Who are the sponsor? Astana is the umbrella name for the Kazakhstan Cycling project sponsored by an aglomoration of Kazakh companies.
2012 Ranking: 11th
Past Stars: Alexandre Vinokourov, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Oscar Pereiro.
Selected Team Palmares: 1st, 2011 Vuelta a Espana, 1st, 2012 Tirreno-Adriatitico, Stage, Giro d’Italia 2010 (all Vincenzo Nibali), Stage, Vuelta a Espana 2012 (Frederik Kessiakoff), 1st, Amstel Gold Race 2012 (Enrico Gasparotto), 1st, Liege-Bastonge-Liege 2012 (Maxim Iglinsky), 1st, Tour of Austria 2012 (Jacob Fuglsang), 1st, 2010 Dauphine Libre (Janez Brajkovic)
Brief Team History: Astana came out of the old Liberty Serguros set up, as much as they don’t like to admit it, and then quickly became the Alexandre Vinokourov touring project, as it supported him to winning the Vuelta and trying to win the Tour. Unfortunately Vino crashed in 2007, then won a time trial with stitches in his knees, which raised eyebrows before the dope test was confirmed as positive. Luckily, Discovery Channel had just folded, and across came Alberto Contador, the defending Tour champion, Levi Leipheimer, the 3rd place finisher, and Andreas Kloden, whose form depends on cycles of the moon. Unfortunately, they weren’t invited to the Giro, then no to the Tour for all the past doping inflictions by (now retired) Vinokourov. Then, they suddenly got a Giro invite if they promised to bring their three new recruits, and Contador promptly won, before winning the Vuelta to complete a Grand Tour clean sweep in just under 18 months. All was set for a glorious 2009 where Contador could win the tour with ease, until Lance Armstrong rocked up and by the sounds of it tried to outcast Contador. Contador won the slow burn of a Tour that was 2009, with Armstrong 3rd, before Lance stripped the best bits out of the team and went off to form Radioshack. Contador got past winner Oscar Pereiro on his side, and won the 2010 Tour as well thanks to his bad eyesight preventing him from seeing that Schleck’s chain had come off (…). He then left for Saxo Bank, but no fear! Vino, who remember had retired, decided that he actually hadn’t, and returned to try and wear yellow for a day. The 2011 Tour unfortunately saw him break his femur in what looked to be a career ending crash.
Last year: Astana had one of the best headline years of any team last year – their Kazakh talisman, Vinokourov, won the Olympic Road Race Gold, Maxim Iglinsky won Liege-Bastonge-Liege, and Enrico Gasparotto won Amstel Gold. They took 3 grand Tour stages, 2 at the Giro and one at the Vuelta with Kessiakoff, who was their best performer at the Tour as he tried to beat Voeckler to King of the Mountains. However, there was little below these big wins, which is why their overall ranking is so low at the end of the day.
Transfer dealings: Astana secured the second most valuable commodity in the market after Mark Cavendish – Vincenzo Nibali. After a year where he podiumed at Milan San Remo and Liege Bastonge Liege, as well as the Tour de France, where he was the only man bothered to attack Sky, he’s desperate to secure a team where he is leader, and now Vino is gone, Nibali is the way forward, especially after he brought some of his trusted Liquigas domestiques across in the deal. But Astana have also recruited in other sectors – most impressively in Andrea Guardini, the explosive Italian who is a proper sprinter – he beat Cavendish in a straight sprint, but can’t get over the slightest bump. The team have lost Kreuziger and Kivierlovski, but have a straight swap in terms of stage race ‘nearly men’ with the recruitment of Jacob Fuglsang, who will want to prove himself after a tricky year at RadioShack ruined by injury and politics.
Who are the star riders? No longer is the glory of Kazakhstan conveyed by Vinokourov, but by Vincenzo Nibali, their stage race supremo. He will be supported by Janez Brajkovic, as well as Jacob Fuglsang, their secondary GC rider, who will probably ride with their hilly classics men in Maxim Iglinksy and Enrico Gasparotto. They have stage win hunters in Paolo Tiralongo and Frederik Kessiakoff, but also now a sprinter in Andrea Guardini.
Fashion Police: The Astana kit has always kept the baby blue and yellow of the Kazakh flag, with the Kazakh sun disapearing recently, but the new effort looks like they designed it on Microsoft Word, with a swooping and swirling ‘Astana’ Logo. And why is the kit so shiny?
What are their targets? Nibali wants to win the Giro, which he wanted to win last year, but Basso had a one up card to ride it. Fuglsang will be riding the Tour as a result, which is what he wants. Guardini probably wont do the Tour, but race the Giro again to try and build on his stage win, whilst everyone else will want to carry on from last year – strong rides in the hills, ignoring anything with cobbles in it, and trying to poach stage wins.
What are they likely to achieve? Everyone wants Nibali to beat Wiggins at the Giro (well, most people) as revenge for 2012, and also because Nibali is a truely classy, stylish rider whose way of winning races is built on attacks, compared to Wiggins’ impressive but dull time trial the whole course approach. It’s a coin toss between the two as who wins though, and whilst Nibali can be seen to win the Giro without too much trouble, Fuglsang will be lucky to get in the top 10 of the Tour, plus Iglinksy and co probably won’t repeat their Ardenne heroics. Kessiakkoff is a man to watch however, as he appears to only be growing in strength.
Components: Riding Specialised with a myriad of componentry, including FSA, Campagnolo and Zipp. Moa make the overly reflective kit.
The Big Question(s): Can Nibali challenge Wiggins at the Giro?