Saturday, July 17, 2010

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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