Saturday, July 17, 2010

35 The Quiet Goombah

"The former Soviet state of Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe, and is not so much of its own country as its own planet, a vast sameness of boreal forests and grasslands, boiling in summer and frozen in winter, a land the Soviets found ideal for growing wheat and testing nuclear bombs - 470 tests between 1949 and 1989, most of them thoughtfully done on Sundays, so as not to disrupt the happy productivity of the proletariat. The ensuing years have only added to its charms : the rivers are so syrupy with toxins that they can't manage the trick of freezing; the rails of the trans-Siberian railroad are so elaborately twisted by frost that passenger trains cannot exceed thirteen mph. Kazakhstan, in short, is the perfect hothouse in which young cyclists may bloom."[1]

That's where the story of a stoic all-rounder began. He mumbled softly in press conferences, but spoke boldly with his legs. His enigmatic persona was only overwhelmed by his resilient desire to win. There are few who possessed his attacking style, fewer who could bring the theatrics that he gifted to any race.

A little Kazakh - Alexander Nikolaivich Vinokourov - was born on November 16, 1973 to his farming parents. At the age of 13, he applied for a position at the Spartan-like sports academy of Almaty with the burning desire of becoming a pro rider. From then on, he and his 13 colleagues were given extraordinary harsh training; up to three times a day they gave everything they had in their young bodies, in series of continuous labor. One hour at the crack of dawn, a three-hour trip right after the first meal of the day, and then another 2 times, 60 minutes going into the red right after the obligatory resting period: an education that can either break or make a person.

"Vino became known as one of the hardest of cycling’s hard breed: the Eastern Bloc goombahs; riders who had been selected as children, their growth plates and femurs carefully measured by state examiners, their biotype profiles matched against that of a “superior child,” and who were duly whisked away to the barracks of various sports schools throughout the Soviet empire. Once there, their life became an endless series of training exercises, the governing philosophy of which was summed up by a former coach: “You throw a carton of eggs against the wall, then keep the ones which do not break.” " [1]

When he was 16, the big day had come. The sports academy didn't have anything left to teach Vinokourov and his classmates. The West, where the beating heart of cycling lay, was calling. In the fall of 1996, Gilles Mas, assistant DS of the Casino pro team, received a letter from the Kazakhstani national coach. The offer: the 6 best young guns of the entire batch. The question:  Could he land a spot in the pro peloton for these guys?

Mas decided to take two of them, on probation. The Frenchman realized that fitting in Vinokourov and Mizourov - the two chosen ones - wouldn't be so easy, so he decided to install them at EC Saint-Etienne Loire, an amateur team, for a year. 

He showed up at the French amateur EC Saint Etienne Loire in 1997 with a rucksack on his shoulder and a coach's note in his pocket that sketched out the outline of his story. The wall had come down, and Vino had come to race bikes.

Vino quickly learned French and adapted well, but Mizourov became extremely homesick and was replaced with Andreï Kivilev, one of Vino’s classmates in Almaty. Together, they found shelter with their host family.

Vino was not taken seriously. From the beginning to others, he looked like he was nine - bright blond hair, pink ears - with an affection for shiny shorts and fat gold necklaces. Coy, of brief words, he resembled a cross between a mafioso and an elf. At first people assumed it was because he didn't know French, but was that really so?

"He knew it was fine. He just didn't talk. His background was, and remained, a blank slate. His parents were reported to have been chicken farmers in Petropavlovsk, but he would not speak of it. When he did speak, which was about once a week, it was in short, pointed sentences, so simple that it was like listening to Japanese poetry :

I will ride hard today.
The hill is not steep.
I will attack them. " [1]

Mas immediately understood that he made the right choice, especially since Vinokourov was tearing apart the amateur circuit. Soon it is clear that he was way too good for the éspoirs. One year later, the Kazakhstani made his first appearance in the pro peloton. The neo-pro immediately won the 4 Days of Dunkirk and the Circuit des Mines; later in the season he would add stage wins in the Tour of Poland and the Tour de L’Oise to that.

From there on, things only got better, and that’s almost an understatement - the Amstel Gold Race, the Dauphiné Liberé, the Tour of Valencia, the Tour of Germany, Tour of Switzerland, twice Paris-Nice, twice Liege-Bastogne- Liege, summer Olympics Road Race (2nd), the Vuelta a Espana and stage wins in just about every stage race of importance! The stats are remarkable. In his pro career since 1999 up until now, Vino has had 108 podium finishes :  forty eight 1st place wins, thirty 2nd places  and thirty 3rd places. 

Talent, power, character, money: Vinokourov has plenty of it all. A house in Monaco, a huge villa in the surroundings of Nice, some real estate here and there in Kazakhstan.

