Astana: "We haven't given up hope"

Astana chief Marc Biver tonight struggled to stay upbeat at the end of a stage which could have left a severe dent in his team's hopes of Tour de France victory.

Astana chief Marc Biver tonight struggled to stay upbeat at the end of a stage which could have left a severe dent in his team's hopes of Tour de France victory.

As Biver held forth under Autun's evening sunshine, both Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloeden were being rushed away for checks on injuries sustained in crashes on today's fifth stage.

Before leaving Autun, Kloeden lay prone on the backseat of an Astana team car. It later emerged that the German had fractured his coccyx, although he is expected to start stage 6. Kloeden fell into a ditch on a narrow section of road after 107km. He quickly remounted and seemed to finish the stage comfortably in 65th place, safely tucked into the lead group.

Vinokourov's crash 25km from the finish line looked similarly innocuous. The Kazakh was also squeezed off the left side of the road, but struck the tarmac whereas Kloeden had only hit turf. Vinokourov's only visible injury as he remounted and gave chase was a large gash to his right buttock.

More worrying, apparently, was the 1'20" which Vinokourov conceded to all his rivals for overall victory.

"We spoke to Vino from the car but we couldn't say much," Biver explained tonight. "We sent back six riders to bring him back and they did an extraordinary job. They went full gas for kilometres on end. Then Vino was left on his own on the final climb… What do you want me to say, it's the beauty and cruelty of sport. Life goes on. We mustn't over-dramatise the situation. If we don't win the Tour this year then it'll have to be 2008."

No crisis

If that sounded a mite pessimistic, Biver was quick to reject talk of a crisis in the Astana camp this evening.

"Of course we haven't given up hope," he said. "We still have Kloeden and Kashechkin. Vino's injured but we all know Vino: when the chips are down sometimes he's even stronger. We have to wait until later tonight to really take stock of the injuries and our chances from here. We have two leaders but if both are injured it's going to be difficult".

Asked if Andrey Kashechkin was already being lined up as a deputy should Kloeden and Vinokourov's injuries prove serious, Biver replied, "Kashechkin didn't come to Tour to win… I think he's a little bit young to have the resistance you need to win a Tour."

"If Vino's in good health and he wants to win the Tour, we have no other choice but to attack," Biver said later. "Frankly, only him upstairs knows whether he can still win the Tour. One minute and 20 seconds is a little and a lot. It depends how Vino feels. We know very well that falls like that leave traces. We saw Savoldelli have a less serious fall than Vino at the Giro and his challenge was over. Obviously it's a psychological advantage for his rivals to know that Vino is below his best. We saw today that as soon as others noticed Vino's crash they went full gas, but we can't blame them for it: all's fair in love and competition."

Biver may be right, but that doesn't mean he won't be cursing his team's luck tonight. It only remains to be seen just how much.

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