How dark is the dark side of cycling?

Vino attacks

Vino on the way to win stage 13 of the 2010 Tour de France
Source: LOINEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

The big news the last few days (and we all thought it was an off season) are the allegations made against Alexander Vinokourov about his 2010 win in Liege – Bastogne – Liege. The Swiss magazine L’Illustre claims Vinokourov (Team Astana) paid €100,000 to Kolobnev (Katusha) to not contest the Belgian classic. They know this because Vinokourov’s email account was hacked and they got hold of email exchange between the two that took place the day after the LBL race.

I was prompted to write this post after reading another post on Cycling Tips blog, “A dark side of cycling”. I also read some other blogs and plenty of comments on those blogs. I even left a couple of comments myself on Cycling Tips. You may say this topic really got my attention. Not the allegations, but the reaction to the allegations in the general cycling populace.

The reaction this story generated among cycling fans can roughly be grouped in 2 lots:

Lot 1 – We thought doping scandals were bad enough, now this. They not only dope, they also sell races to each other. What a circus.

Lot 2 – Selling races is an old practice in cycling, nothing’s new here. It also makes sense now how Vino won all these years, either through dope or by buying races.

But does it? Does it make sense to you because it doesn’t make much sense to me.

To start with, assuming the emails are real in the first place, what exactly is there in those email quotes? One guy gives another guy his bank account details and says, “Here, wire the hundred grand into this account.” Suspicious? I don’t know but it becomes so because the email was sent a day after the race. Huh? Maybe a benefit of a doubt could be afforded to these guys? Why, just because the bank details were given after the race, immediately assume it’s a payout for a yesterday’s race? I know it’s tempting to think that way but is it logical to think that way?

Fine, let’s assume a deal between Vino and Kolobnev took place. What kind of a deal though? What do those email quotes say? Nothing. Could it be, for example, as the leading group formed not far from the finish, full of the biggest stars in the peloton, Vinokourov approached Kolobnev and said, “We’re having a situation here, if you help me to win this race, I’ll pay you €100,000.” Good story? Is it as good as the L’Illustre’s one? Better? Worse?

Consider this. Even though everyone knows collusion is forbidden by the UCI rules, the rule is routinely broken. In fact, it’s completely ignored and, you may be surprised, not many riders even heard of it. Quite often riders from different teams help each other. Openly. Everyone knows Contador helped Valverde to win the Dauphiné in 2009. The Cyclingnews article at the time stated:

“…Alberto Contador clearly assisted Valverde at the Dauphiné every time Cadel Evans attacked. Valverde denied there was an agreement between them but their cooperation was obvious. “If I can help him at the Tour de France, I’ll do it,” Valverde said to a question about the possible help that Contador could look for in case of an offensive by Lance Armstrong.”

And this is a big race with a lot of media coverage and public exposure. One reason no one cares is because the rule is impossible to enforce. Oh and by the way, when Valverde said he will help Contador in the Tour de France to fend off Armstrong’s offensive, it’s helpful to keep in mind that Armstrong and Contador were teammates at the time while Valverde was employed by a rival team. This is cycling for you. Make of it what you want – rules are ignored and help is sought from your rivals to go against your own teammate. Collusion? What collusion?

Races are also given away, especially the big ones. Different reasons. Sometimes it’s a friendship thing, other times out of respect or out of pity. Whatever. If you’re a champion, one win more, one win less, doesn’t matter.

We all remember Armstrong giving away a Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de France to Pantani. Apparently, he regrets that now. More recently, Contador, racing for the Saxo Bank team, gave away a stage of the Giro to Tiralongo, an Astana rider. Cyclingnews reported at the time:

“Alberto Contador said that he let Paolo Tiralongo win stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia to repay the Italian domestique for all the work he did for him during the 2010 Tour de France, when they both rode for the Astana team.”

These things are not done in secret, they are there in the open. This is why it’s not hard to imagine for a deal to be made between Vino and Kolobnev. Both Russian, perhaps even friends. Who else are you going to seek help from in a breakaway like this? In a select group full of very accomplished riders, even just one strong ally can make a difference between winning and losing.

As the race went on, it just so happened that the two Russians outperformed everybody and broke away from the rest of the elite group. Now, in my story (and please note, I’m imagining things here), the deal could have taken place with 30 or whatever kilometres to go when it wasn’t clear just yet how the race will unfold. No one knows at this stage who is going to win. One guy agrees to help another, for a fee. A simple “Watch my back” is good enough help. At least one possible winner won’t chase you when you attack. For Vinokourov, this was worth €100,000. They could also find the time to talk this over (why this is important, you’ll see later) and there are different ways Kolobnev could help Vino, the pressure wasn’t on yet.

L’Illustre’s story, however, requires for the deal to take place somewhere near the finish when it was clear that either Vino or Kolobnev will win. But wait. Was there such a moment at the end of the race? I don’t think so. The chasers, Valverde, Gilbert and Evans were only 40 seconds behind. When Gilbert attacked with about 3km to go, he came within 20 seconds of the Russians. Very close. There’s no doubt both Vino and Kolobnev were constantly updated on the chase situation via the radio. It’s just hard to imagine either one of them thought this race was a done deal. To keep the gap, they had to go full gas, at all times, not negotiate a deal about who is going to win the race.

If you watch the footage, you’ll notice the camera constantly switches between the Russians and the chase in the last 2km so it’s impossible to insist the conversation between the two didn’t even take place because we don’t see it. They could have talked while we were watching Gilbert blowing himself up in his desperate attempt to bridge to Vino and Kolobnev, we just don’t know.

What we do know though is that after 6.5 hours of hard racing and sitting at near maximum heart rate because you’re giving it absolutely everything at this moment, you’re not exactly in a position to negotiate a financial deal. I would even suggest, based on my own experience, your intellectual capacity at a time like this is that of a cow. And you’re definitely incapable of putting together a sentence, never mind an intelligent one.

This is what must have taken place with 1-2km to go if L’Illustre’s story is true:

- Hundred grand Euro!
- What?!
- Hundred grand!
- What?!
- I’ll pay you!
- What?!
- I’ll pay you!

Pause… Kolobnev thinking…

- Don’t sprint!
- OK!

Did you see anything like this took place? I didn’t.

Something else – why would Kolobnev accept €100,000? Kolobnev isn’t a Grand Tour rider, he’s a Classics specialist, a one day show. It doesn’t get bigger than the La Doyenne for someone like Kolobnev, this is it, this is the race. You win this, and you’re forever in the history books, you’re one of them, the big guys. Why sell it? And especially for not that much an amount of money? His bonus for winning Liege – Bastogne – Liege would have probably exceeded €100,000 anyway and with a win like this it’s not unreasonable to ask for 25% or more increase of your contract (€700,000 in 2010) when it’s time to negotiate a new one. In other words, he’s worse off by selling the race. It doesn’t make sense.

Finally, the email quotes published in Russian media don’t sound like they were written by one rider to another. The language is artificial, a make-believe kind of language. It’s possible the quotes were translated back into Russian from French but it’s hard to imagine one cyclist telling another cyclist “Вот мои банковские реквизиты”. What is this, a board meeting at Itera?

Make of this story what you want it to be but until emails are published in full or confessions are made, the dark side of cycling didn’t get darker this week.

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Comments

  1. Kolobnev has been so close to a world championship or a classic on a number of occasions. $100k is cheap. Why would he discount his chance to be in the history books – Was it vino’s ‘force of personality’ that compelled him?

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