LONDON – Alexander Vinokourov sprung the first surprise of the London Olympics.
The 38-year-old Kazakh defeated the British cycling “dream team” on his own, winning the gold medal in the men’s road race to crown the end of a 14-year career that saw him in the roles of both hero and villain.
Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban after testing positive for blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France, said he will retire after Wednesday’s time trial.
He would not have been riding in London had he stuck to his decision to end his career last year, when he broke a femur during the Tour de France. His morale was so low he said he would not race again, but he changed his mind and returned for one more year.
“After so many crashes, returning to cycling was difficult, but I was still hoping for a good result,” Vinokourov said after outsprinting Rigoberto Uran Uran of Colombia. “My family, my kids, my parents were behind me the whole time. I still have the metal plate in my hip, my femur, so it wasn’t easy. (Saturday), a dream has come true.”
In a race that was held without race radios, Vinokourov made the most of his flair and tactical sense to go out in style and prevail as the British team was unable to set up a sprint for world champion Mark Cavendish.
Cavendish had described his squad as a “dream team” before the race. He never had a chance to sprint and ended a disappointing 28th.
Vinokourov broke away from the leading group about 10 kilometers from the finish together with Uran. He then accelerated going down The Mall outside Buckingham Palace with 300 meters to go to leave Uran in his wake.
Uran took silver, with Alexander Kristoff of Norway winning a mass sprint to get the bronze.
“I certainly didn’t lose my concentration in the finish,” Uran said. “I must say it was very difficult. We did the last 10 kilometers at full speed, and I don’t think either of us had much left.
“I looked at Alexander, and I did not have any energy left for a sprint at the finish.”
In another surprise, Boulder’s Taylor Phinney finished fourth, although he was in no mood to celebrate.
“Some would call fourth place the worst to arrive at the Olympics,” Phinney said. “But I won’t focus on that. I’ll get over it.”
Vinokourov, who rode with only one teammate, made sure to avoid a bunch sprint by pulling away from the lead pack and avoiding any chances of collisions near the end of the 250-kilometer race that featured the tricky Box Hill climb.
“(Saturday), especially in the last 10 kilometers, the fact that the major teams – and especially the Germans – had no team radios played in my favors,” said Vinokourov, who is known for launching fearless attacks, even when chances to succeed are low.
“I knew that if I was following the group I would have had no chance in the sprint,” he said.
Vinokourov’s career reached its nadir when he was suspended for doping, but despite the stain on his reputation, he remained a fan favorite.
When asked about his failed blood tests, Vinokourov did not elaborate and praised the UCI work.
“2007 is a closed chapter,” he said. “The question was already asked in 2010. I think it’s no longer important to be asked. I proved it. I proved that I can come back and race and be good on the bike. Cycling has changed a lot: Organizers and the UCI have done a lot to fight doping.”
Vinokourov was third at the 2003 Tour, the race in which he gained fame. He has won four stages at cycling’s premier race and also had some success in several one-day classics, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege twice and the Amstel Gold Race once.
This was his second Olympic medal after taking silver in the road race in Sydney in 2000. He missed out on the Beijing Olympics because of his doping suspension.
It was a disappointing day for Cavendish and the rest of the British team, which came into the Olympics full of confidence after Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour last weekend.
The home team tried to control the 250-kilometer race from the start but couldn’t prevent the final breakaway to succeed.
“What we needed was a couple of guys to help us,” British road captain David Millar said. “The Germans came up, but we needed some help.”
The Brits will have another chance for gold in front of their home crowd, with Wiggins the favorite to win the time trial.
Cycling is more popular than ever in Britain after Wiggins’ Tour victory, and Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, met the British team before the race started from The Mall, with the peloton heading southwest through London.
Hundreds of thousands of fans lined the course to greet the riders with raucous applause, although not all of them exhibited exemplary behavior as a big black dog twice crossed the road in front of the riders.
With Cavendish seen as nearly unbeatable in a sprint, other teams tried to attack from the start to make things difficult for the Brits – and it worked.
Veteran Australian Stuart O’Grady ignited the first real move, breaking clear of the peloton and bringing along a group of 11 men. The escapees opened up a three-minute gap over the peloton, forcing the British favorites to work early as Wiggins and his teammates moved to the front of the bunch.
The Brits were put to the test in each of the nine climbs of Box Hill, with one-day-classics specialist Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Italian Vincenzo Nibali managing to escape from the peloton to join the leading group.
While more and more riders pushed ahead, the Brits could not respond.
“I realized the British team was not riding very fast anymore, that they were getting tired,” Vinokourov said. “And some people were trying to break away. I knew there was a break of about 10 riders with a one minute advantage, so we just pulled out, and we ended up being a group of about 3 to 40 riders.”
The U.S. team spent most of the day causing chaos for the British. National champion Timmy Duggan was part of an early break that dictated the tempo of the race, and Tejay van Garderen joined him before the run-in to the finish.
“It’s epic to see a team so well bonded when everybody knows that they can win,” U.S. captain Chris Horner said. “There’s no doubt Tejay can win. There’s no doubt I can win under the right circumstances. There’s no doubt (Tyler) Farrar can win. You saw a fabulous U.S. team today.”
Phinney, a former individual pursuit world champion on the track, wasn’t expected to have much success on a course geared toward sprinters. He should have a better chance of success in the time trial, where he can use his big motor to lay siege to a mostly flat course.
Phinney won the opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year.
“I gave everything I had,” Phinney said. “I has cramping on Lap 8 and Lap 9 and really felt terrible the last 40 kilometers, but as we got closer to the finish, the crowds were so loud. I was like, it kind of hit me – this is the Olympics, and I’m going for a medal right now.”
He just didn’t have enough in the shadow of Buckingham Palace.
Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara was among the riders to join the leading group as it returned to London but crashed with about 15 kilometers to go when he was at the head of the bunch. Cancellara completely misjudged a right-hand turn and slammed into the barricades. He got back up – with his elbow bleeding – and couldn’t keep up with the pace after that.
“Cancellara crashed just in front of me,” Vinokourov said. “I barely avoided crashing myself. And then I continued and we broke away to the finish.”