Astana -A History: 2008

The Kazakhs had another highly eventful year in 2008, taking their 2nd and 3rd Grand Tours, but not without lashings of controversy.

For the previous years, see 2006 and 2007

 

January 5th 2008

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Johan Bruyneel insists that Astana is “not a copy of Discovery Channel” and claims to have “certain written guarantees” about the possible ghosts of the previous Astana’s doping issues. He admits that the signing of Ivan Basso to Discovery after his initial clearance by the Italian federation was a mistake (Basso has since admitted he was”attempting to dope” with Fuentes) before covering himself against rumours of the T-Mobile team, which had at the time Andreas Kloden on the squad, visiting a blood bank before the 2006 Tour de France – “Klöden told me that he had nothing to do with it. As far as I know he has never been involved in a doping affair. We are heavily armed against possible matters from the past. If it appears that Klöden was involved in something, then we will react appropriately.”

January 11th 2008

Matthias Kessler is banned for two years.The German had tested positive for testosterone in April of 2007 whilst ridiing for Astana.

January 13th 2008

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Andrey Kashechkin, who is still embroiled with a doping case he is attempting to fight by claiming drug testing is an invasion of his privacy, is reported to still be in training and looking for a comeback to cycling. His privacy defence had already been rejected by a Belgian court in November, but he continues to look for a team and attempt to salvage his reputation.

January 14th 2008

A Swiss court rules that the 500,000 Euro bank guarantee sent to the UCI by “New Astana” must be used to pay the back salaries of riders on the “Old Astana” of 2007, ruling Marc Biver was obliged to honour those contracts. Biver is no longer part of the team, and claims he was unable to pay riders in late 2007 as the sponors did not give him the funds to do so.

January 19th 2008

Andrey Kashechkin reportedly joins the Kazakh continental squad Oelan/Ulan (Sources differ), having fired his lawyer the previous day.

January 20th 2008

Oelan/Ulan deny signing Kashechkin. “No, no, that isn’t so” they say when asked about his apparent signing.

January 29th 2008

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Christian Prudhomme, the director of the Tour de France, claims that riders such as Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, both vaguely implicated in the Puerto case, should not assume they will be invited to the Tour de France. Speaking at the Tour of Qatar, an ASO race, Prudhomme says “Today I cannot say that Valverde or Contador will not be in the Tour. It is still early, we are not going to exclude individual riders, but instead not invite an entire team.”

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He reveals that Astana have been asked to sign a contract that would exclude them from the Tour if any of their riders tested positive. “Thus, if the team had any problem relating to doping we could exclude them directly. Today I am not going to say whether or not Astana will be at the start of the 2008 Tour, but if there is one thing that is true it’s that this team has damaged the image of the Tour.”

January 31st 2008

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The Astana team is presented in Albuquerque, New Mexico, due to a connection to a Johan Bruyneel Cycling Centre based there, with the ticketed event ($25-$500) raising money for the American Diabetes Association and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Bruyneel himself says “This is a completely new team, the name of the sponsor is the same but the management has changed, the structure has changed, the riders have changed – and above all I think the philosophy has changed.”

He does however aknowledge that the team has reputational problems “Although we know the reputation of Astana in 2007 is not good, unfortunately I cannot change that. The good thing is I don’t feel responsible. I know it’s a problem I have to solve, but I feel like we have made all the right steps to have a new start. Sometimes it’s frustrating when everyone makes the link to 2007, but I have to ask everyone to forget that – I cannot change that.”

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The team had lost a good deal of its riders, having obviously lost Kashechkin, Kessler,Mazzoleni, Redondo and Vinokourov during the season itself, before a further 6 riders had moved on. They were:

Igor Abakoumov, Maxim Gourov, Alexey Kolessov, Guennadi Mikhailov, Paolo Savoldelli and Evgeniy Sladkov.

This left 18 riders who had remained with Astana:

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Assan Bazayev, Antonio Colom, Koen De Kort, Thomas Frei, Rene Haselbacher, Maxim Iglinsky, Serguei Ivanov, Benoit Joachim, Aaron Kemps, Andreas Kloden, Julien Mazet, Andrey Mizourov, Steve Morabito, Dmitriy Muravyev, Daniel Navarro, Gregory Rast, Michael Schar and Serguei Yakovlev.

Eight men joined from Discovery Channel, in Janez Brajkovic, Alberto Contador, Vladimir Gusev, Levi Leipheimer, Benjamin Noval, Sergio Paulinho, Jose Luis Rubiera and Thomas Vaitkus, with Chris Horner from Predictor Lotto and three young Kazakhs in Roman Kireyev, Berik Kupeshov and Andrey Zeits also joining the team.

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On the same day, ASO insist on their freedom of choice for race invitations in races, claiming they do not want to be “prisoner to the events.”

February 2nd 2008

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RCS announce the teams for the 2008 Giro, and reveal that four ProTour teams, which are meant to have automatic invitations, are not invited to the race: High Road, Bouygues Telecom, Crédit Agricole and Astana. RCS claims its decision is based upon “ethics, quality, international character [and] the historical relationship with RCS Sport.” It notes that it has the “right to withdraw the invite at any moment.”

Astana respond to the snub. “We are extremely surprised,” says Astana Press Officer Philippe Maertens “Our team management is currently trying to contact Zomegnan …” Noting RCS point about ethics, it is easy to see what their problem with Astana might be, given 2007 third placed finisher Eddy Mazzoleni was later fired by the team for being part of the Oil for Drugs scandal, and had reportedly had “very suspicious” hormorne values during the Italian race.

February 4th 2008

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Giro Director Angelo Zomegnan offers some explanation as to why Astana, amongst others, did not receive an invite to the race. “There were many requests and too many problems weighing on the past histories major teams related to doping,” he begins, “This has not been an easy decision, and we have had to leave out large teams like Astana and the illustrious Italians Stefano Garzelli, Marco Pinotti, and Pietro Caucchioli.”

On Astana in particular, Zomegnan says “Contador  has always said that all he is interested in is the Tour de France, and for Leipheimer, the Giro has always been about trying to prepare for the Tour. If our race is not part of their plans, then we just won’t invite them. At this moment, the quality of the proposed participating riders for the Giro is not in proportion to the potential of the team. Astana weren’t exactly flawless last year. Okay, they have changed philosophy and their management, but we have to wait and see. You don’t just wake up in the morning a changed person.”

Their is a minor murmour of discontent as to the inclusion of Danilo Di Luca’s LPR Brakes team, despite his links to the Oil for Drugs case and unceremonious removal from the previous years ProTour rankings whilst in the lead. Why LPR are invited rather than Astana is not explained.

February 5th 2008

Astana begrudgingly accept RCS’s snub of their team, promising that they will “prove that we still have our place in all big cycling events.” Johan Bruyneel pins his hopes on the comment that RCS could review their decision at any time, stating “If the Giro directors would reconsider their selection, we will be ready for it.”

February 7th 2008

Andreas Kloden reveals his concerns for his racing schedule – having won the RCS Tirreno Adriatico event in 2007, he worries he will be unable to defend his title in the run up to the Tour de France, plus that the team will have difficulty planning its schedule. He attacks RCS’s claim the team is not sufficiently different from the 2007 Astana, claiming “The team has gone a new way, we have an anti-doping programme in place.”

February 13th 2008

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ASO announces that Astana will not be invited to any of its portfolio of races in 2008, including the Tour de France. It bases its decision on “damages that this team has done to the Tour de France and to cycling in general. The team Astana has betrayed the organiser’s confidence last year” but claims that the team “could…be considered once again for inclusion in future editions.” Astana will thus once again, for the third year in a row, not succeed in getting a rider to the finish of the Tour de France, although this will mark the second year in three where one will not even make the start.

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On hearing the news, Alberto Contador, who is racing at the Challenge Majorca and has already crashed, screams “Astana for the Tour!” at a following TV camera and launches a 100km spontaneous attack, which is reeled in with 10km remaining. He is consoled by Alejandro Valverde. At the end of the day he blinks back tears to say “The Tour is a race that I’ve always dreamed about, that I’ve always hoped to do before and again in the future. My objectives this year were to win it again, but I may not be given the possibility. This isn’t a good moment to speak about this.”

February 14th 2008

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Reactions to the decision to exclude Astana continue. Johan Bruyneel, the manager of the team, states that “the happenings of last year in Tour de France prompted the Tour organizers to leave Astana out of the season’s most important race sounds understandable,however, Astana Cycling Team 2008 has nothing to do with the team of last year. We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team.” There is some suggestion that the snub is an attempt to strike at Johan Bruyneel and the dominance of his teams in the past.

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Alberto Contador says he will probably target the Vuelta as a result of ASO’s decision, with that races’ director, Victor Cordero, saying he would happily invite the team “Contador deserves to be in all the races and for me he is a model for the future” he says. He also worries that the Astana sponsors might pull out of the sport.

Christian Prudhomme meanwhile points out that Contador could still defend his title if he wanted.  If Contador changes teams, then he can take part. This decision was not made against him.” He comments that the decision is not “Never again Astana” but “Never again 2007”, and justifies the inclusion of T-Mobile and Cofidis at the 2008 Tour despite doping positives announced at the 2007 Tour (T-Mobile were ok because Sinkewitz’s positive had been before the event, and Cofidis because they left the event without being asked).

The Italian cycling federation President Renato Di Rocco backs the decision to remove Astana from the race, claiming it is “the right decision for cycling” based on the notion that “it is not right to continue with a cycling where the teams are selected in base of licenses, and, above all, you have to show that the criteria to give licenses are the wrong criteria.”

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As Johan Bruyneel wonders out loud “Is Astana this year a victim of the war between UCI and ASO?” the answer is almost certainly yes, as the two sides have long been battling for control of who gets to invite teams to their races. Astana, a ProTour team but with a shady past, had seemingly replaced Unibet.com, who were 2007’s political football, as the team with which the battle was to be fought.

February 15th 2008

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Operacion Puerto is re-opened in Spain, and also in Italy, given that only three people have been sanctioned for the scandal – Ivan Basso, Michele Scarponi and Jorg Jaksche. Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Francesco Mancebo, Constantino Zaballa, Santiago Botero and Tyler Hamilton are all supposedly still linked to it. It will not be a great investigation however: under Spanish criminal law, flaws in the handling of the blood bags can be penalised, but not the doping practices themselves. Manolo Saiz and any doping cyclists would thus not be investigated.

Given Prudhomme’s comments that riders could possibly race the Tour if they changed team, there is speculation as to whether any riders will try to do this. Andreas Kloden decides to stay with Astana, although it would be very hard for him to do so even if he wanted to. Contador also claims “I will not leave the team” despite having “many solutions” to the problem floating around his mind.

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To rub salt into the wounds of the previous couple of days, RCS Sport decide that Team High Road are to be admitted into the Giro d’Italia after all. “”After careful and diligent review, RCS Sport is glad to confirm its confidence in Team High Road and its promising riders, and invite the new USA-registered team at our races starting, in chronological order, with Monte Paschi Eroica on March 3, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo, Giro d’Italia, Giro del Lazio, Giro del Piemonte e Giro di Lombardia” says Angelo Zomegnan. There are supposedly conditions attached – “I don’t think thing High Road will have any problems, and like all the teams, it would be invited under conditions… I am able to change everything, even on the day the Giro departs – nothing is guaranteed” says Zomegnan,

February 17th 2008

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Levi Leipheimer begins a campaign to “Let Levi Ride” in the hope that the campaign will change ASO’s mind and make them rescind their decision. “I’m drawing attention to the fact that this decision by the ASO is completely arbitrary and unjust. I had nothing to do with Astana prior to joining the team this year. There are many other teams with tainted pasts that haven’t changed management or structure like the new Astana has, yet Astana is singled out and excluded.”

Leipheimer adds that “I’ve trained my whole life to race the Tour. It’s my dream to win the Tour de France; it’s my life long goal.” He claims that he sees the situation of the team as effectively having been Discovery Channel getting a new sponsor. As he prepares for the Tour of California, he says “When I joined Astana in my mind I didn’t foresee this problem. I think any logical person would see it the same way. We have sponsors that sign up for the team that think the same as I do and other riders. I think if the ASO’s reasons for excluding us from the Tour have to do with last year’s Tour or before, it sounds like it could have made that decision last year in August, which would have been a little bit fairer. We are all wondering what the exact reason is; there is not set of rules and no security for the sponsors for our teams to count on to get into these world famous races.”

February 20th 2008

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Andreas Kloden’s hopes of defending his Tirreno Adriatico title are dashed by the news that RCS are not to invite the team to either that event or the Milan San Remo classic. “It’s a very unfortunate situation for not only our riders, but also the sport of cycling,” says Johan Bruyneel.

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Spanish politician Mariano Rajoy calls on French President Sarkozy to pressure ASO to allow Alberto Contador to start the Tour de France.

It is confirmed that Astana’s sponsors will not pull out of the team.

February 21st 2008

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UCI President Pat McQuaid declares that “we need to take action [against ASO], which we’ll do as a consequence of their decisions,” continuing “It would be a tragedy if Contador is not allowed to defend his title. It is a complete disgrace. We will do all we can to ensure Contador rides in the Tour.”

