One of our local sports journalists, Romain Laronche from Nice-Matin, asked me if I’d be willing to lend him a hand this week. I readily agreed and, as a consequence, he’s kindly given me access to the transcripts of the interviews I attended with him. Here’s the first one with Alexandre Vinokourov, general manager of Astana, who’s literally looking pretty in pink after his team and Vincenzo Nibali‘s domination of the Giro d’Italia. The interview was conducted in French and then translated by me into English.
Romain: Let’s firstly talk about Vincenzo Nibali’s recent victory in the Giro d’Italia and your first win in your first Grand Tour as general manager of Astana.
Alex: It’s something we’ve been waiting for a long time in Kazakhstan. It’s such a pleasure to have swapped the saddle for the car seat and to straight away enjoy our first grand tour victory. First Tirreno-Adriatico and now a grand tour victory, it’s fantastic. We’ve waited a long time for this and we’ve worked hard since our last one with Contador, who won often. It’s been a while but finally we’ve succeeded again, and it’s a great feeling.
Romain: What memories will you take away from this Giro? The coldest, the wettest, the most difficult?
Alex: For me the Giro is always the most difficult grand tour. Of course, the Tour de France is better known around the world and it’s more of a spectacle. The Giro’s less stressful but you’ve only got to look at the stage profiles and factor in the weather, particularly the snow and rain. I still remember riding the Strade Bianche in 2010 which was a similarly difficult race. It’s always difficult but this has been a great victory for the team and for our country. Also for the Italians who have a home winner. It’s been magnificent and, as they said in the press, Nibali’s time has come.
Romain: What exactly was your role during the race?
Alex: Well, I wasn’t in the car the whole time, just at the start and during the last 3-4 days towards the finish. In between strategy and tactics were discussed over the phone with Martinelli who was always in the team car. When it was difficult, when many in the team suffered with illness such as bronchitis, I was able to motivate them with a few quiet words in the bus before the start and they soldiered on. Even though Nibali might have preferred to have ridden the Tour this year, we said let’s win the Giro first and then turn our attention to the Tour next year.
Romain: So Nibali won’t be riding this year’s Tour?
Alex: No, and I have no idea why the press are reporting that we’re pressuring him to ride. No one is pressuring Vincenzo to ride the Tour as well. It’s too difficult to do both in the same year. He’s not even going to ride the Tour de Suisse, he’s taking a rest. He’ll be riding the Vuelta and the World Championships where, it’s true, the course this year is difficult but it could have been made for him. So why not? Why can’t he win on the beautiful course, custom-made for him by the Italians?
Romain: So if it’s not Nibali leading Astana at the Tour who will it be?
Alex: This year we’ve signed Fuglsang on a three-year contract and we have high hopes for him. We’re hoping that he’ll finish in the top 5-7 on general classification. Of course, like last year, we’ll also chase stage wins. Plus we’ll be hoping to improve on second place in the king of the mountains competition. So those are our objectives: stage wins, the mountains jersey and top five or so. Don’t forget we put a great team around Nibali for the Giro and you can see how well it worked.
Romain: Astana have a large and talented team?
Alex: Yes, at the Giro some of them surprised us, like [Tanel] Kangert. Not only was he second on stage 16 but he was always there right from the first until almost the finish on every stage. Of course, a number had problems with bronchitis. [Fabio] Aru, our neo-pro, was great too. He’s someone we want to hang onto for a long time – we believe he has the capacity to one day win the Giro. Of course, Agnoli and all the other riders were there too for Nibali, and the Kazakh riders. Each and every one of them played their role in the victory. I’m very happy with the entire team. It was a real team victory.
Romain: Do you think Nibali will dominate cycling for the next few years?
Alex: Yes, but there’s other riders too, for example Froome. He’s capable of winning the Tour this year. Of course, there’s also Contador – he’ll be on the podium. Let’s not forget Evans – he’ll be there too on the podium, despite his age. And, of course, there will be others.
Romain: You’ve stated before that Astana’s medium-term objective is to have a Kazakh Tour champion. [Alexey] Lutsenko’s already won the under-23 world championship. Could it be him?