"But the man who raises his daughter Irina and his twin sons Nikolas and Kiril together with his spouse Svetlana also has a very big heart. The boy that grew up in miserable circumstances never forgot  where he came from. From his first public celebration in his country, he brought gifts with him for his colleagues, who had to work with a lot less than he. He donated 5 brand new Pinarello bikes to the Kazakhstani Cycling Union, and his club in Petrapavlovsk got 20 cycling kits, including shoes." [2]

Perhaps the biggest sadness in his life came when he lost his classmate, the same friend and companion he had raced with in his young years in the 80's - Andreï Kivilev. The 29 year old Kazakh climber crashed some 20 km from the finish during the second stage of the 2003 Paris-Nice and lay motionless on the ground, his skull crushed, his ribs shattered. Next morning, he died in a coma on his hospital bed. The dangerous sport of cycling had taken yet another victim. His shocking departure was the reason the UCI even enforced the compulsory wearing of helmets in all endorsed races.

"We were always there for each other," said a heart broken Vinokourov of Kivilev. "We raced for the first time together in 1986, and took the same road through the national team to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. We turned pro at the same time, Andrei with Festina, me with Casino. To lose one of my best friends is really bad. We were such a strong gang; the Kazakhs are a strong family."

In memory for his friend, Vino founded the Andreï Kivilev Foundation, a charity fund that provides for Andreï’s wife and children, as well as for his parents, brothers and sisters that he supported during his career.  “Being a famous cyclist opens many doors. It would be a shame if I wouldn’t put that in good use," he said. "I want to make some people’s lives a bit more bearable than they are now, in my own way.”

A year after his comeback, in the same characteristic style, Vino eluded the best sprinters of the world today, won the stage and added another brilliant feather to his cap. Meanwhile, Ned Boutling, a strong Vino critic wrote thus about him :

"For 4 or 5 years, and in an era dominated by the monotony of US Postal victories set against the fading star of his T-Mobile teammate Jan Ullrich, Vinokourov had been the thrill-seeker. He could be a one-man firework one day, and embark on the most suicidal of escapades. And the very next day he could disappear altogether, only to reemerge a few days down the line in true Lazarus fashion. He was loved. You could even say he was best thing about those Tours." 

Any doubt?

[1] Dan Coyle, "Lance Armstrong's War"
Many thanks to translation from Daily Peloton, stats from CQ Ranking, interviews from Cycling News, photos from Graham Watson.

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  1. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Have to say that I almost became teary eyed reading this. Go Vino!

  2. Talgat4:31 PM

    Great win, VINO impressive as always, thanks for this­ gift to Astana and all Kazakhstan, we all fully behind­ you!

  3. Anonymous4:47 PM

    Wish you had left this glowing tribute till after the TDF. Has the drug test results come in?

  4. So, 2nd anonymous, when are you going to enjoy Vino's win, or anyone's brilliant win for that matter? When the results of the current tests are in? Five years from now, when the tests for the new dopes are in?

  5. Nicely penned, and a refreshing read about a man who is so maligned these days.

  6. Coach Travis7:17 PM

    Thank you for the writeup! I'm sure Vino was selected very well by his Eastern Bloc masters. He is made quite like a robot from head to toe, solid, thick bone structure, very musclular, short and remarkably punchy for the attacks. The bodies of the Russians and Kazakhs are in stark contrast to the lean, emaciated looking structures of the Italians and the French. Germans are in another ball park altogether. Regardless, the wonderful thing about this sport is that it knows no particular ethnicity in particular, it is universal and whoever is ready to dig deeper and go farther than the next best guy on the circuit runs off with the gold.

  7. Trackasaurus7:37 PM

    Vino rides on pure guts and experience. In the near past, there are few riders whom I remember who, like you wrote, make racing so theatrical! Gerard Ciolek said today and you could see the old fashioned cycling in Vino's attack. Not sure what he meant by that but really, teams bring riders with old and new mentalities/principles to the race and that is very exciting to see as a cycling fan. As to the naysayers, its time to leave the past where it is and support riders like him. He served his time and lay the demons to rest. There are bigger elements in cycling who are running shamelessly dirty for years and its their time to pay for what they did. One rider in particular must be really spending some time in self-circumspection, instead of focusing on the racing. You know, he crashed twice today, one in the feedzone and the other in a neutral zone area. Jeez.

  8. Joachim8:04 PM

    Purposeful omission of the doping aspect of Vino's career? It is an undeniable part of his story.

    Usually this site/blogger is VERY critical of doping.

    Or should I say SELECTIVELY CRITICAL now.

  9. @Joachim and the anonymous chimers :

    Okay let's see. I'm trying to selectively highlight the unknown facts about this man's life, no doubt about it and I won't hide from it.