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The Deutschland Tour confirms that despite not allowing Astana to enter in 2007, it is happy for the team to attend it’s race in 2008. Organier Kai Rapp says “Last year they followed the rules by stopping their competition. At the time we had the team in high regards for doing such a step, which juristically was not required. We discussed Astana with the UCI in October. Later, the team management was substituted. And the whole team is doing a self-financed anti-doping programme….Astana is under strong surveillance and there are no more “Men in Black” racing.”

February 25nd 2008

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What a clean podium

Astana and Levi Leipheimer win the Tour of California in Pasadena. “We proved that Astana Cycling Team is definitely the best team in the world” says the now double champion Leipheimer, who had won the race  with Discovery Channel in 2007.

March 6th 2008

Alberto Contador discusses his goals for the season, naming the Olympic Games in Beijing and the Vuelta as his new targets. “The alternatives to the Tour, as everybody knows, are the Olympic Games, if the national coach decides to count on me, and probably the Vuelta a España” he says.

March 8th 2008

Patrik Sinkewitz of Team T-Mobile.

Patrik Sinkewitz, the German former T-Mobile cyclist who tested positive for testosterone, reportedly alleges that his then T-Mobile teammates Matthias Kessler and Andreas Kloden, both who have since ridden or are riding for Astana, visited the Freiburg clinic with him in 2006 to receive blood transfusions before the Tour de France.

March 10th 2008

Kloden denies Sinkewitz’s reported allegations. “I have already addressed this and have nothing more to add. But I have asked my attorneys to review the matter and take any necessary steps” he says.

March 21st 2008

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The ASO announces the 20 teams to compete in the 2008 Tour de France, confirming its decision to exclude Astana. Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream team is however invited. Christian Prudhimme claims “These are, I believe, the best teams in the world,” before adding “I want to make clear that this decision [to exclude Astana] is aimed at the team, not at Alberto Contador but he happens to wear the Astana jersey.” Johan Bruyneel declares the decision “unfair, illogical, ridiculous and arrogant.”

March 28th 2008

Andreas Kloden discusses his supposed connections to the Freiburg clinic as evidence emerges of invoices sent to his then girlfriend from the clinic.

“There were no concrete doping charges made against me,” Kloden noted “But in spite of that, this one sentence was enough to excite the fantasy of many. Did none of them see that the commission’s report contained no comment as to what was in the delivery? Or was it just easier not to ask about such facts?” He continued, “Every member of the T-Mobile team and many other athletes will be able to confirm that in our sports medicine care, packages containing legal medications, vitamins or nutritional supplements were routinely sent to athletes. It was nothing unusual to receive a package from Freiburg. The conclusion that this delivery to me was connected with doping is simply false.”

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Rumours circulate in the Spanish Press that Alberto Contador is planning to leave Astana for the would be Spanish power house of Caisse d’Epargne, where he would join Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Pereiro.

Vuelta organiser Victor Cordero  confirms that Astana should be invited to the Vuelta, with some conditions “I am not just talking about [doping] positives. I mean anything that undermines the image of cycling or the Vuelta,” Cordero says of his comments that Astana should not “do anything stupid”,  “Everyone knows our history. Last year we decided to leave out Astana, and four Spaniards had to stay home.”

April 4th 2008

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The Tour of Austria confirms it will invite Astana “because they took out the old management and replaced it with the Bruyneel team” adding “The current Astana team is Discovery Channel under a new name. And they are doing everything to give back a clean image to cycling.” They confirm they would quite like Austrian Astana rider Rene Haselbacher to ride the race.

April  28th 2008

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After stories emerge that Alexandre Vinokourov, who had claimed to have retired thanks to his one year ban for blood doping, is back in training and planning an assault on the 2008 Olympic games after his ban ends, Johan Bruyneel moves to state that Vinokourov is not welcome at the team. “We are working already since October last year on a new team. By accepting Vino in the team, we would have to start all over again. We proved already this season – unfortunately some organisers don’t see it – that our team works super professionally and clean. We want to keep that.”

April 30th 2008

The teams for the Vuelta a Espana are confirmed, with Astana amongst them. Alberto Contador is thus at least able to pursue that goal.

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In not so good news for Astana, it is confirmed that Alexandre Vinokourov has been stripped of his stage wins from the 2007 Tour de France, which have subsequently been awarded to Cadel Evans and Kim Kirchen. The UCI release a statement “Kim Kirchen and Cadel Evans have been informed by UCI, with two letters on April 8 and 9, that following the disqualification of Alexander Vinokourov they have been declared as winners of the 15th and the 13th stages of the 2007 Tour de France.”

May 3rd 2008

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Rumours begin to fly that Astana may be invited to the Giro d’Italia, which begins on the 10th of May, after all. Angelo Zomegnan confirms as much, saying “Astana remains a candidate to participate in the Giro. At this point it’s a 50-50 affair. Talks are underway with Astana regarding their possible participation in the Giro. Astana sent their request to us a month ago with a different approach regarding the quality of riders to take part in the race. If Astana were accepted it would of course affect the lineup of invited teams we announced on February 1.”

As regards the “different approach to the quality of riders”, it is reported that Astana is planning on sending Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer to the race, whilst Andreas Kloden responds by saying he would “happily volunteer” to ride the event, saying “It’s a big tour and I’m a big tour rider.”

May 4th 2008

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RCS Sport confirm that Astana will be invited to the 2008 Giro d’Italia. “I would like to thank RCS for reconsidering our team in the selection process,” team manager Johan Bruyneel says,”RCS has recognized that not inviting one of the best stage racing teams would have been a mistake and detrimental to the race and sport of cycling.” He does however note “The one-week notice is certainly an extra challenge, but I’m confident that our team will show up motivated.”

The team is expected to be led by Andreas Kloden, who has just won Tour of Romandie for Astana, becoming the first German winner in the process. He says “After my nice overall victory today at the Tour of Romandie and my time-trial victory on Friday, I finally feel my form is close to where it needs to be [for the Giro].”

Kloden will be supported by Alberto Contador, who is recovering from a dental operation when he receives the news and says “It was a big surprise to me when Johan called me, since I was on a holiday.” Levi Leipheimer will also be on hand to support the German, although he says “I haven’t had the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the course, but I know we’ll tackle some big climbs,” before adding “I’ve also read that there are four time trials, which leads to me believe there will be some great opportunities for a rider like me.”

Astana are not actually being added to the race – they replace the NGC Medical-OTC Industria Porte team in the Giro.

May 5th 2008

Contador begins to talk about his form ahead of the upcoming Giro,revealing that he had been off training for a week due to his dental infection and had then been on holiday. “In order to prepare my Giro debut properly, I would have liked to know much earlier that I would participate in this race.” However he promises to “give my best” despite not being in top form.

The team Astana will bring to the Italian Grand Tour will be Andreas Kloden, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, Assan Bazayev, Antonio Colom, Vladimir Gusev, Maxim Iglinskiy, Andrej Mizurov and Dmitry Muravyev,

May 6th 2008

Contador arrives in Italy, to race for the first time since 2003, he says. He is now being listed as a co-captain with Andreas Kloden, and says “The Giro, for a climber like me, is an extraordinary course. My form is unknown; I will do what I can. I know that the Italian public is really warm-hearted and this will give me extra motivation.”

Dmitry Muravyev is unable to eat and falls ill, so is replaced in the team by Benjamin Noval. This leaves the team for the Giro as Andreas Kloden, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, Assan Bazayev, Antonio Colom, Vladimir Gusev, Maxim Iglinskiy, Andrej Mizurov and Benjamin Noval.

May 9th 2008

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Astana arrive in Palermo for the team presentation of the Giro. Contador seems to have gotten more optimistic, “We have a very good team. We have our best riders here, so while I said it is short notice, I think it is possible that we could win the race.” He adds that “I hope to be in good shape, to ride well on these climbs. Then I can do well, or perhaps I will be bad. Anything could happen,” and makes the team, that is packed with strong time triallists, one of the favourites for the upcoming TTT.

Sports Director Sean Yates reveals how Astana will approach the race. “We are a group of professionals and I expect some good results and performances.We will decide who leads as we go along. It is a long race; it is a long way to Milan and it is a tough one, so we will see. Obviously this race was not on Alberto’s plans at all. Klöden has just come off a good result so on paper perhaps he has the best chance. It is a long way, we will see.”

May 10th 2008

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Benjamin Noval falls ill with stomach difficulties, and is replaced, having already replaced Dmitry Muravyev, by Steve Morabito.  Sean Yates explains the decision “Steve has the right condition. He proved that already in the Tour de Romandie, where he was one of the best helpers for overall winner Andreas Klöden.”

In the afternoon, the Giro begins, with the favourites including Astana’s threesome of Grand Tour riders as well as Gilberto Simoni, Riccardo Ricco, Denis Menchov and Danilo Di Luca. However it is the Slipstream team that wins the opening time trial, and the team comprised of men such as Christian Vandevelde, who takes the pink jersey, David Millar, David Zabriske and Ryder Hesjedal are happy to tell everyone about how this shows what clean riders can do.

Astana are 7th of the 22 teams, 29 seconds behind Slipstream on the 23.6km course.

May 11th 2008

A lumpy stage to Agrigento is won by Saunier Duval’s Riccardo Ricco, with a group of 6 riders getting off the front to gain ten seconds on the next group of favourites, which includes Astana’s Contador. Andreas Kloden only loses 8 seconds, but Levi Leipheimer finishes 31st, 20 seconds down. It leaves the Astana triple header as thus:
16th – Andreas Kloden @28secs.
19th – Alberto Contador @30secs.
25th – Levi Leipheimer @40secs.

May 14th 2008

As the Giro progresses through a sprinter friendly opening week, Levi Leipheimer claims to be feeling his way into the event, satisfied as he is with being 40 seconds behind. “I feel okay, we will see. I definitely need some time to…well, I am a rider who usually does well in the third week, when everybody else gets tired.” Leipheimer has a bit of a moan about the Giro’s notorious stage transfers.

May 15th 2008

DS Sean Yates is also not entirely complementary about the stage transfers, describing them as a “nightmare”, although he is supportive of his team’s chances. He reveals Steve Morabito, who is a replacement for a replacement, is riding with a dislocated shoulder. Talking about his trio of overall contenders chances, he says “Andreas is feeling good, Levi is okay and Alberto is getting better and better. So we will see.”

May 16th 2008

The Giro reaches its first summit finish on stage 7 to Pescocostanzo. A breakaway stays away and LPR Brakes rider Gabriele Bosisio takes the win, whilst behind their are time gaps between the overall contenders. Contador is the best of the Astana riders, losing just 6 seconds to a rampant Danilo Di Luca, whilst Kloden and Leipheimer lose another 45 seconds to their Spanish teammate.

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“I didn’t feel great, I was dead,” says Contador, “I went to my limit. Di Luca was very strong. But I have to be happy because this is the first hard stage and my level was higher than I expected coming here. I expected perhaps to do a little less well than I did. This result is a good sign, I hope the time trial goes well.”

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Leipheimer has similar feelings. “That was hard. It was tougher day than I expected, with the group getting away. The climbs in the middle were really hard. It was a tough day.”

The three Astana riders now sit at:
9th – Alberto Contador @7.56
16th – Andreas Kloden @8.39
22nd – Levi Leipheimer @9.14

May 19th 2008

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Having suffered a crash on stage 8 which finally removed the heavily wounded Steve Morabito from the race, Alberto Contador reveals he is riding with a non displaced fracture of the elbow. “Unfortunately, having a small fracture does not make the journey to Milan any easier” sighs Contador, “but I’m motivated and will try to fight through the pain.” He tells the press that he is feeling better and better as the race progresses when asked if he might abandon the race. ” I am a hard one, I stay. The last days my legs felt better and better. The longer I was in the Giro, the better I felt.”

Contador will have to hope that his elbow does not affect his time trial position. His previous TT results in Grand Tours are not good, steadily improving, but not stellar:
2005 Tour de France Stage 1 (19km) 48th at 1.57 to David Zabriske
2005 Tour de France Stage 20 (55km) 48th at 6.12 to Lance Armstrong
2007 Tour de France Prologue (7.9km) 15th at 35secs to Fabian Cancellara
2007 Tour de France Stage 13 (54km) 7th at 2.18 to Alexandre Vinokourov
2007 Tour de France Stage 19 (55.5km) 5th at 2.18 to Levi Leipheimer

May 20th 2008

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The first true battleground of the 2008 Giro is the 39.4km time trial from Pesaro to Urbino. There are surprises all around: first, Lampre’s Marzio Bruseghin took only his second professional win (his first being a TT stage of the Giro the previous year, to be fair), but behind him, Astana were queuing up. Alberto Contador was the big surprise, recording the second fastest time of the day just 8 seconds behind Bruseghin, whilst Andreas Kloden is third at 20 seconds. Levi Leipheimer squeezes into the top 10 in 9th, 61 seconds behind the Italian winner.  This puts Astana’s triple headed beast in positions of strength, given that the men above 4th placed Contador are the remnants of the races early time gaining breakaway such as Giovanni Visconti, who are not expected to challenge for the overall.
4th – Alberto Contador @ 6.59
6th – Andreas Kloden @ 7.54
14th – Levi Leipheimer @ 9.10

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Contador, as will become somewhat of a trend during his career, always has an excuse, claiming that he would have won the TT if it had not been for the wet weather (he was leading at the penultimate time check by 10 seconds) – “I was sliding around too much in the finale and it was cold. Believe me, without the rain, I would have been the winner. I didn’t dare to take risks in the end.”

