2014 Team Previews: Astana

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Who are the sponsor? Astana is the umbrella name for the Kazakhstan Cycling project sponsored by an aglomoration of Kazakh companies.

Nationality: Kazakh

2012 Ranking: 5th

Past Stars: Alexandre Vinokourov, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Oscar Pereiro.

Selected Team Palmares: 1st, 2013 Giro d’Italia, 1st, 2011 Vuelta a Espana, 1st, 2012 & 2013 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)

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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. 2012 saw the team scrabbling for a replacement to Olympic medalist Vinokourov, and they won Liege with Ignlinsky and Amstel Gold with Gasparotto.

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Last year: The signing of Nibali to lead the team along with the addition of Fuglsang meant that the squad became orientated around their targets – the Giro for Nibali and the Tour for Fuglsang. Nibali romped away with the former after being denied the chance for a rematch with Wiggins, having beaten his teammate Froome to a consecutive Tirreno Adriatico earlier in the year. The classics didn’t go as well as the previous year, and the team actually won very little – just 15 races of which Nibali accounted for 6, with overall wins in the Giro del Trention, Giro d’Italia and Tirrenno. Fuglsang rode to 7th at the Tour,before Nibali went after the Vuelta again to add to his 2010 victory. He was cruelly denied by Chris Horner however, but put up a tremendous fight in doing so.

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Transfer dealings: Given Nibali is targeting the Tour, Astana have brought in Michele Scarponi to target the Italian race, hoping the former winner will put up a good show.  Liewe Westra is rescued from Vacansoleil, whilst Andrei Kashechkin is now gone, as is Kevin Seeldrayers.

Who are the star riders? Vincenzo Nibali is the star attraction, supported by another Giro Winner in Michele Scarponi, as well as GC men like Jacob Fuglsang, Janez Brajkovic, Tanel Kangert and Fabio Aru. The team is also full of strong puncheurs such as Maxim Iglinsky, Alexey Lusenko and Enrico Gasparotto, with Andrea Guardini their token sprinter.

Fashion Police: The same as last year, except with the font in Dark Blue rather than white. Hopefully it wont be as shiny as it sometimes appeared last year.

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What are their targets? The Tour de France is the big target for the team, which has won all three Grand Tours with Alberto Contador, but hasn’t tasted the same success at the Grand Boucle since that time. Scarponi will want to podium at the Giro, whilst Fuglsang will presumably get the Vuelta leadership berth. Elsewhere, the usual tactic of hitting out from breakaways will probably be the norm.

What are they likely to achieve? Nibali versus Froome could be the most interesting question of the year. Nibali is the only man to have bested the Sky man in a stage race since Wiggins, and will hope for an aggressive race to mix it up and improve on his 2012 3rd place. Elsewhere, it’s hard to see where the wins are going to come from unless they do particularly well in breakaways. Scarponi will be top 10 at the Giro, but the young guns racing it could mean the old Italian will be hard pushed to get on the podium.

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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?

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