Alex: I don’t think he can win a grand tour just yet. We don’t currently have any Kazakh riders capable of winning a grand tour, only one-week stage races and classics. Remember, last year [Alexsandr] Dyachenko won the Tour of Turkey. He’s doing the Tour de Suisse, so why not? But that’s yet another of our objectives, the successful development of younger Kazakh riders. We’ll have to see how he fares, he’ll probably be at the Tour. He’s a promising and hard-working rider.
Romain: I would imagine that Nibali’s Giro victory isn’t viewed in the same light back in Kazakhstan as your Olympic gold medal?
Alex: Sure, it’s different but we’ve been waiting for someone like Nibali, a great rider. We got the jersey maybe earlier than we might have liked but he hung onto it until the end. Everyone back home, even though he’s Italian, was watching him ride in our colours, defending the jersey of our country. All the fans supported Vincenzo because he rides for Astana.
Romain: So the Kazakhs support the team and the jersey rather than individual riders?
Alex: Well, don’t forget it’s a grand tour and we haven’t won one since 2009. Of course, we won the Tour in 2010 with Contador but then we lost him, and he lost the title. It’s been four long years but we’ve finally succeeded in winning another.
Romain: Have you made the team selection yet for the Tour?
Alex: There are 13-14 names on the list and the directeur sportifs are working on it. We’ve agreed on six names already, we just need to decide on the rest before the start. We’ll probably have more Kazakh riders. [Assan] Basayev’s never done the Tour and we’ll give him a chance this year. You can’t say that at 32 he’s reached the end of his career but he’s never done the Tour. He wants to and so why not? He was with me when I won the Vuelta. He can work in the mountains and also maybe win a stage.
Romain: How do they follow cycling in Kazakhstan, are the stages transmitted live?
Alex: It’s always live on Eurosport with a highlights package in the evening on the national channel.
Romain: Is cycling one of the most popular sports in Kazakhstan or is it football?
Alex: Foreign football, yes, but not the national league games. In the last six years, cycling’s become more popular and more prominent. Before it was probably boxing or wrestling, where we’ve a long history and have won Olympic medals. The brand ‘Astana’ started in 2006 but we’ve now raised the bar for other sports and we’ve Astana projects in basketball, football, boxing, around 5-6 other projects under the Astana banner but cycling remains the most popular back home in Kazakhstan.
Romain: Astana’s also hosting Expo 2017?
Alex: Yes, thanks to the visibility gained through sporting achievements. Now, if you say Astana, people know where you mean. It’s given the country global recognition.
Romain: Let’s return to talking about the Tour de France. There are some spectacular stages like the double ascent of Alpe’d’Huez. Is that something you’d like to do? Can you remain detached even though you’re no longer racing?
Alex: I’ll be watching the first week. It’ll be a beautiful depart in Corsica, but it’s going to be tough after the sprint on stage one, if you make a mistake you could easily be out of the reckoning. Then we’ve the team time trial, I don’t think that’ll make too much difference, but there’ll be a few nervous stages afterwards. It’s the mountains that’ll make the difference. It’s true there’s some epic climbs with Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez – I’ve never climbed that twice. It’s a brilliant choice, particularly for the 500,000 or so fans that’ll be there to see it twice.
Romain: It’s very mountainous this year so who do you think’ll win?
Alex: Like I said before, I think it’ll be Froome. He’s shown this year that he’s capable of leading the team and winning with a good team around him. Then, of course, there’s Contador and BMC’s van Garderen and Evans. Those riders will probably fight out the Tour.
Romain: After a 20-year career can you remain detached or do you think I’d really like to ride that stage?
Alex: Sure, but in the team car, not on the bike! No, when I look at the weather since the start of the season and particularly the snow in Milan-San Remo and at the Giro, it’s better to be in the car. I still of course ride my bike, when I have time and I’m not travelling.
Romain: So you ride now just to keep fit?
Alex: Of course, and I ride with the Astana guys who live here, or Philippe Gilbert, but only on their recovery days otherwise they’re too fast for me now.
Romain: Many thanks for your time and good luck to the team in the forthcoming races.
Okay, so this time I didn’t get to pose the questions, but Alex has promised me an end of season interview, and I know he’s a man of his word! Grateful thanks to Romain Laronche of Nice-Matin – just let me know any time you need a helping hand!