The champion the previous year, Danilo Di Luca is now concerned about the Spaniard after losing two minutes in the time trial. “We will have to attack Contador, definitely,” he said. “I will need to take back the advantage from him.”

May 22nd 2008

Andrey Kashechkin is supposedly cleared by the Kazakh Cycling federation, who claim that the UCI have not responded to their messages about the rider. The UCI in turn claim that Kashechkin is still banned, and that they have sent their documentation on the Kazakh to the federation three times.

May 23rd 2008

Levi Leipheimer speaks about how hard he is finding the Giro, and talks down his chances, saying “I have not felt super yet, and the time trial was not that great.” He says Contador, Kloden and Gilberto Simoni are his favourites for the race, and gives a clue as to the team’s upcoming tactics – “All three of us are good time trialists. As it stands now, Alberto is in the lead, he does not have to attack, he just has to follow.”

May 24th 2008

After a sprinter friendly few days that only saw Levi Leipheimer suffer a crash for Astana, the final week kicks in with the key mountain stages, the first finishing at Alpe di Pampeago. The new phase of the race is symbolised by Quick Step’s Giovanni Visconti finally losing the maglia rosa he had held for eight stages, as Emmanuele Sella triumphs after a 50km breakaway, increasing his lead in the King of the Mountains competition he had held since the second day of the race.

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However, the startling performance in the time trial a few days earlier from Contador is not repeated, and he is dropped with just over a kilometer to go, losing nearly 40 seconds to a group of favourites including Ricco, Denis Menchov and Gilberto Simoni. Worse, the latter moans that they could have gained even more time if only the other riders had not been “A bunch of lambs.” Andreas Kloden is a further 24 seconds behind his Spanish teammate, whilst Levi Leipheimer loses almost five minutes and any chance of a high overall placing.

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Despite this, Contador ascends to second place in the overall standings as the previous incumbents of the high positions fall away, with Danilo Di Luca’s LPR Brakes teammate Gabriele Bosisio edging into the lead by just 5 seconds, leaving Contador in arguably the ideal position even if he says “I didn’t have the day I was hoping for” and blames allergies for his poor performance.

1st – Gabriele Bosisio (LPR)
2nd – Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 5 secs
3rd – Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) @ 28 seconds
4th – Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) @ 1:02
5th – Danilo Di Luca (LPR) @1:07
6th – Andreas Kloden (Astana) @ 1:11
23rd – Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 5:21

May 25th 2008

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After five grueling mountains packed into just under a hundred miles of racing, the result is once again that Emanuele Sella captures the victory at the summit of the Passo Fedaia. Having lost 36 seconds to Riccardo Ricco the previous day, Contador ships only 16 today, and with overnight leader Bosisio hemorrhaging 15 minutes, the man who only knew he was racing a week before the start finds himself in the Maglia Rosa.

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“We are going to enjoy this moment because tomorrow is another hard day” says Contador at the finish,  “Riccò is very strong – I am not as strong, we’ll see. There arrived a moment when I didn’t feel that good; when they started to attack – Riccò, Menchov – I chased but I couldn’t get their wheel. It was a moment when I didn’t feel good. I thought that my chances of taking the pink weren’t possible. Then when we started the Marmolada [Passo Fedaia] my sensations were very different – even though I broke a wheel – my head was totally focused on it.”

Contador returns to talk about his broken wheel and how it impeded his progress, as the chances of him winning the race begin to look likely to come down to a battle of getting through the mountains whilst his rivals try and put time into him before he regains form, “I tried to climb without standing so the wheel wouldn’t move as much. … I tried to sit in the saddle, and I thought with six kilometres to go to change the wheel or not.” He decided on the latter, continuing to the finish without stopping.”

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On wearing the Maglia Rosa, Contador beams “I think it’s a perfect day to take the maglia rosa…It’s a gift – if they and told that 20 days ago on the beach that I would be in the maglia rosa I wouldn’t have believed it. I came here thinking about the stages, but little by little, the people around me lifted my spirits, and they convinced me to keep fighting. The sensations became better, for that I am in the maglia rosa.”

With a mountain time trial and more climbing to come, as well as an aggressive Riccardo Ricco to deal with (Contador himself days “I think the most dangerous is now Riccò.”, Contador will still have his work cut out to keep the jersey to Milan. At least he is now definitely the leader at the team, after Kloden and Leipheimer slip further back in the GC classification.

1st – Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd – Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) @ 33 secs
3rd – Danilo Di Luca (LPR) @ 55 secs
4th – Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) @ 1:18
5th – Denis Menchov (Rabobank) @ 1:20
13th – Andreas Kloden (Astana) @ 6.26
19th – Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 12.25

May 26th 2008

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The 12.85km climb of Plan de Corones is the scenic amphitheater for one of the Giro’s infamous uphill time trials, with its uproariously steep finishing kilometre, gravel roads and following motorcycles making it an event in its own right. Franco Pellizotti of Liquigas conquers the Corones to win the day, whilst Contador makes good use of his first day in the Maglia Rosa and chips some seconds out of his major rivals, finishing 4th and taking 8 seconds on Ricco and a cushy 1:23 on Danilo Di Luca. Despite dropping to 6th, 2:18 behind Contador, Di Luca claims the Giro is “still open,” believing that “two minutes” could be gained on the transitional days…

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Contador again makes an excuse, blaming the gravel for causing his tyres to slip – “Eight seconds… My objective was to maintain the jersey and open up some time. I lost some time in the last kilometre, my back tyre slipped and I lost my momentum. However, I’m content it’s a good result.”

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Using an almost unheard of 34×30 gear at the time, Contador admits that “I am surprised as well” at his good form, giving some credence to the bad weather for helping level the playing field. With a 41 second advantage, he is cautiously optimistic: “The Giro is not over yet…Fortunately, I have a strong team. I strongly belief that they all will work for the same goal: bringing that pink jersey to Milano.” Luckily, Astana now have a rest day to help them towards that goal.

1st – Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd – Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) @ 41 secs
3rd – Gilberto Simoni (Serramenti PVC) @ 1:21
4th – Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) @ 2:00
5th – Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) @ 2:05
13th – Andreas Kloden (Astana) @ 8:44
20th – Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 16:41

May 27th 2008

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As Astana rest up before the final batch of mountain stages, Contador’s key lieutenants pledge themselves wholeheartedly behind his campaign. “I will now devote myself to Alberto and the team,” Andreas Klöden says “I am sure that [Contador] is strong enough to win the Giro. For me, he is one of the greatest talents, if not the greatest, and he surely has many years ahead of him. But, above all, he is a modest and sympathetic team-mate.”

Leipheimer also pledges his support, admitting he hasn’t been good enough himself and has saved his energy to help his younger teammate “Once Alberto took the jersey, it was pretty obvious that I was not good enough to do anything. I took it easy on Plan de Corones, I just rode tempo.” Leipheimer also again says the plan is to keep Contador in pink is essentially “no attacking”, adding “I think it would be amazing if we could win this race and under the circumstance of this year. I can’t think of anything better. I think it is unbelievable what Alberto has done.”

As Contador previews the possibly crucial Mortitolo, he is asked what the chances of him arriving in Milan in Pink are. “I don’t like to put percentages,” he diplomatically responds.

May 29th 2008

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As Jens Voigt wins on the circuit that will form the Varese World Championships, Astana and Contador control the race and hang tough, losing no time on any rivals.

May 30th 2008

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2007 Winner Danilo Di Luca almost hijacks the race lead on the 238km stage to Monte Pora, after a daredevil descent briefly makes him the virtual race leader. Even so, Di Luca pulls back 1’46 on Contador, whilst Riccardo Ricco, who later complains that he has “dropped Contador on every summit finish”, waltzes off in the last few metres to gain 37 seconds on Contador’s group. This leaves the top three separated by just 21 seconds with two stages to go, as Ricco just misses out on pink by a miserly 4 seconds.

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“The team worked very well, they deserved a ten,” said Contador, who had attacked himself towards the end of the stage when it looked like Di Luca might actually be riding towards the Overall lead, “Compliments to Riccò and Di Luca, they have made this Giro very interesting. I will continue to say what I said yesterday, I will not be afraid of anyone. I came here to do one week, I have kept the maglia rosa and I am not going to obsess over Di Luca or Riccò.”

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Contador also makes clear that he sees his tenuous lead as an advantage rather than a burden, “”Di Luca attacked too fast, but Klöden and Colom did a good job,” said Contador. “I could not answer the attack of Riccò. I am still glad I have the jersey, even if only four seconds, for the mental advantage. I am not afraid for tomorrow – the Mortirolo is a very steep climb and it is good for me, plus it is far from the finish. I am confident, as long I am in the jersey by one second.”

1st – Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd – Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) @ 4 secs
3rd – Danilo Di Luca (LPR) @ 21 secs
4th – Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) @ 2:00
5th – Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) @ 2:05

May 31st 2008

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As the “untouchable” (says Gilberto Simoni) Emanuele Sella romps away to a third mountain stage win, behind him, the race is all about whether Riccardo Ricco and Danilo Di Luca can recover the time they need to budge Contador from the leaders jersey. It quickly becomes clear that Di Luca was paying for the previous days heroics, and he was dropped on the Mortitolo. Despite some frosty relationships between riders, notably with Riccardo Ricco seemingly trying to fire everyone up, there are several assaults on Contador, but he is steady and knowingly allows Gilberto Simoni and Joaquim Rodriguez to fire away after the rampant Sella, knowing that this would stop Ricco from gaining any time bonuses on the line that could give him the Maglia rosa, albeit for a day.

Ricco indeed cannot chase down any of the leading three or distance Contador, and thus finishes with the Spaniard knowing that he will have to somehow defeat him in the time trial if he wants to win the Giro. Contador rubs salt into the wounds by claiming it was a reasonably easy day “Today, I had to stay with Riccò on the Mortirolo. I had good legs and I played it out well in my head, and it worked out well.” On the following days decisive time trial, he says “I don’t have any reason to worry about it, the 21st stage on the last stage is different, so anything can happen. All I have to do is have good sensation, if I do there’s no reason to fear anyone.”

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Even though Astana had had a weeks notice to ride the race and had today had lost Andreas Kloden to a respiratory infection and fever, Riccardo Ricco claims he would have won “if he had a team like Contador.” He seems to forget that only days before he had boasted of dropping the Tour champion on every summit finish.

1st – Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd – Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) @ 4 seconds
3rd – Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) @ 2:00
4th – Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) @ 2:05
5th – Emanuelle Sella (CSF) @ 2:35

June 1st 2008

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After 11 straight years of Italian Winners, Alberto Contador becomes the first man outside the peninsula since Russian Pavel Tonkov in 1996 to win the Giro d’Italia, in what seems in hindsight to have been a foregone conclusion (well, since the time trial anyway). The 28.5km TT is won by Marco Pinotti, who, like Contador, was originally on a team (High Road) that was to be excluded from the race, yet they come away with four stage wins courtesy of the Italian, Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel. They almost manage to sweep the TT podium, with Tony Martin in second and Bradley Wiggins in 4th.

Contador finishes 11th, 39 seconds behind Pinotti, but crucially 1:53 ahead of Riccardo Ricco who can only manage 68th place. Contador is thus left with a 1:57 winning margin in the Giro. However, he does become the first winner since Paolo Savodelli in 2002 and only the 10th in the races 91 year history to fail to win a stage in doing so.

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I am glad that I left my vacation to come here,” Contador beems, “It was a Giro that many could have won and it is at the same level as the Tour de France, maybe at a higher lever.”

Contador’s unusual preperation starts to become mythologised as Angelo Zomegnan apologies to Contador’s girlfirend for ruining their holiday, before pointing out “He has the whole of July to go on vacation.”

Contador however is happy to thank his team and reflect on his success: “I say ‘thanks’ to my team-mates, without having a great team… Klöden – they all gave it all for me – all day. People questioned Andreas – what he did for me the previous day – he had a bad night and had no choice but to leave. I cannot even begin to mention the sponsor support – if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

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“It is amazing what the others did for me. Riders like Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden, who are potential Grand Tour winners themselves, worked for me like all other team-mates did: Assan Bazayev, Toni Colom, Vladimir Gusev, Maxim Iglinskiy, Andrey Mizurov and Steve Morabito. A sick Andreas Klöden did so much for me. I didn’t know him well before this Giro. I think I have found a new friend. It is amazing how we all grew close to each other during these weeks.”

“Because the Tour had many months of preparation – I gave it all – here it’s been the opposite – without preparation, just day to day.The result was not less difficult – both have been very difficult. The only thing that in this Giro I arrived more tired. I couldn’t give more – I don’t know why, if it was my allergies or my lack of preparation.”

This marks the Astana teams second Grand Tour success after Alexandre Vinokourov’s Vuelta triumph in 2006.

