Khazakstan, Poland, and the Ukraine: a rough chunk of Eastern Bloc countries that would at least be geographically contiguous if it weren’t for Russia’s rude penetration south, between Ukraine and Khazakstan, down to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
Their hopes for success this Tour de France lay on the enigmatic shoulders of Alexander Vinokourov, one of the more controversial members of the pro peloton. Some hate him for returning from a doping suspension to nontrivial success (including Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2010), but many love him for his fiery, relentless attacking style. This is a flagship year for Vino: he’s said that he will retire after this year and has openly stated his hopes of securing a podium spot at the Tour. Can he do it? He can’t climb with the likes of Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador, but he can compete with them in the time trial and is savvy enough to steal time when he can, by attacking and gutting out five seconds here, ten seconds there, in stages that see little other GC shakeup. Writing him off would be a mistake.
It’s his last season – Astana, named for the capital of Khazakstan, was formed around his success, and is now fully committed to his performance in the Tour. Were he to see the success he hopes for, it would doubtless be encouraging not just for Astana, but for all of Khazakstan (whose citizens are burdened by the legacy of Borat).
Vino has a committed complement of Khazakstani Astana teammates working for him, including classics man Maksim Iglinski, Dmitri Muravyev, and Andrewy Zeits. They’ll have to content with RadioShack’s Ukranian Yaroslav Popovych, who will be on superdomestique duty for The Shack’s four-man GC hope. Meanwhile, from Poland comes Sylvester Szmyd, who will focus his energies on supporting his Liquigas leaders in the mountains.
But all eyes are on the contingent from Khazakstan. Can Astana do it? Can Vino make people forget about his mottled past with one last brilliant performance before going out on top? We’ll find out.
Man of the Hour: Alexander Vinokourov is primed to win a stage and challenge in the time trial. Can he? Should he fail, Maxim Iglinsky is Astana’s best bet for a stage win behind.
On the Hot Seat: Astana itself, the whole team, who will have to carefully cultivate some of its own talents after losing Alberto Contador last year and being on the brink of Vinokourov’s retirement. They have a roster full of potential and proven riders; if success is good to them, perhaps we’ll see the capital of Khazakstan stay in the cycling game for a while longer.