Kazakh cycling official suggests Vinokourov a target

ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- One of Kazakhstan's top cycling officials said disgraced cycling star Alexandre Vinokourov may have been targeted by Tour de France organizers who didn't want the Kazakh rider to win the race.

Vinokourov, who rides in the colors of his Central Asian country and with the support of its government, was thrown out of the Tour along with his Astana team Tuesday after he tested positive for a banned blood transfusion.

"This is politics," said Nikolai Proskurin, the deputy head of Kazakhstan's Cycling Federation.

"Even before the start [of the Tour] the organizers said that if Vinokourov is among the favorites it would be wrong and no good," Proskurin told Channel 31 television Wednesday.

Vinokourov told French sports daily L'Equipe he was innocent of doping, and that he was the victim of a "provocation."

The federation said it was shocked by his positive doping test and urged international cycling officials "not to make any fast conclusions and final accusations against the cyclist and his team," the official Kazinform news agency said.

"We have to wait for the official results of test A and then get confirmation of test B and other necessary conclusions and examinations," the federation's executive director, Alexander Antyshev, said in the statement.

Vinokourov was one of the pre-race favorites at this year's Tour, but fell out of contention after damaging both knees in a crash during the first week of the race. He is the country's biggest sports star, though cycling enjoys limited popularity among Kazakhs and few have been following Vinokourov's successes.

The scandal is an embarrassment for the Kazakh government.

The creation of the Astana team, which is named for the Kazakh capital, became possible through the support of former Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, who is now defense minister and chairman of the country's cycling federation.

The team has generous sponsors in Kazakhstan, an oil-rich former Soviet republic experiencing an economic boom.

The Astana team's colors, light blue and yellow, are from the national flag, and the government's support of the team is seen as aimed at promoting the country internationally.

Akhmetov's office would not comment Wednesday.