Final GC
1st: Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd: Riccardo Ricco (Saunier Duval) @ 1:57
3rd: Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) @ 2:54
4th: Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) @ 2:56
5th: Denis Menchov (Rabobank) @ 3:37
6th: Emanuele Sella (CSF Group-Navigare) @ 4:31
7th: Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Silence Lotto) @ 6:30
8th: Danilo Di Luca (LPR Brakes) @ 7:15
9th: Domenico Pozzovivo (CSF Group-Navigare) @ 7:53
10th: Gilberto Simoni (Diquigiovanni-Androni) @ 11:03

June 2nd 2008

Johan Bruyneel proudly reflects on Astana’s Giro triumph. “It is often said that actions speak louder than words. Today I hope that the ASO takes firm notice of the actions of the Astana Professional Cycling Team, not just in our victory at the 2008 Giro d’Italia, but also how professionally we have conducted ourselves throughout the entire season. This is the proof. We have taken a team of riders and staff and under the most arduous of situations won one of the most important bike races in the world. I cannot be prouder of any of them, nor can I understand why we cannot be allowed to defend our title in the Tour de France.”

“No one in their right mind would think that a professional cycling team with one week’s notice could even participate in a Grand Tour, let alone come out on top. My hat is off to our whole team, and to all our staff that came together on such short notice to make this possible. As for our riders, well they saw opportunity where others saw no chance whatsoever. We will toast this victory tonight, not only for Alberto Contador, but for the Astana Team as a whole.”

June 3rd 2008

Alberto Contador talks about his happiness that he was called off the beach to race the Giro, and talks of his hopes to win the Vuelta, which would make him only the 5th rider in history to have triumphed in all three Grand Tours. “I am not so angry anymore that I can’t take part in the Tour,” Contador confessed, “Otherwise I never would have been able to ride the Giro and the Vuelta this year.I will do everything possible to win the Vuelta in September, but everyone has to realise that I can’t win everything.”

June 4th 2008

Kazakhstan and Astana come in for much praise from Contador and Bruyneel. “The country of Kazakhstan and the officials believed in this team and I am honoured to have the name “Astana,” the symbol of Kazakhstan, on the winning Giro d’Italia jersey. It made me happy to see Kazakh flags in the streets of Milano. This is nice as well for the festivities around the 10th anniversary of the city of Astana” purrs Contador, whilst Johan Bruyneel speaks of the national pride in the project.

“It is the mission of this team to foster national pride and I believe that the Giro d’Italia victory and the team’s 2008 successes are major milestones for the country. All Kazakhs should be filled with pride knowing they have the best stage racing team in the world. This team is extremely motivated to win and will continue to represent Kazakhstan with class.”

“I was touched as well by the support we got from fans from all over the world, many coming from Kazakhstan. The people there followed us. Kazakh television came to the Giro. The popularity of the sport will continue to grow there, and wasn’t that the big purpose of the sponsoring initiative of Minister Danial Akhmetov? When cycling sport in Kazakhstan continues to evolve like it does now, the Kazakh Cycling Federation and country President Nursultan Nazarbayev may maybe dream of a future Kazakh big Tour winner.”

The ASO however confirm that they will not be making any sort of last minute deal with Astana to let them race the Tour de France, a la the Giro. Contador is not impressed, stating “I only have the impression that they are punishing themselves and the cycling fans” before Astana spokesman Philippe Maertens confirms that Contador’s next race will be San Sebastian in August, as he prepares for the Olympics and the Vuelta.

June 6th 2008

Often referred to as the Tour de France light, The Dauphine Libere is Astana’s opportunity to race against the men who will be competing in the full fat version. In a mirror image of the Tour, the defending champion, Argitubel’s Christophe Moreau, is excluded from the race because his team is not invited. Alberto Contador was orginally down to take part, but due to his Giro triumph, Astana’s team will be Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, Daniel Navarro, Sergio Paulinho, Benjamin Noval, José Luis Rubiera and Tomas Vaitkus.

June 8th 2008

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Levi Leipheimer uses his Giro d’Italia form, which he claims has made him “[recover] better then I thought”, to best Credit Agricole’s Thor Hushovd by 1.42 seconds to win the 5.6km Dauphine Prologue. He unsurprisingly says his form is “better then when I went into the Giro” and he is immediately talked up as a possible winner.

He may however be slightly disappointed to learn that Team manager Johan Bruyneel would rather have brought Alberto Contador to the Dauphine, on the basis that he [Bruyneel] “would have preferred to win the Dauphiné Libéré with my 2007 Tour winner…less than a month before the start of the Tour I would have liked to rubbed it into to those guys [ASO] in Paris.”

June 11th 2008

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Leipheimer is defeated in the Dauphine’s long (well, 31km) TT, with Alejandro Valverde triumphing by 19 seconds. He will eventually finish third behind the Spaniard and Tour favourite Cadel Evans.

June 17th 2008

Alberto Contador confirms that he will target both the Olympic Road Race and Time Trial, saying “I will do the road race and the time trial. Certainly, the time trial is more to my liking, but the road race has a very difficult route and everyone will have a chance.” He will race the San Sebastian Classic before the Beijing Game.,

June 20th 2008

It is announced that Andrei Kashechkin will have his blood doping case heard next July (whether this refers to July 2008 or 2009 is unclear) by the Kazakh Cycling Federation, having supposed to have taken place in May only to be moved at Kashechkin’s request.

June 21st 2008

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After reports that Alexandre Vinokourov is planning a return to the sport, with his one year ban set to exceed in time to allow him to compete at the Beijing Olympics, UCI legal advisor Philippe Verbiest points out that “Should it appear that Vinokourov really is training for a comeback we will start up the appeal procedure again”, after the UCI abandoned its appeal to CAS at the length of Vinokourov’s ban after he announced his retirement. However, murmurings that the Kazakh is training for a comeback, not helped by his national federations coyness over whether it approves or not, are not being well received in many circles.

June 24th 2008

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Contador admits that he would rather attain the Grand Tour double of the Giro and Vuelta in the same year, and in doing become only the fifth rider in history to win all three Grand Tours, then win an Olympic medal, saying it “would be something more historic.” Asked about the Tour de France, he sighs “If I will see it will be from home or from the beach. … I am not going to have any envy, because the year is going on track, and with the Games and the Vuelta it could be a historic year.” He does succumb to naming Cadel Evans as his favourite for the race.

July 1st 2008

Alexandre Vinokourov breaks cover to deny the rumours that he has any plans for a comeback, claiming instead that he will only take up “”triathlon, but purely as a hobby.” Cycling is apparently not something Vinokourov has any interest in anymore, saying “Dope tests, the Tour, cycling in general… I don’t want to talk about that any longer,” before claiming he was “simply a scapegoat” for the ills of previous years.

July 2nd 2008

Lance Armstrong gives an interview in which he alleges that the decision to leave out Astana was not a “Alexandre Vinokourov decision” but a “Bruyneel-Armstrong Decision.”

“Let’s say we’d have brought in Oracle [as sponsors instead of Astana], and [the team included] Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong and the CSE management team, with Contador and Levi Leipheimer and all those guys,” says Armstrong,  “Astana would still be in the Tour de France, but Oracle would be out. This 2008 decision was not an anti-Alexandre Vinokourov-based decision. It was an anti-Bruyneel-Armstrong decision. They have double standards by keeping in the CSCs and the Rabobanks, all the guys that have a laundry list of problems.”

July 3rd 2008

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ASO President Patrice Clerc denies that the exclusion of Astana from the Tour has anything to do with lance Armstrong’s supposed “Bruyneel/Armstrong penalty” instigated because of a proposed dislike of the Belgian/American partnership and their domination of the Tour de France in recent years (Bruyneel ultimately now being the boss of Astana).

Patrice Clerc responds “We don’t have anything against Bruyneel and Armstrong at all. Bruyneel says that Armstrong was bigger than the Tour. I think that is a rather arrogant opinion. There is no man that is above an event or happening. A chapter can never be more important than its book.”

July 9th 2008

The core of the Spanish Olympic road race team is announced as comprising of Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Oscar Freire, along with Jose Ivan Gutierrez and Samuel Sanchez. Either Carlos Barredo or Carlos Sastre will receive the final berth depending on the results of the Tour de France.

July 21st 2008

Dirk Demol, the DS who worked at US Postal and Discovery Channel before moving to Quick Step when the latter disbanded, is rumoured to be reuniting with his old chums like Bruyneel by joining Astana for 2009.

July 22nd 2008

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Demol claims the suggestion is “unfounded”, but admits he turned down an offer to join the team in 2008, and “will see” after the Tour whether joining Bruyneel again is an option. Demol says “[Bruyneel]  always tells me that the door is open.”

Elsewhere, Lance Armstrong says he misses the Tour de France – “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the camaraderie of a team. Guys like George and of course Johan [Bruyneel] were really important parts of the whole day-to- day set up. But I had my time, and I had good run.”

July 26th 2008

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Astana terminate the contract of Russian rider Vladimir Gusev, citing “irregular values” picked up by the team’s internal anti-doping program run by Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard. In what is essentially an early biological passport case, Johan Bruyneel announces that “Though [Gusev’s] results do not indicate the use of forbidden substances, Vladimir’s values exceeded the normal parameters established by Dr. Damsgaard and were not compliant with the strict agreement signed by all thirty riders. Vladimir Gusev has been officially notified that he no longer represents Team Astana. Our Kazakh sponsors have also been made aware of this decision and are fully supportive.”

Bruyneel adds that “It’s impossible for any team manager to know the activities of riders behind closed doors, but we continue to enforce that Team Astana has a 100% no tolerance policy and any violators will serve the same fate as Vladimir. On a brighter note, this proves that Dr. Damsgaard’s system works and we are committed to racing clean.”

Gusev becomes the third rider in recent years to be fired for irregular blood values after former world champion Igor Astarloa and 2006 double TT Tour winner Serhiy Honchar.

July 27th 2008

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Carlos Sastre, the 33 year old Spaniard on CSC-Saxo Bank, wins the Tour de France, holding off Cadel Evans in the final time trial having built his lead with a all or nothing assault on Alpe d’Huez. Whilst his yellow clad teammate Frank Schleck, as well as race revelation Andy Schleck, aggravated the chase behind by varying the pace, Sastre gained the 2 minutes 15 seconds that would ultimately be enough for him to win the Tour de France.

Alberto Contador is pleased for his compatriot “I am glad that a rider like Sastre wins. He improves every year. Not spectacular, but efficient.”

July 31st 2008

Astana announce the re-sigining of eight riders, including Andreas Kloden, who says “I’m very happy to have the opportunity to continue my career with Team Astana and Johan [Bruyneel]. When I see the number of riders who have resigned for next year, it proves that we remain committed to this program, regardless of which races we are invited to participate in. We still have goals to achieve in 2008, but I’m already looking forward to next year.”

Bruyneel himself beams that “Over the last couple months, I’ve received many phone calls from riders on other teams who wanted to race next year for Team Astana.”

Astana thus have the following riders contracted for 2009: Assan Bazayev, Jani Brajkovic, Alberto Contador, Chris Horner, Maxim Iglinskiy, Roman Kireyev, Andreas Klöden, Berik Kupeshov, Levi Leipheimer, Steve Morabito, Dmitriy Muravyev, Daniel Navarro, Benjamín Noval, Sérgio Paulinho, Gregory Rast, Michael Schär, Tomas Vaitkus and Andrey Zeits.

August 1st 2008

The recently fired Vladimir Gusev announces his intention to sue Astana over his dismissal for “irregular values”, claiming the allegations are “unfounded.” “This important and serious decision taken by the treasonous team against me is unexpected and not correct,” says Gusev, “Since I adhered enthusiastically to the anti-doping rules within the team to work for a new credible cycling, and know that I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs, I wonder what may be the suspect values referred to in the communiqué of the team Astana.”

August 4th 2008

Alberto Contador reveals he is favouring the time trial over the Olympic road race. “I hope to arrive in good form, mainly for the time trial [August 13]. I would like to be able to be with the best and to play a good role in both events. Meanwhile, former Liberty Seguros rider Michele Scarponi makes his comeback, the first by a Puerto rider to do so, at the Giro de Appennino.

August 9th 2008

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With a team comprising the current Tour and Giro champions behind him, as well as a triple World Champion, Samuel Sanchez of Spain wins the Olympic Road Race ahead of Davide Rebellin and Fabian Cancellara, the latter of whom’s alarming strength to bridge to the lead group in the finale was arguably the start of the show. Selected Astana placings include:
11th, Levi Leipheimer.
44th, Andrey Mizourov
78th, Serguei Ivanov

August 13th 2008

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Swiss Fabian Cancellara wins the Olympic time trial, with Astana rider Levi Leipheimer taking the bronze medal. Alberto Contador is just 9 seconds behind in 4th. Another Astana rider, Andrey Mizourov, finishes 24th of the 39 finishers.

August 18th 2008 

The UCI announce a “world calender” to combine existing ProTour races with the monuments and Grand Tours, showing a thawing in the previously frosty relationship between the governing body and the major race organisers, the conflict between which had effectively led to the exclusion of Astana from the 2008 Tour de France.

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Euskatel-Euskkadi rider Haimar Zubeldia, who has three top 10 finishes in the Tour de France, is announced as an Astana rider for 2009.

Haimar is a perfect addition for our team,” Johan Bruyneel says “He’s a good time-trialist, can climb very well and will be an excellent all-around team-mate in the Grand Tours. A rider like Haimar who has finished in the top ten in numerous Grand Tours also has the ability to win some stages and races. He may be a veteran, but I think he has an exciting two years ahead of him with Team Astana.”