    But should I really ramble on about his doping past? Its not like you guys don't know what he went through in 2007. I linked to Ned Boutling's little writeup today, who in stark contrast went the other way with his writeup - instead of praising the man's efforts, went on about how he felt cheated 2 years back when he had to cover Vino's doping story.

    Another example : Eddy Merckx was caught for doping in 1969 in the Giro d'Italia, and infact he even confessed he took substances to race back in the day. Yet, when people talk about him on blogs and websites, not a mention about this fact. Everyone goes to great lengths to write good things of awe about the Cannibal.

    A 100 books on Merckx and 1000 books on Lance Armstrong later, people are still dying to hear about who the heck the others in the peloton even are - what their story is. What am I doing really wrong here?

  10. The humor just keeps building here. So Joachim, what's your real name? Is it Bill Strickland by any chance?

  11. Anonymous9:22 PM

    Pretty evident you cant have it both way bee man, your either a doper hater or just a Lance Armstrong hater. I think you are the later hater.

    Based upon Vino's rides these last few days, it reminds me of Rasmusin, and Kohl and Landis all super human efforts to win the stage here of there. Just admit it, you've just played in and become one of the long list of Lance Armstrong haters just because "his case is different !" (stamps foot on ground and say whaaaa. so I can be as self rightious as I want to be.) You and those bike pure guys seam to run with the same moto, GILTY UNTIL PROVEN INOCENT (which you know you did it, just admit it is how they operate)

    If you can somehow look past Merx because "it was in the past" why cant you get past your hate for Lance, "it was in the past too". Look at him now, a mere shell of a champion, he must be clean now so why can we just play in the nice little sand box together, hmmmm ?

  12. Perhaps you ought to consider actually putting quotes around the portions you lifted from others' works. I recognize large swathes from Daniel Coyle's LANCE ARMSTRONG'S WAR. it's NOT enough to simply mention the author's name at the footer. You stole his words and presented it as your own. Shame.

  13. Anonymous11:11 PM

    Good stuff. Vino is a class act!

  14. Anonymous11:13 PM

    This is a sad day for the tour and for cycling. GO AWAY CHEATER

  15. What a sad life for the people above in the comments! Total nuts who know nothing about cycling but crucifying those who have served their sanction for wrongdoing. Do these people ride bikes?

    The guys who race with Vino have appreciation for his work. Total credit for LA for tweeting about Vino's win.

    "Say what you want about Vino but the guy has some serious guts. When he puts his numbers on he races. Period."

    And Jens Voigt atleast remembers him kindly. "Boy, Vinokourov is one rider I have known for a long time. Back when we were amateurs I would see him in races around the world. I was on the German national team and he was on the Kazakhstan national team. They didn’t have any support. They even used little sugar bags like you find on coffee counters as the race food, Just crazy! But that didn’t stop Vino from attacking. Already, and this was back in 1993 or 1994, he definitely had this massive explosive power. He was already challenging us and hurting us…and he still is today, 20 years later.",0

  16. Anonymous12:07 AM

    Lance is the true mafia! "Remain silent, I'll pay you lots of money"

  17. Did he have a Mohawk in 2006? Whats the story behind that? :)

  18. There are 4 types of riders: 1)clean, 2) dirty that will be caught, 3) dirty that have been caught and continue, and 4) dirty that have been caught, confessed, and serve clean now.

    What is Vino? I sure hope he's a 4. I will full-heartedly support someone who's confessed (maybe it's the Catholic in me) and does it the right way now. There is a right way and a wrong way to recover from convictions. Dave Millar - yes. Basso - I think yes. Rasmussen - no. Ricco - not much better. All the others - same. Vino - he won't prove us wrong again. The man is harder than a coffin nail.

  19. Darryl, Sydney1:01 AM

    While most here think that Vino is remorseless, I'll go on a limb and ask why people think this is so? Is it because he doesn't offer a massive Catholic-like public confession in front of the press? Man has done his time, he's back, he doesn't want to talk about his past. He's winning races. He lights the Tour de France on fire. On top of it all, no proof for any misconduct or wrong doing till now.

    Instead, we're sitting here mulling new ways to judge someone. When he has confessed, then what? Will we say, his confession was too soft, not honest enough, not earnest enough...? I'm pretty sure fans' dislike for Vino will not end with his confession. People will continue to defy logical thinking for as long as they want, and this happens most when they are rooting for their own personal champions, or their country, or operating out of prejudices. The existence of these people is the biggest shame, not the doping scandals.

  20. Another Anonymous said "it reminds me of Rasmusin, and Kohl and Landis all super human efforts". I don't think that what Vino did was not anything extraordinary, in fact, it's pretty much the same thing Ballan did, only timed much, much better.

