After slamming the door on cycling last summer, is Alexandre Vinokourov plotting a return?

Cycling Weekly has learned that Vinokourov ? who announced his retirement last year ? is training hard and has his sights set on riding for Kazakhstan in the Olympic Games road race in Beijing later this summer.

The 34-year-old tested positive for a banned blood transfusion at last summer?s Tour de France after winning the stage 13 time trial at Albi.

Before the test result was announced, Vinokourov won stage 15 in the Pyrenees at Le Louron. He tested positive after that too.

The results were announced the following day, Tuesday, July 23, on the rest day in Pau. His Astana team was asked to leave the race by the organisers.

The B-sample confirmed the positive result and the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation imposed a one-year ban on Vinokourov ? even though UCI guidelines for its member federations, and recent precedent, stated a two-year ban should have been the minimum.

Immediately after being banned, Vinokourov announced his retirement. He said at the time: ?I don?t want this sport any more. I?m slamming the door and I?m leaving. I will prove I?m not guilty. I want to restore my honour and get the results of this test rescinded. It?s a mistake. I have never doped, that?s not the way I see my profession.?

But CW has learned from two separate sources that Vinokourov is training near his home in Monte Carlo, Monaco, and is planning to ride the Olympic Games road race on Saturday, August 9.

His ban was back-dated to the date he was caught, meaning it expires on July 21, 2008. This makes him eligible, in theory, to ride in Beijing.

THE BASSO PRECEDENT
Yesterday?s announcement by the Liquigas team that Ivan Basso will join them when his suspension ends in October, could open the door for Vinokourov to return straight into a top level professional team too, and Astana will be watching developments carefully.

The ProTour teams had agreed an ethical code that meant they would not sign a rider who had been banned for doping for four years.

By striking an agreement to sign Basso as soon as the ban expired, Liquigas have ridden roughshod over the ethical code. It was no surprise they withdrew from the AIGCP, the association of professional cycling teams.

On paper, a return to Astana would look likely. After all, the consortium of Kazakh companies that backs the squad only entered cycling to save Vinokourov?s career when Liberty Seguros pulled its sponsorship of the team in the wake of the Operacion Puerto scandal that centred on then manager Manolo Saiz and Dr Eufamiano Fuentes.

Astana version 2008 is managed by Johan Bruyneel, who had his fingers burned when trying to sign Basso for Discovery Channel last year.

Will the Kazakhs who pull the strings and pay the bills parachute Vinokourov back into the team? If they did, surely they could wave goodbye to any chance of an invite to the 2009 Tour de France.

WHY DIDN?T THE UCI APPEAL THE ONE-YEAR BAN?
At the time Vinokourov?s suspension was announced, the UCI?s spokesman, Enrico Carpani, said: ?We are very astonished and surprised. We?re asking ourselves how the Kazakh federation could come to such a punishment.?

But the UCI decided not to press ahead with an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport because they believed Vinokourov had retired.

The Kazakhstan cycling federation?s vice-president, Nikolay Proskurin, said at the time of the ban: ?Documents and evidence presented by Vinokourov and his lawyers were not convincing. We decided to disqualify him for a year.

?I think, should he want to, Vinokourov will be able to take part in the Olympic Games in Beijing.?

CAN VINOKOUROV QUALIFY FOR BEIJING?
Kazakhstan is in the UCI?s Asia Tour and are on course to qualify both of a maximum two places for the Olympic road race in Beijing.

If the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation selected Vinokourov, it will cause a controversy.

Some will argue that he has served his time and should be allowed to race.

But on the other hand, banned athletes who intend to return to their sport must subject themselves to out-of-competition testing. CW understands that Vinokourov has not made himself available for out-of-competition testing during the time he has been banned.

The UCI could refuse to grant Vinokourov a racing licence on the basis that he did not subject himself to out-of-competition testing.

RELATED LINKS
December 6, 2007: Vinokourov banned for a year, announces retirement
Ju;y 30, 2007: Astana sack Vinokourov
July 25, 2007: Vinokourov denies doping at the Tour de France
July 24, 2007: Astana kicked out of Tour
July 24, 2007: Vinokourov tests positive