Kazakhs collapse but Klöden hangs on for Astana

Alexandre Vinokourov's Tour de France dream looked to have ended in tears tonight, with the Kazakh breaking down in front of TV cameras as he reflected on another heavy loss in the Alps on stage 9 of the Tour from Val d'Isère to Briançon.

Alexandre Vinokourov's Tour de France dream looked to have ended in tears tonight, with the Kazakh breaking down in front of TV cameras as he reflected on another heavy loss in the Alps on stage 9 of the Tour from Val d'Isère to Briançon.

Vinokourov was dropped as Alejandro Valverde opened fire 6km from the summit of the Col Galibier and never recovered on the descent in to Briançon. Vinokourov crossed the line in 20th place, 3'24" behind stage winner Juan Soler and over two minutes adrift of his main rivals for overall victory. The Kazakh now languishes in 21st on general classification, 8'05" down on leader Michael Rasmussen.

"It was an ordeal," Vinokourov sobbed on the finish-line. "I did my best to limit the damage but it was very difficult..."

Vinokourov's friend and compatriot Andrey Kashechkin, fifth on GC overnight, finished in the same group, 3'24" from Soler. The Astana team's only consolation was the another encouraging ride from Andreas Klöden. On the Galibier, the German couldn't follow Valverde or Rasmussen - or the even more impressive duo of Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador - but Klöden recovered well on the drop into Briançon. He crossed the line in ninth place, 46 seconds behind Soler, and now lies 8th on general classification 3'50" behind Rasmussen. The best time trialist currently in the top ten, Klöden will tonight remain many pundits' favourite for overall victory in Paris on July 29.

Earlier in the day, the Astana party line had been one of forced optimism. Speaking in Val d'Isère in the morning, Klöden said that he was "improving" after falling on stage 5 which left him nursing a fractured tailbone. "I was in a lot of pain two days ago, but when I go at a good pace I feel OK," the German confided. "I'm maybe at 85 per cent. There are still ten days to go in the Tour and we'll make our move soon."

If at the time that sounded suspiciously like bloody-mindedness, Astana's version of the events of two days ago in Tignes had also failed to convince. Speaking in Tuesday's L'Equipe, Tour legend Raymond Poulidor, criticized their decision to sacrifice Klöden in Vinokourov's favour when the German looked capable of following the leaders on the climb to Tignes. It was difficult to tell whether Klöden was being honest or just diplomatic when he claimed this morning he'd had "problems early on the climb to Tignes and couldn't follow the attacks.

"Vino asked me if I could ride for him further up the climb, so I did," Klöden added, almost as an afterthought.

Directeur sportif Adriano Baffi even flatly denied that Klöden had been stronger than Vinokourov. "Ask Andreas [if he was stronger than Vinokourov]. I don't think he was..." Baffi huffed.

Asked whether his team's Kazakh backing put pressure on him and his fellow directeur sportif Mario Kummer to retain Vinokourov as the team's leader, Baffi said "No. Tonight we'll talk and take stock ... The fact that we're a Kazakh team doesn't change anything. The fact is that we have three riders who could still win the Tour. That's what we've come to do."

Vinokourov's tears at the finish-line would appear to indicate that Baffi and Kummer's choice just got much easier. They would also suggest that three potential winners have now shrunk into one, given that Kashechkin also faded badly today. That one can only be Klöden.

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