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While Jan Ullrich and cohort of his T-Mobile team-mates are currently lapping up the sun and racking up the training miles in the warmth of South Africa's summer at a training camp near Cape Town, T-Mobile's magenta colours are also featuring this week among the blue jerseys of one of Ullrich's most likely rivals for Tour de France success next season.
One of the peculiarities of professional cycling is that contracts cover whole seasons, right to the last day of December. Consequently, Alexandre Vinokourov and fellow Kazakh Sergei Yakovlev, whose signings by the Liberty Seguros team were announced a couple of months ago, are still wearing T-Mobile colours this week as they take part in their new team's first pre-season training camp at Puente Viesgo in Cantabria in northern Spain.
While team boss Manolo Saiz made an unexpected late dash to the Vuelta presentation on Wednesday, Vinokourov and his new team-mates took advantage of a break in the rain to complete four hours of riding. The gathering also enabled the team members taking part to find out their racing programmes for the season.
Vinokourov knows that if he is to challenge Ullrich and others for the Tour title, he needs a strong team behind him, and Liberty should offer this. He recognises that he has joined "a great team", and says his only real problem at the moment is learning Spanish. "I am studying hard, and although I can't say all that much I can understand about 90% of what is being said. I hope that within a couple of months I won't have any problems," he revealed.
His programme has some changes compared to other years. "Of course the main objective will be the Tour de France, but there will be some changes in my calendar before that, because I will start at the Tour of Murcia, then I will do Milan-San Remo and Semana Catalana. I will not be riding Paris-Nice next year, nor the Classics, which have always motivated me but also increased the pressure on me. Instead I will probably ride the Tour de Georgia and then the Dauphin Libr," said Vinokourov, who of course won Lige-Bastogne-Lige this year.
Vinokourov also explained that he thought Liberty was better prepared than the French teams that had been interested in signing him for making a concerted challenge at the Tour. "This team has a lot of experience in this race and knows how to work well for a leader. In addition, there are no other objectives, they will not be working for a sprinter nor thinking about the green jersey," said the Kazakh, perhaps pointedly bearing in mind T-Mobile's often split focus at the Tour.
Over the next four weeks Vinokourov expects to get 2,000 training kilometres under his belt and lose most of the four or five kilos he's put on since the end of last season. He then plans to undertake some high-altitude training to set himself up for his return to racing in March.
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