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August 29, 2009

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Vinokourov looks to revive career with Vuelta

ALEXANDRE Vinokourov won the Spanish Vuelta in 2006, but returns this year as an unknown quantity as he embarks on his first major race since returning from a two-year blood doping ban.

The 35-year-old Kazakh rider lines up in a strong field for cycling's last Grand Tour of the year that includes Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck and his brother Frank, Cadel Evans and pre-race favorites Alejandro Valverde and Ivan Basso.

The Vuelta gets under way today with riders from 22 teams tackling a 4.8-kilometer individual time trial at the Assen TT circuit in Utrecht, the Netherlands, a track better known for racing bikes powered by engines, not pedals. The 21-stage race ends in Madrid on September 20.

Last year's Vuelta champion and winner of this year's Tour de France, Alberto Contador of Spain, is not taking part. Nor is his rival Lance Armstrong, who finished third in this year's Tour de France on his comeback from retirement.

The Astana team has patched up its differences with Vinokourov, whose doping caused the entire team to be banned from the 2008 Tour de France. Now his team -- and the rest of the cycling world -- is waiting to see what he can do.

Astana team sporting director Johan Bruyneel doesn't expect Vinokourov to be Astana team leader.

"He just started riding again and I doubt he's in the right shape," he said. "Vino will just be one more rider, but if he's in good shape we'll help him. We go without a defined leader but with a good team."

The first four stages start in the Netherlands, with the fourth finishing just across the border in the Belgian city of Liege. The 225.5-km fourth stage includes two climbs of the Cauberg, the most famous hill for cyclists in this largely flat nation.

Vinokourov, who wants to revive his career for "one season or two," also has said he wants to ride at the world championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland, starting three days after the Vuelta finishes.


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