Zubeldia is full of praise for his new team. “The Astana Team is the best stage racing team in the world. I’ve always admired Johan Bruyneel’s teams and to race for him and the best riders is a special honour. I am thankful for the past eleven years, but I’m also excited for the new opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.”

August 26th 2008

Astana announce their Vuelta team as Contador expresses his desire to win. “I have been focused on this race for a number of months,” says Contador. “I’ve spent time with the rest of the team and I feel that we are prepared and motivated for the next three weeks. I am better prepared than I was for the Tour of Italy. Mentally, but technically as well. Right now we’re not looking too far ahead, but our goal is to win another Grand Tour for Kazakhstan.”

The team will take Assan Bazayev, Alberto Contador, Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, Dmitriy Muravyev, Benjamín Noval, Sérgio Paulinho, José Luis Rubiera and Tomas Vaitkus to the race. Chris Horner was originally down to take part, but injury had forced him out a couple of weeks previously.

August 30th 2008

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The Vuelta a Espana kicks off in Granada, with Liquigas winning the opening team time trial. Astana finish 8th over the 7.7km course, 14 seconds behind.

August 31st 2008

A story from the end of July is confirmed as Dirk Demol is found to be moving from Quick Step to Astana. “These kinds of decisions are never easy,” Demol says. “I joined this team at the beginning of the season with ambition and to test myself in a new environment. But in reality I was never 100% satisfied with myself. I felt like the kind of rider who’s always trying to find the right cadence even if I could count on a fantastic team and an interesting and inspiring competitive program.

Johan Bruyneel is happy to have got his man. “He has a wealth of cycling knowledge and experience and also has the ability to recognize young talent. Our Directors have done an excellent job this season and adding Dirk will only make us better in 2009.”

September 3rd 2008

VUELTA TAPPA 05 PREMIAZIONE LEIPHEIMER

The Vuelta’s opening GC battle is the 42.5km TT around Ciudad Real, and Astana are immediately up there, with Olympic Bronze Medalist Levi Leipheimer trumping his team leader Contador to win the stage by 12 seconds ahead of Sylvain Chavanel. Contador is 4th, 49 seconds down, whilst Andreas Kloden is 12th at 1.49

“I’ve been feeling very strong for the last couple of weeks, since the Olympics of course” says Leipheimer, who assumes the overall lead (again over Chavanel) by 2 seconds,  “It’s always an honour to win a stage in a Grand Tour, plus wear the leader’s jersey.”

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Contador doesnt seem quite so pleased, “I rode a regular time trial,” he says afterwards. “I could manage my output as I had the split times of Levi. In the end I lost some time, but I am happy with my position in the GC and more importantly, am feeling well.”

1st: Levi Leipheimer (Astana)
2nd: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) @ 2 seconds
3rd: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 30 seconds
4th: Tom Boonen (Quick Step) @ 32 seconds
5th: Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 47 seconds
64th: Andreas Kloden (Astana) @ 5:17

September 4th 2008

VUELTA TAPPA 06 CONTADOR E LEIPHEIMER

A six second split in the field as world champion Paolo Bettini wins the stage means that Leipheimer loses the leaders jersey to Sylvain Chavanel, who makes the 14 man split. Astana’s triple of Leipheimer/Contador/Kloden are all prominent at the front of the chasing pack. Time bonuses extend Chavanel’s lead further.

1st: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 10 seconds
3rd: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 26 seconds
4th: Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 57 seconds
5th: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 1:37

September 6th 2008

VUELTA TAPPA 07 CONTADOR SASTRE E RODRIGUEZ

On the mountain top finish to Andorra, which is surprisingly won solo by a massive 2.42 by noted (until today, anyway) non-climber Alessandro Ballan, Alberto Contador starts to make his move, losing only 3 seconds to Ezequiel Mosquera and gaining  a little time on everyone else, with 50 seconds gained over Alejandro Valverde the highlight. Ballan assumes the race lead.

Speculation that Leipheimer may be the Astana leader rather than simply Contador’s right hand man circulates after the American’s impressive form in the mountains sees him lose just 5 seconds to the Spaniard.

1st: Alessandro Ballan (Lampre)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 1:00
3rd: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) @ 1:26
4th: Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 1.34
5th: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 2:06

September 7th 2008

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“The Astana Show” is how the day is reported, although the day’s summit finish is actually won by David Moncoutie at Pla de Beret. Meanwhile, Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer work together after buring off Andreas Kloden and Jose Rubiera to move Leipheimer back into the leaders jersey, although Contador jumps away to tickle 5 seconds off his team mates advantage as well as secure a time bonus for finishing third on the stage, taking him to within 21 seconds of the lead.

“The only thing I regret is that again the time differences are so small,” moans Contador. “They could have been more substantial if Alejandro [Valverde] had cooperated a bit more with Igor Antón and me. I don’t understand why he didn’t do that. Also for him it was in his interest to gain more time on Carlos Sastre.”

VUELTA TAPPA 08 CONTADOR VALVERDE E ANTON

Despite returning to the leader’s jersey, Leipheimer insists that he is still working for Contador. “I just have to follow everyone right now as I am ahead in the classification, but in the end, Alberto will be the captain. The final climb yesterday and the final climb today were not so hard. They are not steep and that big time differences can’t be made. Although I’ve never seen the Angliru, I am convinced that the mountains in Asturias are another story…”

“It’s a long way to go,” adds Leipheimer. “Now we have the leader’s jersey and everybody will look to us to control. There’s a lot of work to do.”

1st: Levi Leipheimer (Astana)
2nd: Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 21 seconds
3rd: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 49 seconds
4th: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 1:27
5th: Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) @ 1:59

September 8th 2009

For the second time in the race, Leipheimer loses the golden jersey a day after gaining it, to Egoi Martinez, a former Joha Bruyneel rider, who is part of the winning breakaway. Martinez aknowledges as much, saying “I spent one year at Discovery Channel and I have to thank Johan Bruyneel for letting me take the jersey. I won’t win the Vuelta, Contador is the strongest rider out there.” His 11 second lead suggests as much. Leipheimer insists the team are looking at the big picture and conserving energy rather than attempting to lead the race for too long.

1st: Egoi Martinez (Euskatel Euskadi)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 11 seconds
3rd: Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 32 seconds
4th: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 1:00
5th: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 1:38

September 9th 2008

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Johan Bruyneel denies he has any further knowledge on rumours that Lance Armstrong, the seven time Tour de France winner who retired in 2005 after winning his final Tour riding for Bruyneel’s Discovery Channel squad. It is reported that Armstrong made comments to people at the German Eurobike bike show that he was planning to return to the sport in 2009 to undertake ” a limited racing schedule.” Armstrong had recently finished second in the Leadville 100 Mountain bike race, taking 6’47’41.

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Bruyneel says  “I don’t know where the rumours come from. Maybe [they arise] because Lance recently finished second in a 160km mountain bike race? He has been training for it and he is in good shape.” The rumours would seem to contradict statements made by Armstrong in July, where he pointed out that “had my time, and I had good run.”

Levi Leipheimer is asked about his one time ex-teammate (for a year at US Postal) possibly returning, and responds with a succinct “I dont think so.”

Astana are also supposedly unaware of the rumours “He is not part of our team,” press officer Philippe Maertens  “Team Astana has no plans with him. We know that Lance continued training hard after that mountain bike race.He will do some cyclo-cross races as well in the USA. I cannot tell you more, you better ask him.” Maertens admits rumours of an Armstrong return had been circulating for several weeks.

It is pointed out that should Armstrong return to competition, he would be required to be part of the anti-doping testing pool for 6 months prior to his first race. Given key events such as the Tour of California are scheduled for February, Armstrong does not have much time to announce his plans. USA Cycling confirm that the Tour winner had not yet requested a license.

September 10th 2008

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In a 45 second video, Lance Armstrong confirms the rumours that he is returning to professional cycling, saying “I am happy to announce that after talking with my children, my family and my closest friends, I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden.” It is rumoured that he will ride just five events: The Tour of California, Paris-Nice, the Tour de Georgia, the Dauphine Libere and the Tour de France.

Vanity Fair also publish an interview with Armstrong from August, demonstrating that the rumours were founded, where he elaborates that “I’m going back to professional cycling. I’m going to try and win an eighth Tour de France.” His age (He will be 37 in just over a week) is supposedly immaterial. “Ultimately, I’m the guy that gets up. I mean, I get up out of bed a little slow. I mean, I’m not going to lie. I mean, my back gets tired quicker than it used to and I get out of bed a little slower than I used to. But when I’m going, when I’m on the bike – I feel just as good as I did before.”

Indeed, age seems to be part of the reason why Armstrong has decided to return to the peloton. “Look at the Olympics. You have a swimmer like Dara Torres, who claimed silver. Even in the 50m freestyle, a 41-year-old mother proved you can do it. Constantina Tomescu-Dita won the marathon and she was 38. Older athletes are performing very well. Ask serious sports physiologists and they’ll tell you age is a wives’ tale.” Whilst this may be true, only one cyclist has ever won the Tour over the age of 34 – and that was in 1922, when Firmin Lambot won the event.

Doping is inevitably raised as an issue, to which Armstrong responds “There’s this perception in cycling that this generation is now the cleanest generation we’ve had in decades, if not forever, and the generation that I raced with was the dirty generation. I’ll be totally honest with you. The year that I won the Tour, many of the guys that finished second through to 10th are gone. Out. Caught. Positive tests. Suspended. Whatever. And so I can understand why people look at that and go, ‘well, they were caught – and you weren’t?’ So there is a nice element here where I can come with really a completely comprehensive program and there will be no way to cheat.”

Johan Bruyneel confirms that he has talked with Armstrong about his plans. “I spoke to Lance yesterday evening, and he confirmed that he wanted to make a comeback into professional cycling. I said to him, ‘there are a lot of things we have to talk about. If you are a professional cyclist I can’t imagine you would make a comeback with any other team.’ … I don’t know if Lance can come back at the highest level. He has been training and keeping in shape, it is different than riding at the highest professional level.”

It is assumed that Armstrong will jojn Bruyneel at Astana, not only because of their history but because Armstrong is contractually obliged to ride Trek bicycles, which are the steeds of choice for Astana. “I will talk to the sponsor today or tomorrow” is all Bruyneel will volunteer on the matter.

There are many reactions to the news:
Alberto Contador: “I was surprised by the news.But I think it is good news for the sport. It will bring some fans back. … Will I have problems being his teammate? No, what problems… If he returns I will open the door.”

Pat McQuaid: ““There’s nothing to stop him coming back – there is no administrative, legal or sporting issue to stop him. From the UCI’s point of view, he’s free to race. He can come back but the question is if he can return to the same level; maybe he doesn’t know that himself, maybe he just wants to see what he can do. He’ll probably never shut up the no-gooders but it might give him the opportunity to prove he can do it clean.”

McQuaid also confirms that Armstrong has been in the testing pool system “a couple of months” and so he would have been in the system the required six months “if he wanted to be racing by February.”

Mark Higgins (Armstrong’s spokesman): “The Tour is the intention, but we’ve got some homework to do over there. We’re not going to try to win second place.”

Bob Stapleton (Columbia owner): “I’m waiting to see what the facts and circumstances are. But the question for me is what is it all about? Is it about winning an 8th Tour, about progressing the sport, about something good to help the fight against cancer… but what’s the greater mission? If this is just about a return to glory that would be disappointing for me. I think Lance is going to pick and hire the team he wants – not the other way around! Being anything other than Johan or Astana is very unlikely. It doesn’t make any sense otherwise. It is much easier to go back and put together what he had.”

Jonathan Vaughters (Garmin-Slipstream manager and former teammate): “I’m not surprised to be honest. I mean he’s always been keeping fit and in shape. You could see that from the results he’s had recently. If anything I’m just curious as to how he’ll do and what level he can come back to. That’s the big question for me. Assuming he rides, I don’t think anyone can say how he’ll get on in the Tour next year. There will be barometers along the way with the smaller races that he’ll ride like Paris – Nice and the Dauphiné but one thing I’d bet on is that he certainly won’t suck during the Tour.”

George Hincapie: “I think it’s great. Without Lance, half the teams in the Tour probably wouldn’t be around. He’s done more than anyone for the sport especially in America and around the world.”

Mark Cavendish: “I hardly ever get star struck but I think if I saw Lance back in the bunch it may be one of the few times that I would be. I think having him back is big news for the older guys on the team. But, for me, I’ve never had the opportunity to race with Lance and I have no idea how good it would be to race with him. Obviously for some one like me, I was growing up in my cycling career just as he was starting to win the Tour de France. So yes, it is quite a special thing. I know that some of the other guys like George Hincapie are very excited about this.”

David Walsh (Author of LA Confidential): “In a rather curious way I’m not at all surprised that Lance has decided to come back. I remember vividly that during his string of Tour wins he said he wouldn’t care about what people thought about him once he’d retired from the sport. ‘I’ll be sitting on a beach drinking beers.’ Of course many people see him for a great champion and his work for cancer awareness is very laudable. However there are people, and I’d say it’s a growing amount, especially in the US, that don’t see him like that. They look at the allegations that L’Equipe placed on him and I’m sure that Lance has picked up on that swell of opinion. His feeling might be that he didn’t exist the sport in the way that he should have and that by coming back he can perhaps exit cycling in a better light. However, what this comeback won’t do is change the perceptions that I have and others have of the achievements he made during that run from 1999 to 2005.”

