1. In the road race at the 2012 London Olympics you proved too strong for Mark Cavendish and Fabian Cancellara, and managed to hold off Rigoberto Uran Uran to win gold. It was the sort of career finale that all sportsmen dream of. You’re now 38, but do you think if things hadn’t turned out as they did in London, you might have opted not to retire?
To be honest, I’ve never even thought about that. That victory was probably the result of all my hard work, though it felt like it was ordained from above. After I recovered from breaking my hip during the 2011 Tour de France, I made my comeback in top-level competition. My team-mates, friends and family all asked me why I was doing it and told me I had nothing more to prove. But something inside me was pulling me back; I felt there was still something I needed to achieve before I could end my career. Maybe if I’d won a stage at the Tour de France, I wouldn’t have had the same motivation at the Olympics. But in any case I’d have kept fighting until the end. That’s certainly my wife wondered about. She prayed that I’d at least finish on the podium at London 2012, because she was so keen for me to call it a day. She knew that if I didn’t, then I’d go to the Vuelta, and if I didn’t win there, I’d go to the Giro d’Italia and so on. But at the Olympics I performed beyond my own expectations. I never even dreamed I could end my career that way. I’d hoped for a podium finish, and then I won gold! When we broke away from the peleton, I realised that was our chance and that we needed to give every last ounce of energy. That’s what we did, and the result was an Olympic gold.
2. What are you up to now? Do you not think that you have what it takes to compete at a good level for another couple of years?
I’m currently general manager of the Astana team, so I’m still very much involved in cycling and the races. I finished competing right at the top, and exited centre stage. Anyway, this season, the guys have had a tough time of it so far. The weather has been awful… lots of snow and rain. I have to say that sitting in the car during the Milan-San Remo earlier this year, when it was snowing outside, and the thermometer was showing minus one, I didn’t exactly find myself missing it! No, I think I ended my career at just the right moment; if I’d have carried on it would have felt like I was going on too long.
3. You enjoyed lots of victories in your career. How does winning gold at London 2012 compare, for example, with the Vuelta in 2006?
They are two very different victories. At the Olympics you’re representing your country. That was my fourth time competing at the Games, and my second medal after Sydney, 12 years earlier. The Vuelta is a multi-stage race, and my only grand prix victory. So they’re different victories, though for me they are equally important.
4. Everyone is still talking about the Lance Armstrong scandal. You yourself served a ban [for blood doping]. Do you think it’s possible for top-level cycling to completely free itself from performance enhancing drugs?
Cycling has been very active in combatting doping over the last 10 years. There are now a lot of different initiatives for this very purpose and the results can be seen clearly. Since 1998, when I started competing, cycling has made massive progress in the fight against the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The cycling teams, UCI and WADA are now all doing their best to ensure clean results. The Astana team has its own anti-doping policy. Drugs scandals frighten away the sponsors and damage cycling’s image. The saga with Lance Armstrong is a blow for the entire sport. Sport, by definition, needs defeats as well as victories.
5. Were you pleased to be invited to the Tour d’Azerbaidjan? How do you see the event developing in the future?
I was delighted. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to come for a couple of days; I’ll be very pleased to visit this wonderful country. I’ve never actually been to Azerbaijan, I’ve just seen it on the TV. The Tour d’Azerbaidjan is a great initiative; a race of this calibre will help raise the profile of the whole country. Azerbaijan has everything you need for the development of cycling. In Kazakhstan, these kinds of races are only starting to appear now. I’ll certainly be glad to help with any useful advice I can offer.
6. What do you make of the Synergy Baku Сycling Project team? Do they have the potential to emulate or perhaps even better the success of the Astana team?
The main thing is to make sure the team is run properly. It’s important that the management really understands the inner-workings of the team. With the right resources and support, Synergy will produce good racers, who will win races for the country. That’s a real possibility.
7. You were always one of cycling’s most unpredictable competitors. Would you say, generally, that you like to surprise?
Definitely. I like to do things people don’t expect. That’s the way I live my life; by nature I’m the type of guy who likes to surprise people… in a nice way.