Can Vinokourov Ever Be Golden?

Vinokourov ends his checkered career with an Olympic gold medal. How should you feel about that?

Perhaps only Alberto Contador is as controversial and conflicted a rider to root for as Alexander Vinkourov. Like Contador now, Vinokourov has gone from trusty teammate of  Jan Ulrich to a GC man, a villain and a cheat, to an attacking genius on the comeback trail. When Vino join the Telekom team, he was the right-hand man to Ulrich, the captain of the Pink Flotilla hell-bent on taking down Lance Armstrong. Riding aggressively, he replaced Ulrich as the most dangerous threat to Armstrong, and won fans around the world in the process.

When he tested positive in the 2007 Tour, almost no one was surprise. Vinokourov had made no secret whatsoever about his relationship with disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari, and had been implicated along with many other professional cyclists in the Operacion Puerto scandal. His time trial win over Cadel Evans became both his greatest claim to fame and his death knell in infamy. His one year ban, handed down from the Kazahk sport federation, prompted his retirement in the fall of 2007.

Call it a comeback. Call it a change of heart. Vino applied for reinstatement in 2009, and only a UCI appeal kept him out of competition until 2010. With the weight of Astana, a team essentially created for him just a few years earlier, on his shoulders, he triumphed at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Of course, with the victory came the predictable scoffs. Doper. He can’t be clean. Just as he passed multiple drug tests, the same tests passed by supposedly clean athletes, the label was thick and heavy after each performance.

In a way, he still deserves it. Like Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and all cyclists returning from suspension, the name will stick because they did dope. It was proved and upheld in a court of law. But what do fans do after? Is everything they do after a waste? It can’t be. We have to assume that every test they pass is equal to those without a history. And each win, at least for now, as to be as real. 

Vinokourov’s broken broken femur in 2011 looked like the final nail in the coffin. Carried from a ditch and issuing an already-assumed retirement statement a few days later, Vino looked on track to crumple off into the sunset. Again, Vinokourov decided he refused to end his career on a flat note. He returned in 2012 as a sort of figurehead, riding in support of riders like Roman Kreuziger and Janez Brajkovic but with the freedom to attack. He failed to win a stage at the Tour, and if it weren’t for the Olympics, our final shot of his would have been his foot coming out of the pedal in a sprint for third.

His gold medal is his gold medal. How the cycling community reacts is an individual attitude on Vinokourov, but also about life. We get to pick the story: Is this a dirty rider ruining the Olympics will a bad name, or is this a dirty rider come clean? Is this condemnation or redemption? It’s up to each fan to look at it how they’d like to see it.

It is much nicer to think Vino has finally capped off a successful, enigmatic and troubled career with one brilliant, clean feat. With the amount of testing and work he has put into his second comeback, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. That does not mean he will get it.

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