Jean-Rene Bernadeau (Bougues Telecom Manager): “I don’t know what to think of it. In any case, this kind of come-back does not fit into my view of the sport. Bernard Hinault would never have done this… With Armstrong, you get the impression that everything is easy: he stops for three years and then comes back as if nothing happened. That’s not how cycling works. Now, we can ask ourselves what the recipe is…. ”

Bernard Hinault: “Jeannie Longo is still there, and she’s almost 50 years old,” he commented. “Lance Armstrong has a lot of time in front of him, still. If I’m surprised at his comeback? Yes and no. Yes, because he had stopped the bike, and no, because he is not the first, nor will he be the last rider to attempt a come-back of this kind. Now, will he have the capacities to return to the highest level? I don’t know. We shall see at Paris-Nice. Personally, I was never tempted by a come-back during my time. Instead of taking up competition once again, I think it is better not to stop in the first place.”

Marc Madiot (Francais deux Jeus manager): “He is dedicated to the fight against cancer, that is fine. That’s good news. But I don’t know if taking up competition at the highest level is the best solution for it… It appears completely surrealistic to me. We will see, but right now I can’t imagine him winning the Tour de France again, or else the rest of them are all worthless… But before trying to win the Tour again, Lance Armstrong has to explain himself about what happened in 1999.”

Christian Prudhomme (TdF Director): “If his yet unknown team as well as himself comply with today’s much more severe anti-doping rules, then we will accept his participation. Armstrong’s victories have been tarnished by suspicions since 1999.To me, this return is one of pure challenge. There are very few sportsmen who succeeded a come-back like Michael Jordan. It’s a real challenge to come back after three years of retirement, even if he finished second in a mountain bike race recently. Moreover, there is his age. He will be 37 years old in one week. Now, you can always say that Raymond Poulidor came second in the Tour at the age of 38 years (in 1974), and third (in 1976) when he was 40. Still, it is now mid-September and a lot of things will be happening until the start of the next Tour de France in Monaco.”

Eusebio Unzue (Caisse d’Epargne manager): “I don’t think it will be bad for the sport. As for his return, I don’t really know… He is quite a personality and a bit of a notoriety.No. I don’t think he can [win another Tour]. It will be very difficult after being away four years from the activity of a professional cyclist. It’s clear that he can do great things, but to win the Tour? Of course, he is the man of the records… Maybe that will be another one – the eighth Tour at age 37!”

In un-Armstrong related news, the Vuelta continues through some transition stages, where Bruyneel comments the race is the “major objective” of the season, as well as claiming that “the team [Astana] [has] been reorganised completely, even though some people didn’t want to see it.” He also stipulates that “Alberto is the leader of the team” despite the Spaniard still sitting behind Levi Leipheimer. He elaborates “If the logic is respected, he is the best climber. The Angliru is very steep, in theory it should be good for him. But it’s always good to have a second guy up there.”

September 11th 2008

ALBERTO CONTADOR AND EGOI MARTINEZ ON STAGE TWELVE OF THE 2008 TOUR OF SPAIN

Alberto Contador pulls another 4 seconds out of his major rivals at the Vuelta after getting away with four exemplary Italians (stage winner Bettini, Davide Rebellin, Damiano Cunego and Alessandro Ballan) to further close the gap to Leipheimer, whilst Alejandro Valverde concedes three minutes after falling with 50km to go.

There is some controversy over whether teams (namely Euskatel and Astana) took advantage of Valverde’s fall, with Caisse manager Eusebio Unzue saying “they took advantage of the situation to attack.” Astana are quite pleased with themselves, with Contador stating “Of course I’m glad that we could take time back on Valverde – I don’t understand how he could be so inattentive but that’s cycling. You have to be at the front of the race. I am happy, and happy as well with the work of my team. They all worked so hard. Because of their work today they have been able to make a time difference with Valverde that gives me peace of mind.”

1st: Egoi Martinez (Euskatel-Euskadi)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 11 seconds
3rd: Alberto Contador (Astana) @ 29 seconds
4th: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 1:38
5th: Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) @ 2:10
Meanwhile, the news of Lance Armstrong’s comeback continues to make the news, with potential teammates making their thoughts knows. New signing Haimar Zubeldia says “My decision to sign with Astana would have been the same [even if Armstrong joined Astana] The news is very surprising, but everybody is free to do what he wants. We have to respect his decision, as he surely thought it over a lot.” Chechu Rubiera reveals he may not retire as planned at the end of the year, as he would be quite keen to ride with Armstrong again. “I  enjoyed the best years of my career with Armstrong and if he’s coming back, I might want to be around to see that.”

September 13th 2008

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The Vuelta’s most feared stage up the gruesomely steep Angrilu climb, the 12.5km of which average 10.1% including 24% pitches towards the end of the climb, sees the GC thoroughly shaken up by an Astana assault. Andreas Kloden and Chechu Rubiera guides their leaders over the early difficulties before Levi Leipheimer begins thinning out the pack, dropping Carlos Sastre with 6km to go, at which point Alberto Contador dances away, albeit briefly with Alejandro Valverde, to win the stage and take the golden leaders jersey, having put 58 seconds into third placed Leipheimer.

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“I was targeting this climb. It’s the most mythical climb in Spain. It was a spectacle with all the fans… and I think Levi did great as well,” says Contador after his ascension, I am very happy with the atmosphere on the climb today. It was very important for cycling, for the Vuelta and above all for Spanish cycling. It was a great spectacle. Cycling isn’t dead yet!”

1st: Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 1:07
3rd: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 3:01
4th: Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) @ 4:19
5th: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 4:40

September 14th 2008

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After winning in the white combined classification jersey yesterday, Alberto Contador doubles up in the Golden leader’s jersey today by winning a second stage atop the Fuentes de Invierno. Whilst he only wins by 2 seconds (again from Leipheimer, who pushes Ezequiel Mosquera, who surprisingly pulled most of the way up the climb, to third), it essentially confirms his triumph at all three Grand Tours.

“”I was not thinking of the stage victory, I just wanted to get more time on my rivals,” says Contador, who gained 20 seconds on Carlos Sastre and a minute on Alejandro Valverde. “At the end of the day, the stage victory is always nice. I am very calm even though there is still a week to go in the race.”

ALBERTO CONTADOR ATTACKS ON STAGE FOURTEEN OF THE 2008 TOUR OF SPAIN

The win, Astana’s third of the Vuelta after Leipheimer’s TT victory and Contador’s Angrilu escapade, is mildly overshadowed by a spat with Ezequiel Mosquera, who moans that Astana “let other do the work but don’t let them win.”

1st: Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 1:17
3rd: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 3:41
4th: Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) @ 4:35
5th: Robert Gesink (Rabobank) @ 5:49

September 15th 2008

Details of Lance Armstrong’s plans continue to emerge, with suggestions he hopes to compete all over the world in order to raise money for his cancer charity, LiveStrong, with this work taking precedence over his theories eighth Tour victory.

“The most important issue is taking the global epidemic of cancer really to a much bigger stage,” explains Armstrong. “The best way to do that is to race the bike all over the world. So you race in Australia, South Africa, South America, Europe, America, um… that is the first priority. ”

What’s important is that we take the Livestrong message to all the other countries in Europe, all the other continents around the world, that’s the most important thing. At the end of the day, as I’ve said, we’ve had an impact in Texas, we’ve had an impact in the US and I think we’ll have an impact around the world.”If people can’t sit back and appreciate that and applaud it, I don’t know what they’re going to applaud. That’s my first priority.”

Armstrong also backtracks on the idea that another Tour win is a required part of his comeback. “It’s be a mistake to say I’m coming back to win an eighth Tour; I don’t need an eighth Tour.”

The idea of racing in Australia, presumably at the Tour down Under, raises the question of whether Armstrong would be allowed at the event – it would fall inside the 6th month pooled testing window.

The issue of what team Armstrong would be riding for also arises, as if his objective is the visibility of his cancer charity, a new team would surely be preferable. As Cyclingnews points out, racing in an Astana jersey is not going to get his message out there as effectively as one embossed with Livestrong livery. However, assembling a new team is a tricky buisness, and Astana looks to be the best fit for the American. Asked if he might join the squad, he says “No Idea. I’ve said that all along; [Contador] is the best cyclist in the sport. That’s why he should have been in the Tour de France this year. [The Vuelta’s] not on TV so it’s hard to watch; I just follow the results online and clearly their team is the best. Levi [Leipheimer] is the second strongest but they have a long ways to go. There are a lot of steps to figure out before that.”

On doping, Armstrong says “We will have a comprehensive anti-doping program that will leave no doubt, if I’m successful. But I can not reiterate enough: nothing will change. In 2009, nothing will change from 2001. I never cheated. I’m not going to cheat in ’01; I’m not going to cheat in ’09. That’s not going to change.” He also has a sly dig at Carlos Sastre, asking why it is not inferred that he is part of the “old generation.”

September 19th 2008

Jose Luis “Chechu” Rubiera signs on for another year at Astana. “I am very glad that Chechu decided to continue,” commented team manager Johan Bruyneel. “Chechu proved this year that he is important for the team. In Murcia he even won a stage. Chechu is not used. On the contrary. We need him as a team captain. His role is to guide the team on the road and to share his experience with all young riders of our team.”

Contador admits to feeling the pressure. “I was considered the favourite number one.When I was training in July and August I sensed that I could win the Vuelta.”

He also compares the three Grand Tours for their courses and their impact on him “It’s true that the Tour de France victory impacted me and probably brought me the most joy. After all, it changed my life.” But number two and three are not far behind. “In the Giro, I will never forget the tifosi. The Vuelta has steeper climbs compared to the Tour. There was a lot of spectacle this year.” As for the Giro it wasn’t so much the parcours that stood out for him. “It was really, really cold this year in Italy.”

September 21st 2008

After a succession of sprints and breakaways, the Vuelta reaches the final GC stage – the final time trial. Levi Leipheimer wins, putting 31 seconds into the second placed Alberto Contador. This means that Contador leads Leipheimer by 46 seconds going into the final day – oddly enough, 46 seconds is the amount of time bonuses that Contador had accumulated over his American teammate. meaning that in theory, without them, the two are on exactly the same time. Whilst looking back at the rounding for the time trials reveals that Contador was still the quicker around the 20 stages by fractions of a second, Levi Leipheimer is inevitably asked whether he could have won the Vuelta is he had been in different circumstances.

I had no pressure. [Contador] had a lot of pressure in this race. He is Spanish, it’s the Tour of Spain. It’s impossible to say [if I could have won]. He deserves the victory. I never though about winning the Vuelta [today]. I wanted to win the stage” he diplomatically says. He also declares his intention to win the World Championship time trial, and boasts that the 1-2 by Astana shows they are “the best team in the world.”

Contador is less pleased, despite finishing second on the stage. “Today my form wasn’t like I wanted it to be. I realised fighting for the stage win was difficult, so I just wanted to secure my lead in the overall classification. When you suffer, all kinds of thoughts go through your head. My teammate [Leipheimer] was very strong. I was close to my limits, but I also think that when things are difficult you can enjoy the victory even more. I think today we will have a special dinner, not just the usual pasta and fish…But tomorrow we will do the real fiesta.”

He  admits to feeling the pressure of the race. “I was considered the favourite number one.When I was training in July and August I sensed that I could win the Vuelta.”

He also compares the three Grand Tours for their courses and their impact on him “It’s true that the Tour de France victory impacted me and probably brought me the most joy. After all, it changed my life.” But number two and three are not far behind. “In the Giro, I will never forget the tifosi. The Vuelta has steeper climbs compared to the Tour. There was a lot of spectacle this year.” As for the Giro it wasn’t so much the parcours that stood out for him. “It was really, really cold this year in Italy.”

1st: Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 46 seconds
3rd: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 4:12
4th: Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacebeo Galicia) @ 5:19
5th: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 6:00

September 22nd 2008

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Riding into Madrid in the Golden jersey as the race winner (and with the combination classification wrapped up as well), Alberto Contador, at 25, becomes the fifth rider in history to complete the Grand Tour career triple after Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi. Contador also becomes the third man in history to win the Giro/Vuelta double, after Eddy Merckx in 1973 and Giovanni Battaglin in 1981. Contador completed the feat of winning all three Grand Tours in just 14 months – indeed, between July 29th 2007 and today, just 421 days have elapsed.

Contador thus wins Astana’s third Grand Tour, and their second Vuelta, and certainly thr Grand Tour under which they faced the highest pressure, as Contador was not only the outstanding favourite, but had to deal with the diverting of attention away to Lance Armstrong and his comeback. The team’s triumph is made all the more impressive by Levi Leipheimer’s second place and two stage wins, although the team are only 4th in the team classification.

In the last hour there is still a chance of a crash,” says a happy Contador. “I am very content, also for all the fans and for all of Spain. The last few days the fans were really cheering. There was some tension for me but now life is good…”

Andreas Kloden is happy with his performance, despite finishing ‘only’ 20th overall. “I am proud to be part of the team and to have contributed to the victory with my own work,” he says “Alberto Contador is a great rider and it is fun to ride with him in one team. I really haven’t had that much in a while during a race, both on and off the course.”

