Rider updates: Alberto Contador, Alexandre Vinokourov and Nicolas Roche

With the final racing of the season taking place last weekend, the VeloVoices team is taking a look back at the performances of our selected riders to watch in 2012. Here’s my end of term report on the three stage racers I’ve been following in 2012. As usual, they’ve enjoyed differing fortunes in the last few months or so: Alberto Contador, almost back to his best, won the Vuelta, Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov in retirement [party] mode and AG2R’s Nico Roche had a good stab at a Vuelta top ten before riding for Alberto next season at Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank. Here’s a quick summary of what they’ve achieved since early August.

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank)

Winner of Vuelta a Espana 2012 (image courtesy of official race website)

Results: 4th overall at Eneco Tour. Won Vuelta a España. 9th in World Championships individual time trial. Won Milano-Torino. 9th in Il Lombardia.

WorldTour ranking: 12th, 290 points. (However, these points don’t count for his team for two years after his return from suspension.)

Looking at the results he’s achieved since his return from suspension, it could be argued that Alberto is back to his best – almost. The drama played out in northern Spain in this year’s Vuelta among the Spanish Armada – Alberto, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde – made for compulsive viewing. Just when we all thought Rodriguez had it sewn up, Alberto launched a kamikaze attack on an apparently benign stage – 17 to Fuente De – to wrest the red jersey from Purito’s shoulders to claim his seventh fifth career Grand Tour victory.

After the race, Alberto paid tribute to the other two Spanish riders and acknowledged:

It’s almost impossible to win [the Vuelta] if you think you’re not going to win it. When I attacked at 50km from the finish line [at Fuente Dé], I had two options – victory or total disaster – but if I wanted to win, I had to attack. When I realised that, I attacked.

It’s been special, mainly due to the spectacle that we all created. We were swapping jerseys constantly. The Vuelta has gone to a new level. The bow that I made to Valverde and Joaquim on the podium comes from the admiration that I have for the two of them and was acknowledgement of the tremendous race that they did. The Vuelta a España was thrilling thanks to everyone, and I’m super-proud to be accompanied by them.

The Vuelta took more out of Alberto than anyone realised and he posted (for him) a disappointing performance in the individual time trial at the World Championships but looked lively in the road race where he went on the attack a couple of times to soften up the opposition, paving the way for Valverde’s third place.

Chilling (image courtesy of Alberto Contador)

Alberto rode and won Milano-Torino and finished a respectable ninth in Il Lombardia which brought down the curtain on his foreshortened season. The UCI were keen for him to ride the Tour of Beijing but Saxo Bank’s Bjarne Riis chimed that Alberto would only ride if his points counted. Nice try, but no-go. The UCI were not prepared to back down on that one. So Alberto, like many of his fellow riders, is enjoying a short break from cycling and catching up with friends over coffee in his home town of Pinto, punctuated by trips to the presentations of the routes of next year’s Giro and Tour, and a spot of shopping. Yes, this is the message he posted on Facebook:

Hola a todas, hoy dia de compras ampliando vestuario, le he dado un poco de descanso a la ropa de bici, lo necesitaba 🙂 [Hello all! Shopping day for expanding wardrobe, I’ve given some rest to cycling clothes, I need it :-)]

Alberto’s also continuing with his charitable works. His Contador Foundation collected 520 bicycles during the Vuelta which it will refurbish and distribute in Africa. While I won’t be following his progress next season, I’ll still be keeping an eye out for the best stage racer of his generation.

Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana)

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Alex's blinged up shirt

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Alex’s blinged up shirt (image courtesy of RDW)

Results: 35th in Clasica San Sebastian. Won Jubile Vinokourov.

WorldTour ranking: 196th, 4 points.

Alex has hung up his helmet and climbed into the Astana team car. While nothing was going to top his Olympic gold medal, he made a couple of swansong appearances. The first was in the Clasica San Sebastian, a race he’s always enjoyed and where he finished runner-up in 2010 to the rider who won this year’s race: Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank).

