can forgive Pantani his transgressions, to some degree, because he gave us such drama. Danilo DiLuca also falls into this category maybe. But the less emotionally compelling riders like Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde (unconvicted) or Jan Ullrich suffer a greater wrath. They cheated, AND they failed to entertain properly. This double transgression may be the real problem.
Today, Vinokourov has come forth with an open letter that seeks to address his situation more fully. It’s hard to read it and not feel an ounce of compassion for the man, who, at 36, is only trying to salvage something of a damaged career.
Would we prefer that he simply go away? For doping to go away, do the dopers all have to go, permanently? If so, we need to change our rules and procedures. Now. Before this dynamic plays itself out into absurdity.
The whole situation brings to the forefront some of the central challenges for the UCI going forward, how to reintegrate the sport’s transgressors and how to convince cycling fans that the punishments doled out are proportionate to the crimes being committed.
What we are seeing with Vinokourov is that, though the UCI has sanctioned his return, the tifosi have not, and neither have the cycling press. Perhaps these are just the consequences. You can cheat, and you can go away for two years, and you can come back, but all that will be left for you are these begrudged victories. You can stand on the podium and kiss the girls and hold the bouquet. You can even pocket the prize money, but you will never be allowed to win again.
Is that fair? I have no idea.
Let’s just get this one thing straight before we go any further. Alberto Contador does NOT hug teammates he doesn’t like. If the 2009 Astana saga didn’t teach us that, then we learned nothing at all. So, all you conspiracy-theorists who think Vinokourov attacked his teammate when the aforementioned teammate wasn’t expecting it, I’m sorry. Circumstances on the ground just don’t confirm that theory.
If anything they suggest that Astana and Contador have now learned how to use psychological misdirection to spring a surprise on the peloton. Be afraid, Johann Bruyneel. Be very afraid.
Right, so now, onto the race.
Wow! Even watching the emotionally flat, Sporza web-feed in Flemish I was excited by this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There were the Schlecks mixing it up at the front of the race. There were attacks galore from all and sundry. There was Alejandro Valverde sucking on Phillipe Gilbert’s wheel. And Gilbert! Was anyone NOT rooting for this guy to catch the break?
Alas, he just left it too late.
Even as they came inside 2k to go, I thought maybe Kolobnev was going to pull a Tchmil on Vinokourov, storming away at the death in that impassive Russian way. But no, instead we got Vinokourov, some people’s villain, whipping the crowd into the sort of frenzy usually reserved for professional wrestling events.
It was a beautiful race, if not a wholly pleasing result. Despite all that, we’ve gotten 24 solid hours of hand-wringing drama out of it, so, to my mind, a fitting end to the Spring Classics season.
No one predicted a Kazakh victory, so we remain awash in stickers at RKP HQ. No worries. There will be plenty more opportunities to win.
As to the many recovery solutions you proffered, some were funny, some were old-school reliable and a few had the novelty of a new group from Campagnolo: attractive, yes … but reliable? We’ll let you know how a few of these work out. Not trying the milk bath, though.
Next up is what I’d call the season’s taint race, the Tour of Romandie. It taint a classic, and it taint a Grand Tour, a dubious distinction indeed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International