How The Race Was Bought

Dec 8 2011

Back in the spring of 2010, when a short bike commute meant I still had time to make videos, I had the distinct pleasure of defending Alexander Vinokourov’s performance in what I thought was a very cannily raced Liege-Bastogne-Liege. While a host of riders may have been stronger, Vino’ leveraged timing and infighting among the favorites to get away for a his second win at the the sport’s oldest currently-running race.

Now that allegations have surfaced that Vino’ may have bought the win, I’ve gotten a few messages asking me how I feel about it. And after re-watching the video, I don’t feel all that different. Certainly, as far as the racing goes, I stand by everything I said—especially the parts about Vino’ intentionally waiting up for Kolobnev, and about how Vino’s final separation from the Russian seemed “downright pedestrian”.

In cycling, the realities of the sport make the occasional negotiated outcome a near-inevitability. Grand Tours simply wouldn’t be possible if every so often, the pack didn’t roll in at a snail’s pace behind a small breakaway—and you’re crazy if you think the makeup of that lucky group isn’t the result of some pretty intense discussion within the pack and between team cars. And it’s almost expected that stage race leaders will “gift” stages to teammates and competitors alike, once their position at the head of the GC is secure.

While the UCI’s rules set out that collusion is explicitly illegal, this sort of “acceptable collusion” makes the unacceptable kind very difficult to define. Compounding the problem, groups of riders in every race collude to give one of their number a disproportionate chance of winning—they’re called “teammates”. Even between teams, there’s a tremendous ebb and flow of politicking, posturing, support and payment.

For example, if Team A takes the promise of future support from Team B to help chase down a breakaway, have they cheated? What if Team A agrees to help for a share of the prize money if Team B wins? What if Team B wires them a bank transfer mid-race? What if there’s no payment, but some Team A gains some advantage that Team B is unaware of? In all four cases, the outcome is the same—the only ethical distinctions between the cases lie in what motivates Team A’s efforts.

Granted, the ethics of the Vino’/Kolobnev case are a bit more cut and dry, but there’s still the question of proving that any illicit cooperation took place. If it weren’t for the enterprising muckrakers at l’Illustre we might not be having this discussion. For an insider’s view of payment and cooperation, you’re not likely to better than Mike Creed—though I suspect that in the highest level of the sport, the money, prestige, potential damage to reputation, and future income stemming from a major win outweigh the offer to lie down.

If anything, the biggest question here isn’t how could this happen, but how could Kolobnev sell so cheap? Joe Lindsey has a great breakdown of the longer-term costs to Kolobnev, but even in the short term, the deal didn’t make a lot of sense for the Russian. Sure, 100,000 Euros is a lot of money—especially when a win is only 20,000, split eight ways—but keep in mind, too, that in all likelihood, the bribe was only roughly equal to a year’s pay.

After winning Liege in 2003, Tyler Hamilton was rumored to have landed a contract with Phonak for over 800,000 euros. Though the American brought a GC threat that Kolobnev simply doesn’t have, it seems more than probable that Kolobnev could have garnered a salary boost well beyond the 100,000 EUR of Vino’s payoff.

And Kolobnev and Vino’ aren’t exactly strangers. In the recently-published emails, Kolobnev claims that Vino’s nationality (non-Belgian) and the bad press surrounding the Kazakh’s doping affair (apparently it was a raw deal) made his offer of collusion slightly more palatable.

So Kolobnev must have also known that Vinokourov is a very well-known man in an very corrupt country—honorary colonel in the army, Peoples’ Hero First Class, aspiring politician, and pasta spokesman. If Vino’ wanted to buy a bike race—Liege, of all things!—Kolobnev should known to bleed him for retirement money.

The only thing that makes sense to me is that Kolobnev’s legs must have been pretty well fried. If I were in Kolobnev’s pedals, and was as confident in my sprint as the Russian seems to have been, even Vino’ probably couldn’t have named me a price high enough—especially given the potential difficulty in collecting on the offer. But if I were on the rivet and clinging to my last reserves of strength, it’d be like getting paid 100k to lose a race I would have lost anyway. And where’s the fraud in that?

If there’s anything I feel bad about about in this affair, it’s the fortunes of Alexandr Kolobnev. His recent doping positive—and the soon-to-be-overturned slap on the wrist his national federation handed out—not withstanding, I found both his aggressive riding style and tenuous grasp of written English refreshing and entertaining. Even if he never seemed to have it in him to win the biggest races, it was always fun to watch him try.

But reading through the recently published emails between the two, I find him a startlingly sympathetic character. He clearly had a lot to gain from a win, and his emails reveal a recurring internal conflict, ineffectively placated by promises from Vinokourov. Before, Kolobnev was waiting for his bronze medal, now, having sought out seedier means of compensation, he’s waiting for his 100,000 euros. Thankfully, it hasn’t seemed to impact the quality of his tweets.

Vino’, of course, has been his usual, inscrutable self. First panning the “gutter press”, then claiming that it’s his personal life and he loans money to people all the time, and then—like Bettini before him—launching the inevitable lawsuit. The UCI has addressed that the case exists with its usual gibberish, though with Vino’ finally retiring after 2012, and Kolobnev facing the CAS, any resolution that comes for the alleged crimes in this case is likely to be purely symbolic.

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