It also gave him an opportunity to show off his burgeoning wardrobe of non-UCI approved shirts. Alex officially announced his retirement in the post-race press conference.

However, that wasn’t to be the final word. Monaco, where he resides, decided to put on a race – the Jubile Vinokourov – to celebrate his retirement. The festivities were covered by Eurosport and attended by many riders past and present. Not unnaturally Alex, riding his gold Specialized bike, won ahead of the new world champion (and fellow Monaco resident) Philippe Gilbert and 2013 Astana recruit Vincenzo Nibali. With Mrs Gilbert and Mrs Popovych acting as podium girls and Alex’s twins taking part in the largely processional first ten laps of the 50-lap circuit, the event had a real family feel to it. It was also a great opportunity for the town of Astana to promote its candidature for Expo 2017.

Speaking after the race, Vinokurov said:

Today was a perfect celebration of my career. To have my family, my teammates and my friends with me riding around this beautiful setting was something I’ll never forget. I would like to also thank all my fans for their amazing support throughout my professional career.

Alex has lost no time in starting to shape the team. He’s recruited ex-professionals Stefano Zanini and Dimitri Fofonov as directeur sportifs and also hired the youngster who won the under-23 World Championship in Valkenburg, Alexey Lutsenko, a rider Alex has already proclaimed as being as strong as Peter Sagan! It’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out and I might just have to follow Astana next year!

Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale)

Nico at the Nico Roche Classic (image courtesy of Nico Roche)

Results:12th overall in Vuelta a Espana. 16th in Clasica San Sebastian.

WorldTour ranking: 75th, 36 points.

Having animated the Clasica San Sebastian, Nico Roche followed up his 12th place in the Tour de France with another one in the Vuelta. Again, he publicly stated he was aiming for a top ten finish and things were looking good as he held seventh after 14 stages. However, the double whammy of Lagos de Covadonga and Cuitu Negru were to prove his undoing.

Given that he’d already announced his intention to leave AG2R and take his points over to Saxo Bank, his post-Vuelta programme was deliberately light. However, he took part in the inaugural Nico Roche Classic in Ireland in early October and was delighted by the turnout.

While many riders have been criticised for keeping mum, Nico found time to pen his forthright thoughts on the USADA’s report for the Irish Independent. Here’s a short extract:

What I hate about guys who are caught like this is that, first, it takes them ten years to admit they doped and, second, they say they only did it because everybody did it and they did it to keep up. That’s bulls**t. It’s not true and it’s not fair to the riders that didn’t dope and never will dope.

While I wasn’t really around the pro peloton during those early Armstrong years and maybe don’t know what it was like, my teammate at AG2R La Mondiale, Seb Hinault, was and he still races today, clean. Seb summed it up in a tweet yesterday saying: “These guys make me laugh, saying doping is global. It was only global in their team.”

It p****s me off that eight or ten years later, after winning the prize money, buying the big houses and the flashy cars, they decide to come clean when they’re cornered into it and then still blame somebody else. If you dope, don’t blame anyone else. It’s your choice. Admit it.

If you look at all the riders recently who have been caught and admitted doping, some people are saying it’s great that these riders are helping the sport. But saying, “I’m sorry, I was doping from this year to that year but I’m not going to do it again and I’m cleaner than clean … I’m helping anti-doping because I talk to kids about it” or whatever, that’s a load of bull. That’s not helping anti-doping.

Helping anti-doping is saying. “Okay I doped. I got it from this doctor. These are the riders that I met in the waiting room. This is how it’s done. These are the new products that are in the peloton that are not yet detectable. These are the products that we use to mask the ones that are detectable. This product does this, this product does that. This is how we beat the test.” That’s helping anti-doping.

Nico’s now enjoying a relaxing break in the Maldives before hooking up with his new team, where he’s relishing the new challenge and will be hoping for greater clarity over his future role.

Previous updates: August 10thJune 21stApril 10th, February 22nd

Rider profiles: Alberto Contador, Alexandre Vinokourov, Nicolas Roche

Websites: Alberto Contador

Twitter: @albertocontador, @nicholasroche

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