  21. Great write-up. Vino was great to watch that day. I'm glad I stayed up to see it live. :-)

  22. Great write-up, Ron.

  23. Don't even acknowledge the negative criticism of this post - it's not meant to be an objective, dry recitation of the ups and downs of his career! Vino is a cycling god!

  24. @JMP

    And Lance isn't? He is definitely many unflattering things but it's tough to question his measured successes (doped or not). That's the problem with this whole scene: it's as tedious as a schoolyard playground.

    Pro cycling is a job people. There are plenty of impressively difficult jobs out there. Get over it.

  25. Anonymous3:33 PM

    I'd have agreed with everything in this article three years ago. Now when I seen vino all I feel is revulsion. Blood transfusions are for sick folks, not sportsmen trying to con fans, race organisers and sponsors. Vino used to excite me more than any other rider. Knowing that he'd cheated was the biggest hammer blow to my love of this sport.

  26. footloose4:35 PM

    Got this from podium cafe, not sure about the authenticity but apparently once Vino was on a make-shift bike and was racing much older kids and he came in solo and the officials wouldn’t believe him when he said he dropped them all and won until they spoke to the others in the race.

  27. mr_attila_boy_to_you4:36 PM

    I can see Vino's perspective, by God's Grace, from a few different vantage points.

    First as a competitive cyclist (retired). As a Cat 1 road rider in the Midwest between the late 70's to early 90's, the temptation to "try something" was there. Never did, really didn't see the need.

    deHowever, being of Eastern European (100% Hungarian) descent and being married to a former Romanian athletic (gymnast) system athlete, the desire to achieve in that system, that is basically being beaten into you, and the resultant desire to excel at all costs, I can easily see how he fell victim, willingly or coerced, into his recent past.

    For those of you who call him a cheat, to go away or whatever, that is your right. However, in my opinion, say that after you endure what he does, provide the entertainment he does, ride as a pro, and act like one while doing it.

    Then comment all you want.

    Simple like that.

    Mr Attila Boy

  28. Anonymous12:58 AM

    You specifically asked for a few more facts about Alexanre so here i am.

    But before this.
    While i sincerely liked that quote about Kazakhstan it was kind of pushing the whole exotic side a bit too far. You almost made it like a mythical land of dog-headed people.

    Still it was enjoyable to read ;)

    I mean it's not THAT harsh and it wasn't THAT much of "the spartan way" back in the days. It was VERY hard though.

    If you wanted to add a bit of a drama (americans seem to like this kind of thing, too bad for them, europeans are quite reluctant to tell their life-stories left and right, deeming this kind of activity as somewhat embarrassing) you could have told how he won the very next stage after the Kivilev's death and this entire "damned race" that took his friend, saying afterwards he "felt the strength of two men" inside.

    As to Kivilev himself -- such a shame, he was a great rider -- fourth place at TDF 2001 is a testimony of that.

    Or how about 2006 if you want more drama?

    After he got tired of being screwed by his own team (for not being german, yet daring to be better than them at GC), he moved from T-Mobile to Liberty Seguros, which imploded juuuust before TDF start, and sponsors denied to support the team.

    In month's time, after Vinokourov called to a president of national cycling federation (former bike cyclist himself and at the time defense minister) who then started pulling the strings at the very top, he gathered a group of sponsors out of industrial giants operating in Kazakhstan to be the new sponsor for the team, along with the name change.

    Now that's a save.

    After still being passed at Tour due to formalities, Alexandre and his team managed to make the season ridden with extreme bad luck or outright prejudice, with Vuelta win.

  29. kenem (Ken Matheson)4:03 AM

    Thanks for another refreshing read. We need information like this to realise that not all dopers are monsters - especially when someone is so quiet about his private and past life.

    I was a Vino hater but now I have a healthier view of the man - though still don't quite believe that he's changed!

  30. Zach T.12:14 PM

    It's funny that for all the criticism leveled at Vino for blood doping, it was standard practice only a few decades ago:

    Thanks for this interesting profile of one of the more interesting, enigmatic, and fun-to-watch riders in the peloton.

  31. Martha1:35 PM

    Saw the RT from Greg Lemond. This is hands down the best cycling blog! Keep up the good work!

  32. David / Winnipeg10:34 PM

    My God all you people who want to crucify Vino, are you all perfect yourselves? You never run a red light or tell a lie?
    I wish more rideers had Vino's panache! Ride to WIN instead of riding not to lose.

  33. Jason,

    Why are you bringing-up Lance in the comments thread to a Vino post? I don't remember this being a discussion on Armstrong's biography, but rather, Vino's!

  34. Anonymous2:50 AM

    I like the guy........... gutsy rider. Good to see him come out and win the day after his own team mate attacked him close to the finish. I think he has made it a more exciting TDF!!!!

  35. it was a really great surprise this victory! i hope he'll do much better from now on!


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