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Kazakh Cycling Legend, New Olympic Champion Looks Back

  • RFE/RL

Kazakhstan's Aleksandr Vinokurov celebrates as he wins the men's cycling road race to claim the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 28.

Kazakhstan's Aleksandr Vinokurov celebrates as he wins the men's cycling road race to claim the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 28.

ALMATY -- Like most professional cyclists, Kazakhstan's Aleksandr Vinokurov is no stranger to pain.

In 2003 his closest friend, fellow cyclist Andrei Kivilev, died of head injuries after a horrific fall in a French road race.

Four years later, Vinokurov tested positive for doping, earning a two-year competition ban that kept him out of the Beijing Olympics.

And in 2011, he sustained a broken femur and cracked pelvis during a crash at the Tour de France. A week later, he announced his retirement -- only to come back and win the gold in the men's road race at this summer's London Olympics.

Elite Group

The London gold, Vinokurov now says, "outweighs all his past failures" and defies critics who said he would never bounce back from his two-year drug ban.

"In 2007, I became embroiled in a doping scandal. Because of this, I could not take part in the Beijing Olympics. I didn't participate in any competitions for two years, but I continued to train full-time," Vinokurov says during a recent conversation with journalists in his Almaty home.

"Many experts were speaking out against me, saying that I had suffered a heavy psychological trauma and would never return to the sport. But all that's behind me now."

WATCH: Aleksandr Vinokurov talks about the ups and downs of cycling:

Despite such controversies, the blond-haired Vinokurov -- known by many of his fans as simply "Vino" -- is one of the world's best-known elite cyclists.

He began training daily at the age of 11 in his hometown of Petropavl, before moving on to Almaty and eventually France, where he turned pro in 1998.

Over the course of his career, Vinokurov has won two bronze medals at the World Championships, taken the title at the 2006 Vuelta a Espana road race, and voted "most combative rider" in the 2003 Tour de France.

'Blow For Cycling'

He finished in third place in that year's Tour, behind Germany's Jan Ullrich and the man who would go on to become a seven-time winner of the race, Lance Armstrong.

Having survived his own doping scandal -- a chapter of his life he declines to discuss in detail -- Vinokurov says he is saddened by Armstrong's recent decision to drop his challenge to doping allegations, a move that threatens to cost him of all his titles, including his French tour wins.

"This is a big blow for cycling. And it has a very negative impact on the image of the Tour de France," Vinokurov tells RFE/RL. "Of course, we're very sorry. Cycling is being damaged as a result of doping scandals. Armstrong's seven years of hard work were all wasted."

Noting that he understands Armstrong's current state of mind very well, he adds that the American rider will "remain a hero in the eyes of fans the world over."

Vinokurov (sometimes spelled Vinokourov), who is married with children, says he is now retiring from competition for good. He is turning his sights to training a new generation of Kazakh cyclists, he says, including up-and-coming athletes like Arman Kamyshev and Aleksei Lutsenko for the "Astana-2" national team.

"We have very talented young athletes," says Vinokurov. "When people think about Kazakhstan, I want them to think about 'Astana,' and not Borat."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on an interview and reporting by Ruslan Medelbek in Almaty

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