Final GC
1st: Alberto Contador (Astana)
2nd: Levi Leipheimer (Astana) @ 46 seconds
3rd: Carlos Sastre (CSC-SaxoBank) @ 4:12
4th: Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacebeo Galicia) @ 5:19
5th: Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 6:00
6th: Joaquim Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne) @ 6:50
7th: Robert Gesink (Rabobank) @ 6:55
8th: David Moncoutie (Cofidis) @ 10:10
9th: Egoi Martinez (Euskatel Euskadi) @ 10:57
10th: Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre) @ 11:56

September 24th 2008

The first rumblings of a leadership battle begin at Astana, all though one of the men involved, Lance Armstrong, isn’t even sure to be joining the team yet. Alberto Contador however asserts his credentials to be the number one man if the American did arrive. “I think I’ve earned the right to be the leader of a team without having to fight for my place,” he says, “And with Armstrong some difficult situations could arise in which the team would put him first and that would hurt me.”

Armstrong is strongly linked to be joining Astana,  and Danial Akhmetov, who is Kazakhstan’s cycling federation chief, comments that “He is a great cyclist and he is also a great humanitarian and that makes him a perfect fit for our team.” Perhaps the oddest move of the day is Patrick Lefervere’s admission that he is trying to sign Armstrong for his Quick-Step team. Lefevere, who is currently having a spat with double World Champion Paolo Bettini and has jus tsigned Stefan Schumacher, says “It seems unrealistic, but it’s worth a try. There are still no concrete talks, but I have contacted the office of Bill Stapleton. My two main sponsors, Quick Step and bicycle manufacturer Specialized, are in American hands. For them, Armstrong is very attractive. Even if he doesn’t win the Tour, it would still have gigantic advertising return.” Lefevere seems to have forgotten that Armstrong has a life long deal with Trek bicycles.

Armstrong announces that he will return to racing at the Tour Down Under in January 2009, with South Australia Premier Mike Rann explaining “The Tour Down Under’s Race Director Mike Turtur first approached Lance Armstrong’s management earlier this year to discuss the possibility of a guest appearance by Lance for the 2009 Tour Down Under. No doubt cycling fans will take this unique opportunity to see the greatest ever cyclist competing in Australia and I fully expect this to bring even greater benefits to South Australia.”

This immediately raises the problem of the testing pool, as the 6 month probationary period would mean Armstrong would not be able to race until after the Adelaide event.

September 25th 2008

Armstrong talks at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City, where he again starts belittling his chances of an eighth Tour success. “I’ve been off the bike for three years and next summer it will be almost four years. With that is also the fact that I’ll be almost 38 years old at the start of the 2009 Tour, so I don’t know. I will try and be as prepared as possible. I don’t know if that equals victory.”

Armstrong also announces that he will return with Johan Bruyneel’s Astana squad. “We looked at other teams and talked to other teams, but as a friend and a partner with Bruyneel, I couldn’t imagine racing against him or without him.” On the potential for a leadership battle, Armstrong is diplomatic – “I think there’s room for all of us on that team. As he just proved at the Vuelta, Alberto is the best rider on the planet right now. We have to respect that. I’m not sure I can ride that fast anymore. I hope it works out. If he has other offers and he wants to go somewhere else or go to a Spanish team, perhaps, that’s his decision, but I would encourage him to give this situation an opportunity and I would look forward to racing with him.”

The creation of an independent anti-doping system supervised by Don Catlin, from which Armstrong says he will publish his data, as well as an under 23 team, Trek-Livestrong (unconnected to Astana) headed by 18 year old Taylor Phinney, are also announced.

Former World Anti Doping Agency director Dick Pound is not particularly pleased at Lance’s return. “With his comeback not all doping accusations go away” he quips, adding that, of Armstrong’s anti-doping scheme, “As long as there is no WADA or IOC accredited lab created, his plan is irrelevant.”

September 26th 2008

The Tour of California is officially booked on the Armstrong schedule, with the Tour of Georgia also expressing their welcome to him. Armstrong has a “chat” with Greg Lemond about his drug testing programme at the Interbike show, with Lemond asking for analysis of factors such as power spikes that Don Catlin says “are not my area.”

Elsewhere, their is speculation that Alberto Contador may be looking for ways out of Astana, which he pseudo-confirms in an interview with Marca, the Spanish Sports Paper. “As of today, I see no problem to be with Armstrong.” Contador says, before clarifying “We have to wait and see what the objectives of Armstrong are … and if Bruyneel counts on him for the Tour. If I am not content, I will leave.”

“Everybody knows that Lance has a lot of character and controls everything. I do not want to see my objectives slowed down by his [Armstrong’s] arrival. If I don’t have the security that the team will pull for me, I will leave. I have many offers of ProTour teams.”

it is assumed that Caisse d’Epargne would be Contador’s ideal team, although the notion of being denied a clean shot a the Tour de France for the second year in a row would arguably just be transferred to the team, given Alejandro Valverde is still there.

September 28th 2008

The UCI points out that riders who wish to return to racing have a financial problem hanging over their heads – they are required to pay a years salary after signing a letter agreeing to this if they tested positive. This would effect any comeback by Alexandre Vinokourov, for example. “If they want to come back [to racing], they will have to fulfil their commitment” says Pat McQuaid.

The UCI’s six month testing pool rule is also being examined carefully. It states “A rider who has given notice of retirement from cycling to the UCI may not resume competing at international level unless he notifies the UCI at least six months in advance before he expects to return to international competition and is available for unannounced out of competition testing at any time during the period before actual return to competition.”

This would prevent Armstrong racing the Tour down Under, a she registered on September 8th with USADA, giving a date of February 1st as the earliest he could race. He would have had to inform the UCI by July 20th of his intention to return, something McQuaid is not sure about “We have to look into that. I am not sure what the exact dates are that he started the program” the Irishman says.

September 30th 2008

cipox

Mario Cipollini becomes an unlikely saviour for Lance Armstrong. The Italian had come out of retirement to race with Michael Ball’s Rock Racing team at the Tour of California in February, and as Armstrong says “This rule did not apply to him.” Armstrong also confirms he officially registered with the UCI on August 1st 2008, but says he had conversations with Pat McQuaid about a comeback “sometime in July.” He nonetheless insists he is “not asking for any exceptions.”

Australian Tourism chiefs are also not exactly enamored with the rule. “We are hopeful that common sense will prevail and Lance Armstrong will race in the Tour Down Under” they announce.

Armstrong postulates some race plans for if he is unable to race in Australia, and also expresses a desire to ride the Giro d’Italia. “After four or five years off, it would be nice to do a race before Tour of California. If it’s technically not possible [to ride the Tour Down Under] the alternate plan is to do a training camp and Tour of California, but there are always other races. I could do Tour of Qatar…Not participating in the Tour of Italy [in my career] is a regret of mine. I would like to do it this year, especially for the 100-year anniversary.”

Asked how this would affect his Tour goals, Armstrong says “It depends how you race the Giro. If you go to the Giro and race as hard as you can, you might not recover in time for the Tour. Part of this is me needing some more race days than I would normally get in other years.”

October 1st 2008

Former Tour de France boss Jean Marie LeBlanc expresses misgivings about the return of Armstrong. “We former riders generally have respect for winners, but that’s not always the case with the public and above all the media who have heavy suspicions about you. It seems that you want to collect funds for your foundation into cancer research. That’s a laudable intention of course, but was it necessary to get out your jersey and racing shorts given the revenue your conferences make in the United States? They’re also saying you haven’t been overly impressed with the victories of your former rivals – [Oscar] Pereiro, [Alberto] Contador and [Carlos] Sastre – and that at 37 the challenge doesn’t seem insurmountable; and that is something we can understand.”

The last comment relates to Armstrong’s supposed reason for a return being the reducing average speed of the Tour de France victories, especially that of Carlos Sastre, and thus believing that he would be able to challenge.

October 2nd 2008

Johan Bruyneel claims that the media is “looking to pit these two riders [Armstrong and Contador] against each other”, and claims Armstrong would be happy to work for Contador. “At the end of the day, the strongest rider will be supported, regardless of that person’s name or what they’ve accomplished in the past,” he says, “[Lance] knows that the decisions are made in the team car and he understands the philosophy – the same one we’ve always had – we work for the strongest rider. This is not the first time that big names have all been on the same team. It has worked out in the past and I’m confident for the same in 2009.”

Contador is still not entirely placated however, saying “Knowing Lance, it’s clear to me that he will not ride the Tour as a gregario. And to me, there is no plan B. There is no other race for me than the Tour de France next year.”

Speculation Contador could jump ship is put to bed by Bruyneel, who says “[Contador] will remain with this team for the next two years. Actually, it’s pretty simple – there’s a contract and there are no options to leave.

Having been asked the previous day whether he would like his 1999 Tour samples retested by the French Anti-Doping Authority (AFLD), Lance Armstrong refuses, saying “There is simply nothing that I can agree to that would provide any relevant evidence about 1999.” The samples, which L’Equipe had claimed in 2005 were positive for EPO, were offered to be retested to “enable the cyclist Lance Armstrong to dispel any unfounded rumours” according to the AFLD.

Astana also announce some new signings in Jesus Hernandez, one of Contador’s training partners, and four Kazakh neo-pros, presumably to appease the sponsors. The riders contracted to Astana for 2009 are thus: Lance Armstrong, Assan Bazayev, Jani Brajkovic, Alberto Contador, Valeriy Dmitriyev, Jesús Hernández, Chris Horner, Maxim Iglinskiy, Valentin Iglinskiy, Roman Kireyev, Andreas Klöden, Berik Kupeshov, Levi Leipheimer, Steve Morabito, Dmitriy Muravyev, Daniel Navarro, Benjamín Noval, Sérgio Paulinho, Bolat Raimbekov, Gregory Rast, Sergey Renev, José Luis Rubiera, Michael Schär, Tomas Vaitkus, Andrey Zeits and Haimar Zubeldia.

October 4th 2008

Jan Ullrich says he believes Armstrong can win the Tour again. “I think it is possible that he can win again in France. He has a great life and great women, but it doesn’t fulfil him. He finds his fulfillment in sport. If he meets the challenge mentally, then his body will also meet it.” Ullrich says he will not be making any sort of comeback to face his great rival.

October 5th 2008

Despite claiming he wanted nothing more to do with cycling in July, Alexandre Vinokourov, not all to unpredictably, says that he hopes to make a comeback to the sport and join up with his old Astana team. He has technically finished his one year suspension, although the UCI dropped their attempt to get the ban extended to two years after Vinokourov retired.

Now however, Vinokourov tells Belgian TV  “I think I have my place at Astana” before announcing “My first goal is the Giro.” He elaborates that “I want to return because I don’t want it to end this way. I built my image and career bit by bit and I don’t want it to stop this way.”

He claims he could only ride for Astana as  “my fans would find it strange if I rode somewhere else. The team was made for me because I wanted to win the Tour.” Astana claim they have had no contact with Vinokourov and thus have no comment on the matter. The Kazakh minister for sport, Anatoliy Kulnazarov, claims Vinokourov would make his comeback with Astana.

The UCI are quick to point out “There is no way he comes back until he agrees on the two-year suspension,” reminding Vinokourov that “The UCI had a case pending with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which we only withdrew because he announced he was retiring.”

Armstrong has some choice words for his detractors elsewhere. “The last time I checked I won the tour seven straight years and was never once found to be guilty of doping despite seven years of intense scrutiny. Not to mention that my team of 25 riders over those seven years was also never found to be positive. We won clean and fair. Also, according to industry standards, TV ratings, worldwide media impressions, spectators along the route, and global sponsorships were at an all time high. Where’s the embarrassment in that?”

Armstrong also claims that “Nobody ever said that I need the Tour de France in order to try and achieve this. It comes down to an issue of distraction, while I love the event and France’s people, I cannot accept this sort of grandstanding which distracts from the Livestrong message that is urgently needed, and being sought out, in many other places around the world.”

October 9th 2009

The UCI release a statment allowing Lance Armstrong to race at the Tour Down Under, despite it’s own anti-doping rules technically preventing the American from racing for a further week after the event. The statement reads:

“The aim of Article 77 at the time of its introduction in 2004 (to ensure that a rider returning to competition is subject to the same degree of testing as active riders) can be better achieved through careful application of the current methods of the anti-doping programme than by the strict application of a time period. The UCI can confirm that Lance Armstrong has and will be the subject of very strict monitoring throughout the period running up to his return to the peloton.”

“This decision has been made after a careful assessment of the situation, taking into account both the applicable regulations and the imperatives of the fight against doping which is the UCI’s number one priority.”

October 10th 2008

Rudolf Scharping, head of the German Cycling Federation, claims it was a “mistake” to bend the rules to allow Astana rider Armstrong back into the peloton. “In these times, everyone should strictly obey the rules” he says.

October 11th 2008

Alberto Contador comments on the various changes coming to Astana for 2009.

On Armstrong’s place, he says.”If Lance says he returns it is because he will be at a very competitive level and especially if he is in the Tour de France. I am very calm in that regard.”

