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Alexander the Great
 
By Staff
Date: 4/5/2004
Alexander the Great
 


Vinokourov at the 2003 T-Mobile International, San Francisco. Photo by Jaime Nichols.

Kazakhstanis are real, hard men. That already reflects early on in their sportive orientation, hardened as they are from growing up in such a ferocious country. Boxing, wrestling, weight-lifting: they don’t raise sissies behind the Kaspian Sea. And with the spectacular rise of the great Alexander Vinokourov, cycling seems to have earned its spot in the category of popular national sports as well. Oleg Kozlitine was the first Kazakhstani to enter the Tour de France in 1993, but that’s just a statistic, as the real interest in the world of cycling was only sparked when, on a sun-lit September day in Sydney, Alexander Vinokourov won Kazakhstan’s first Olympic medal. Their marine blue flag with its bright yellow sun and its eagle was hanging proudly next to winner Jan Ullrich’s German one: Kazakhstan was moved at the sight.

Vino was welcomed as a national hero in the capital of Almaty, formerly Alma Ata. He was granted a car and a furnished apartment by the government, the military promoted him to the rank of captain (in exchange for a few days of military training each year, he receives a monthly salary and later on, a state pension), and he was received by president Nazarbajev. Three years later, the festivities repeated themselves, but this time to honour the first Tour podium place in the country’s history.

All this lead to a close friendship between Vinokourov and prime minister Daniel Akhmetov, a former cyclist himself, who still maintains his condition on the bike. The two of them often go out for dinner together, and in between the dishes of sheep meat and horse steaks they dream of starting a third division team, consisting of Kazakhstanis only, in order to prepare them for their search for a better future in Europe.

God of Kazakhtstan is enjoying the special treatment he gets in his motherland. Alexander never has to pay his parking tickets, and if he would get it in his head to go hunting for big game with his pals Ullrich and Klöden, all he has to do is file a simple request with the army and in no time he’ll have a helicopter at his full disposal. And when they top off their trip with a visit to the local disco in the evening, the music is stopped for a moment to announce that our blonde prince has just entered, stuff like that. Salutations that are only reserved for the great.

He’s 30 by now, the man with the blonde hair, blue eyes and boyish face. And rich, especially by Kazakhstani standards. A house in Monaco, a huge villa in the surroundings of Nice, some real estate here and there in Kazakhstan: the little boy that applied for a position at the sports academy of Almaty at the age of 13 with the burning desire of becoming a pro rider certainly isn’t bad off, nowadays. It is that same craving for the luxury that he can afford now that helped him through the Spartan-like education at the academy. Vino 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 labour. 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.

When he’s 16, the big day has come. The sports academy hasn’t got anything left to teach Vinokourov and his classmates. The West, where the beating heart of cycling lies, is calling. In the fall of 1996, Gilles Mas, assistant DS of the Casino pro team, receives a letter from the Kazachstani national coach. The offer: the 6 best young guns of the entire batch. The question: a spot in the pro peloton for these guys. Mas decides to take two of them, on probation. The Frenchman realizes that fitting in Vinokourov and Mizourov - the two chosen ones - won’t be easy, so he decides to install them at EC Saint-Etienne Loire, an amateur team, for a year. Alexander and Andreï find shelter with a host family. Vinokourov quickly learns French and adapts well, but Mizourov is extremely homesick and is replaced with Andreï Kivilev, one of Vino’s classmates in Almaty.

Mas immediately understands that he made the right choice, especially Vinokourov is tearing apart the amateur circuit. Soon it is clear that he’s way too good for the éspoirs. One year later, the Kazakhstani makes his first appearance in the pro peloton. The neo-pro immediately wins 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, twice Paris-Nice and stage wins in just about every stage race of importance: the rider who traded Casino for Team Deutsche Telekom after some two years has been one of the world’s best for a while now.

Talent, power, character, money: Vinokourov has plenty of it all. But the man that 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 has never forgotten where he came from. From his first public celebration in his country on he brought gifts with him for his colleagues, who have 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.

And to this day uncle Alexander has never arrived home empty-handed. You wouldn’t want to have to count all the young Kazakhstani cyclists that have his generosity to thank for their cycling equipment. And anyone who wants to make an attempt at a career in the West can always drop him a line. A telephone call here, an email there: Alexander won’t rest before his fellow countrymen have found shelter at a club or a pro team somewhere.

No wonder that it’s not just the broad public that worships him. Even if many a fellow cyclist moans and curses under his relentless attacks, his social commitment made Vinokourov one of the most popular riders in the entire peloton. Alex works hard, Alex is honest, Alex never screws anyone over. “If you can win his friendship, you’ll have it for all eternity,” teammmate Mario Aerts says.


Vinokourov and Jan Ullrich at Zuri Metzgete 2003. Photo by Cyclingpictures.de.

In the spring of 2003 that is displayed in a tragic manner. Who doesn’t remember the gripping as well as spectacular way the Kazakhstani chose to honour his friend Andreï Kivilev? The Cofidis rider had a meeting with Death on a descent somewhere in the surroundings of Saint-Etienne, the exact same place where their pro adventures started a few years previously. Vinokourov fired his pedals with all the rage and sorrow he had in him, won the stage to the Mont-Faron, pointed to the sky when he crossed the finish line, and took a picture of his fallen comrade with him on stage during his “celebration” as winner of the race to the sun. “Since then I have the feeling that Kivilev is on the bike with me. There isn’t a moment on the road that I don’t think about him.”

That shows, when Vino founds the Andreï Kivilev Foundation, a charity fund that will provide 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. I want to make some people’s lives a bit more bearable than they are now, in my own way.”

He’s not a man of big words, Alexander the Silent. Everyone agrees that he was born on September 16th, 1973, but there’s still some confusion as to the exact place of birth. Was it Petropavlovsk after all, or maybe Kazakhstanskaya? Almost everyone thinks it to be the former, but Vino doesn’t feel the need to speak out on the subject, he hides the answer behind that mysterious smile of his. “And still, he’s not the shy man that some people take him for,” says Walter Godefroot, the man that brought him to Telekom in 2000. “When there’s partying to be done you’ll always see him on the front line. Bottle of vodka in his hand, making loud jokes, dancing on the tables, that sort of stuff…”

Vinokourov celebrated his 3 stage wins in Paris-Nice last month by throwing a party in his own villa. Every Kazakh rider that was in the neighbourhood, Telekom-colleagues Kessler and Aerts and DS Van Looy; all of them were offered a copious meal, a visit to the sauna, and…vodka, you guessed it.

"Vinokourov always leads the battle, on and off the bike”, says Mario Aerts, the Kazakhstani’s roommate in last year’s Tour. “He’s not big-headed at all, but a simple and intelligent guy. You can talk to him about more than just women and cars. He even stayed at my home for a week during the summer of 2003, when he was riding some criteriums in the Low Countries. He’d be a friend of mine, if he would have lived a bit closer.”

Lance Armstrong might say that T-Mobile has too many captains and too few sailors on board, but the Germans aren’t afraid in the least that Vinokourov will jeopardize Ullrich’s chances for his personal gain. A Kazakhstani knows what obedience is.

Source: Gazet Van Antwerpen, www.gva.be . Translation by Jan Janssens.


Vino at the Criterium International 2004. Photo by Cycling-photos.net.

 
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