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Vino, vidi, vici

“Winning” at the Tour de France is a complex, multi-faceted thing, and never more so than today.

Now there are all sorts of ways a rider can grab glory at the Tour. In addition to the yellow jersey – the maillot jaune – worn by the overall leader, there are three other highly sought individual prizes: the green jersey for the most consistent finisher is coveted by the sprinters, the polka dot jersey is awarded to the best climber, and the white jersey is worn by the best young rider. Add to that the chance of winning any one of the 21 individual stages (in itself a lucrative reward which can guarantee a journeyman pro’s contract for the following year), or even the chance of showing in an unsuccessful long breakaway (which grants the sponsors useful airtime), and it becomes apparent that during the three weeks of the race there are plentiful opportunities to shine for each of the nearly 200 riders who start the Tour each year.

Of course, for the sport’s big superstars, the ultimate objective is to wear the yellow jersey in Paris, signifying that they have won that year’s Tour. Even in a year as open as this one, with last year’s winner Floyd Landis banned and Lance Armstrong, the champion in the previous seven years, enjoying his retirement, the number of genuine overall contenders can be counted in single digits.

The pre-race favourite this year was Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov, around whom the Astana team had been built. At close to 34 years old, ‘Vino’ is fast approaching the age where, by his own admission, it’s a case of now or never. So when he was the unlucky victim of an early accident which left him requiring 60 stitches and undoubtedly hampered his form over the next few days as he lost minutes in a sport where seconds can be crucial, it was difficult not to feel some sympathy for him.

And when, on Saturday, he produced a storming ride to win the individual time trial, slashing three of his eight minute deficit to the incumbent yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen, and put himself back in the top ten, it appeared that a late surge to Paris, however unlikely, was at least a possibility.

Whatever hope may have started to build on Saturday, however, was utterly extinguished within 24 hours, as Vino paid for his heroic exertions the previous day, suffering terribly on the punishing Pailhères climb and losing nearly half an hour, sending him tumbling down the standings to an irretrievable 30th position. As he did so, he was seen to wave to the camera in acknowledgement that his dearest dream was no longer a possibility, and it would have been no surprise at all if he had abandoned completely, especially with another punishing day in the Pyrenees to come today.

Vinokourov, however, is made of sterner stuff. Professional cyclists are known for being tough nuts, and Vino is known for being a strong man even among his fellow cyclists.

And so he started today’s stage. But surely nobody could have expected what was to follow, for just a day after blowing up in spectacular style, Vino attacked as part of a breakaway group, before racing on alone to a spectacular solo win.

For any rider to win a mountain stage in this manner requires incredible physical and mental fortitude. For one to do so having had to recover physically and mentally from such a humiliating failure only 24 hours before beggars belief.

(As an aside, Floyd Landis did something similar last year, only to test positive for abnormal levels of epi-testosterone immediately after, but notwithstanding the artificial assistance he (allegedly) had the circumstances of that win were somewhat different: Landis launched a solo breakaway and won at least in part because the main field failed to organise themselves sufficiently to catch him, whereas Vino was part of a big group including several other highly capable climbers and had to ride away from them all on merit. Let’s just hope there are no dark whispers over the next few days …)

And so Vino won his second stage in three days in swashbuckling fashion. He will not lead the Tour into Paris wearing yellow, but his determination, bravery and never-give-up attitude will be remembered nonetheless. It is a rare rider who is capable of winning two stages in the same Tour; rarer still one who can join that elite group who can boast wins in both the vastly different disciplines of time trial and mountain stages in the same year.

Alexandre Vinokourov will not be THE winner of the Tour de France this year, but today he demonstrated that he is a big winner anyway.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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