With no fanfare and during an innocuous stage of the Tour de France, at least as far as the general classification protagonists was concerned, Alexander Vinokourov unofficially retired from professional cycling Sunday. Anthony Tan takes time to reflect on his rollercoaster career on two wheels.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

Born on 16 September 1973 in Petropavl, Kazakhstan, Alexander
Nikolaevich Vinokourov is just six months younger than me, which means
as an aspiring amateur, I kept track of his upward trajectory as mine
regressed from barely-a-chance-in-hell to no-chance-in-hell.

The
sports school a then 13-year-old Vino attended in Almaty, the former
capital of Kazakhstan, was modelled on those in the Soviet Union. It
meant, therefore, that not only was Vino born tough, he was bred tough.

Towards
the close of the 1997 season, a successful trial with Casino, the team
of Vincent Lavenu – now team manager at ProTeam AG2R La Mondiale, which
is of course riding this year's Tour de France – led to a two-year
contract, starting the following year.

Straight away, Vinokourov showed promise, winning six races in his neo-pro year.

A season later, in 1999 and aged just 25, he won the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, and was touted as a future Tour winner.

A
handful of years later and riding for Team Telekom, he went on to win
Paris-Nice twice (2002-03), the last of those in honour of his fallen
compatriot, Andrei Kivilev, who died after a fall on the second stage,
the 2003 Tour de Suisse and the Amstel Gold Race, also in the same year.

His breakthrough year continued at his first Grande Boucle, where he finished third overall to Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, and was awarded the race's most combative rider.

* * *

Injury,
conflicting personalities within the team and poor tactics saw
Vinokourov never reach the heights many predicted after his '99 Dauphiné
triumph. However he continued to win – mostly through a heady
combination of brute strength, stubbornness and trademark panache than
anything else.

Then there was the first irony of Liberty Seguros,
his 2006 team's co-title sponsor, exiting the sport after its team
manager, Manolo Saiz, was arrested based on circumstantial evidence of
systematic blood doping.

But that didn't help because little more
than a month later, Astana-Würth withdrew from the Tour after five
riders were implicated in the Operación Puerto doping scandal, leaving the team unable to compete (a minimum six riders are required).

Interestingly,
Vinokourov wasn't one of the accused. Instead, he won the Vuelta a
España – but not before Würth became the second title sponsor to depart
in the space of one season, as the team became known only as Astana, as
it does today.

The second irony was that Vinokourov was
eventually done for homologous blood doping on 24 July 2007, following
his time-trial victory on Stage 13 of that year's Tour. ASO president,
Patrice Clerc, asked Astana to withdraw, which they did, and in
December, he announced his retirement.

When the UCI got wind of a
possible return from Vino, they renewed an appeal previously made to
the Court of Arbitration for Sport, asking that the Kazakhstani's
one-year ban, handed to him by his national cycling federation, be
overturned.

CAS acceded to the request and so Vino's ban would last till 24 July 2009.

* * *

Exactly
one month after the expiration of his ban, Vinokourov joined his old
team at Astana, who welcomed back the then 35-year-old with open arms.
After Armstrong and 10 of his mates left Astana, leaving Contador as the
sole leader, his re-hiring was seen as a return to the team's roots.

Opinion towards his comeback, however, was divided.

Public
sentiment was perhaps best exemplified at the 2010
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he was booed on the podium by a horde of
Belgian fans, unhappy to see him back to his best. He pleaded to the
press for repentance, seeking atonement. Not long afterwards, the public
– along with his fellow riders – began to warm to him once more.

At
Liège, and again rather ironically, he beat Russia's Alexandr Kolobnev –
who became the 2011 Tour's first doping positive after a test taken on
Stage 5, his A-sample revealing traces of a diuretic that can be used as
a masking agent – and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, currently serving a
two-year suspension till 1 January 2012, for his involvement in Operación Puerto.

Since
his return, Vinokourov has never looked like a serious challenger for
GC in a Grand Tour, even if he did finish third to Cadel Evans at this
year's Tour de Romandie. But his panache, hard-headedness and fighting
spirit were all still there – qualities that made him so watchable, even
if you despised him.

So when he crashed out on the descent of
the Puy Mary on the rain-soaked ninth stage to Saint-Flour, fracturing
his pelvis and elbow, I was saddened, for his presence is a welcome
addition in an era that is too often characterised by conservativeness.

What will Vino do next?

Well,
with the UCI rules now in place that prevents any rider suspended for
two years or more having a role in team management, we can rule out a
job as a sports director or manager.

He may decide, however, to
take on a coaching role within Astana, most likely in an unofficial
capacity. Or a development role, helping to find and groom Kazahkstan
cycling's next big things.
Or, he may decide to leave the sport altogether, as quietly as he left today.

When I sent out a Tweet this afternoon, asking you for your feelings towards Vino's retirement, SBS' producer at the Tour, Stuart Randall, best summed it up.

"Sad. Sad for who he used to be, what he became and how he left."


Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_tan