He seems somewhat calmer on the possible return of previous team stalwart Alexandre Vinokourov: “For me it is not a problem that Vinokourov returns. Honestly, his return has surprised me.”

The signing of Jesus Hernandez seems to bring out a rsponse in Contador that infers he does not trust everyone at Astana “He [Hernandez] is in good form and a man I can really trust, although I don’t want to complain about the great teammates that I count on and had counted on with Astana. They have worked very well for me.”

Contador goes on to clarify that his major reason goal is the Tour de France, although he has mapped out a season plan for 2009. “At my age, I can’t continue to do great efforts like this season, with the Giro and the Vuelta even though I had great results. I don’t want to think about not starting the 2009 Tour de France. Astana is the strongest team in the peloton and it has to be at the best race. I will prepare the best I can for it. I will start with the Challenge de Mallorca [February], which is a race that suits me well [that early in the season]. Afterwards, I will do the Vuelta a la Comunidad Valenciana, Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Castilla y León.”

The Spaniard admits he technically has a cancellation clause in his Astana contract, but says it “isn’t advisable” and that he will “stay with Astana. I think it is the best option [for now]”

October 13th 2008

if the Giro thought they achieved a coup in 2008 by attracting the reigning Tour champion, albeit at the 11th hour, they achieved an even greater one today by announcing that they had landed the participation of Lance Armstrong at the race. Angelo Zomegnan says he had invited Armstrong on September 29th, and is excited that “No other past cycling great denied himself participation in the Giro.”

Armstrong himself seems delighted with the idea, stating in an interview with race newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport “I can’t wait until May, I am so excited to be coming to the 2009 Giro d’Italia. I raced a long time professionally and I never did the Giro. It is one of the biggest regrets I ever had. Fortunately for myself, I get to erase this regret and be there at the 100-year anniversary and, who knows, maybe with a good result. I am looking forward to seeing you all [the Italian tifosi] and arrivederci.’

October 14th 2008

Astana and Armstrong’s Giro plans are picked apart by various people, although Zomegnan is more positive. “It is another step ahead in the internationalisation of the Giro d’Italia and gives further value to the Giro” he beams, adding “It is important for Armstrong because he likely had a regret that he never participated. He is the only one that can win the centenarian Giro after he won the centenarian Tour.”

Armstrong himself seems to have almost done a U-Turn on his plans to ride the Tour de France, now claiming that he may not even ride it in favour of the Giro. “I have no experience with this race [The Giro]… I certainly will come here to try to win it. It is possible that the Giro will be the only three-week race I will do.”

He claims that the speculation over whether he might win or not is a negative effect on his comebacks stated goal.” Everybody knows about its importance but there are the problems with the organisers, journalists and fans. This could be detracting from my main goal, the global awareness of the fight against cancer.

Meanwhile, Jan Ullrich, commenting on his former teammate Vinokourov’s proposed return, states that this will cause even more problems at an already leader heavy Astana. “I think it is right that ‘Vino’ comes back, because everyone deserves a second chance, but I can imagine, that there could be problems within the team. In my eyes, Contador should be the leader. It wouldn’t be right to set Armstrong ahead of Contador.” He also says he believes that Vinokourov should be allowed back into Astana as “after all he helped bring the team to life. Those are his people.”

October 19th 2008

Alberto Contador confirms he will stay with Astana in 2009, despite the impending arrival of juggernaut Lance Armstrong. “I have analyzed the situation and my alternatives and after a meeting with my director Johan Bruyneel to discuss what’s happened in recent months and what has been published in the media, we have dismissed any tensions between us.”

October 20th 2008

Only just over a week since he suggested it would not be a problem if Alexandre Vinokourov returned to the team, Alberto Contador now has reservations. “It has the possibility of creating a lot of controversy, but for the moment it’s early to tell. We must wait for the UCI’s decision on the matter and obey its decision” he says of his former teammate (2006), before commenting on Armstrong’s proposed Giro participation. “I believe that Lance has made a good decision in riding the Giro,” says Contador. “I had the luck to go there and it gave me the opportunity to enjoy the Italians’ warmth and I believe that Lance will also enjoy it. Besides, he will have serious chance of winning. I do not know if he will be the number one favourite, but if there were wagers I would bet on him.”

Speaking of Armstrong and the Giro, 2004 winner Damiano Cunego admits he is concerned about Armstrong’s presence at the race. “Ivan Basso? Armstrong gives me more fear” says the Italian. “We all know Armstrong and his palmarès – seven Tours. If he comes to the Giro he will be the number one favourite. He will not come here for a vacation; he will be here to win.”

October 22nd 2008

2009tour

The 2009 Tour de France route in unveiled in Paris, with the most international Tour in years building to a crescendo the day before Paris with a summit finish atop the ominous Mount Ventoux. If Lance Armstrong takes part, he will make his return in the Principality of Monaco, before taking in Spain, Andorra, Swtizerland and Italy along the way.

The route features just three summit finishes: in order, at Andorra Arcalis, Verbier and Mont Ventoux, and the mountain stages seemed designed to neutralise time gains so that the race boils down to the Saturday afternoon before Paris on the Giant of Provence. The TTT makes a welcome return however, which, in a team that includes Armstrong, Contador, Leipheimer and Kloden, will set Astana tongues wagging.

The stage is set for a dream of a landmark finale, exactly twenty years after the most extraordinary final in the history of the tour. Never, in over one hundred years, has a mountain been so close to Paris,” says Christian Prudhomme of his hopeful masterstroke, reversing the traditional final mountain stage and final time trial. Prudhomme also keeps the rule of their being no time bonuses in the race, ensuring that the race is decided “on real time.”

The reaction from Johan Bruyneel is one of pleasure. “It’s for a strong rider, it’s that simple. All the typical ingredients are there, with the mountains, the time trials and the addition of Ventoux. The strongest rider wins every Tour and I can’t see this being any different. With regards to our invitation, I’ve not had any indication that we won’t be allowed to race next year. In fact we signed an agreement with the teams that promises we’ll be at the start. Alberto comes for sure, but we’re not sure about Lance [Armstrong] yet. But you have to know that the reason he’s coming back is due to his mission on cancer. We can’t say for sure about the Tour until we see how he goes in his first races at the Tour Down Under and the Tour of California. At this moment we’ll design a programme to get him ready for the Giro d’Italia.”

Armstrong changes his tune once more, leaving the door open to participating in the event. “The route of the 2009 Tour de France strikes me as innovative and very interesting,” said Armstrong. “From its start in Monte Carlo with a 15km time trial, to the reinstatement of the team time trial, to stages in my old hometown of Girona all the way to another visit to my old friend the Ventoux, I could not have hoped for a different Tour.”

Ventoux is of course a mountain that Armstrong had never won on, with the controversy still raging as to whether he let Marco Pantani win or not at the top of the mountain.

Armstrong is also coy on who the teams leader would be if he did ride the Tour. “It is illogical to pre-select a leader for any race in October of the previous year. We are blessed at Astana to have the strongest team in the world and I look forward to riding with all of these great riders. I have been around long enough to know that cycling is a team sport and I am fully committed to supporting the strongest rider in any race. Whether that’s me, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer or Andreas Klöden.”

Contador has other ideas of course, given he has declared the Tour as his goal for 2009. “Just like every year, it looks like a Tour for a complete rider” is about the most interesting thing he manages to say about the route.

Ultimately, the 2009 Tour looks to be designed to build tension, with the man in yellow at the foot on the Ventoux not necessarily the same man as it will be at the top. Coupled with a potential leadership battle at Astana, as well as of course all the other contenders such as young Andy Schleck, hopefully third time lucky Cadel Evans and defending champion Carlos Sastre to come into play, it should be a fascinating event.

October 24th 2008

Christian Prudhomme confirms that Lance Armstrong will receive no special treatment during his return, although of course Armstrong has not confirmed his Tour de France start, only saying he will ride the Giro. “It’s up to the invited teams to determine their riders,” Prudhomme says, “[Armstrong] indicated that his main objective would be the Giro d’Italia, which will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. It’s for him to see if he can do the Tour afterwards.”

October 28th 2008

Alberto Contador states that he will not defend his Giro d’Italia crown, leaving the door open to a Lance Armstrong assault on the corsa rosa. He leaves it open as to whether or not he will return to the Vuelta in 2009. “After winning the Giro and Vuelta this year, I’ll return to the Tour to try to win,” he explains “I will not participate in the Giro. Last year I did, but I had more trouble recovering late in the season. The one goal I will sacrifice 100 per cent for is the Tour.”

November 4th 2008

 

Armstrong and Contador fly to San Diego for some (basically PR) wind tunnel testing with Trek and Giro in order to work on their positions for the upcoming 2009 season.

November 10th 2008

Gilberto Simoni, a two time Giro champion and winner of stages in all three Grand Tours, is looking forward to seeing Astana’s Lance Armstrong at his home Grand Tour. “Armstrong is a talent. He will go strong at the Giro. But this is a difficult course that he does not know. We will do everything to turn the screws” he winks. Simoni has a history with Armstrong – in 2003 he had made some perhaps overconfident comments about destroying Armstrong in the mountains of the Tour, after his Giro win the same year, before collapsing to 84th and grumbling that maybe Armstrong should ride the Giro to. He finally appeared to have his wish.

A reminder of the power of Armstrong and Bruyneel is meanwhile eked out after Andreas Kloden talks about comments made by his compatriot, the Milram signing Linus Gerdemann, famed for a stage win and a day in the yellow jersey at the 2007 Tour (achievements, it should be pointed out, that Kloden has never achieved), where the younger German says “I said that the name of Armstrong is always mentioned in connection with doping in the media, and that this is not 100 percent good for cycling.”

Kloden says “Linus will do all he can to get press…Linus should keep calm and show respect.” Armstrong himself had already responded by inferring he would just beat Gerdemann on the road, saying “I have been around a long time and I don’t know who the hell Linus Gerdemann is, but I know that when I rolled up in 1992, I started winning races. And when I roll up in 2009, I am gonna be winning races. He better hope he doesn’t get in a breakaway with me because I can still ride hard.”

Kloden makes a not too subtle threat that Gerdemann would need “friends in the peloton” and that Armstrong had been “angry” at his comments.

November 14th 2008

Yaroslav Popovych rejoins Johan Bruyneel after a year with Silence-Lotto by signing a two year contract with Astana. The Ukranian, who had an incredible amateur career before podiuming in the Giro and winning the best young rider prize at the Tour in 2005, had arguably not been so hot the next three years, although he did win a Tour stage in 2006. Popovych says he is delighted to be working with Bruyneel again, “He is one of the few people I know that has successfully been able to manage both individual and team goals.”

November 17th 2008

Johan Bruyneel seems increasingly drawn to the Lance Armstrong side of the Armstrong-Contador power struggle, as he states that the American can “win any stage race.” He is referring to the Giro course, which he says suits Armstrong as “There are steep climbs, but also enough time trial kilometres.” He also rates Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso, the man he briefly signed for Discovery Channel, as the biggest threats to an Armstrong win. Armstrong is meanwhile meeting with the ASO, supposedly to help make up his mind over whether he should ride the Tour de France.

Two time Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli, previously an Armstrong team mate at Discovery, continues the rosy glow of the comeback by heaping praise on Armstrong, inferring that his main objective will be the Tour de France rather than the Giro. “He [Armstrong] loves to stay at the centre of attention, in the limelight. … He carried out tests before announcing his return and he understands that he can still win. He is starting early on, debuting in January, because he needs a base. He will be at the Giro but his objective is to win the Tour.” Savoldelli also claims that their is “no magic potion, I raced with him, believe me, he has something more than the others”

Elsewhere, Alexandre Vinokourov speaks about his blood doping at the 2007 Tour…or should that be lack of blood doping, as he says “Do you really think I was so stupid? Everyone knows that you can easily be caught for a blood transfusion. What did I have left to win in the Tour to take such a risk? After my crash I had already lost my high GC ranking.”

Vino insists that he has “never used prohibited substances” and reignites his desire to return to the top table of professional cycling “I still want to prove myself on the bicycle. I want to show the world that I ride without doping and that I can still win the big races.”

November 18th 2008

Alberto Contador suffers a crash in a criterium in Madrid in honour of retiring Spanish track rider Joan Llaneras suffering superficial scrapes and no broken bones.

November 19th 2008

Lance Armstrong’s seemingly increasing ill-will towards the Tour de France continues as he now claims one reason not to participate is that his safety may be in danger. There are some aggressive, angry emotions [in France],” Armstrong tells a nespaper, “My safety could be in jeopardy,” before inferring that some French teams have almost encouraged fans to slow him down.

“Cycling is a sport of the open road and spectators are lining that road,” he sys. “I try to believe that people, even if they don’t like me, will let the race unfold. [But] there are directors of French teams that have encouraged people to take to the streets, elbow to elbow. It’s very emotional and tense.”

Unfortunately for Armstrong, this backfires in the coming days, with various media outlets describing him as a “drama queen on wheels”, a “narcissist” and that “One can’t help suspect that Armstrong is using this stuff as preemptive spin to set the stage for an upcoming decision to back out of the Tour.”

November 21st 2008

RCS Sport, which is still yet to announce the route of its centenary Giro, says it will help Lance Armstrong’s cancer campaign by highlighting awareness of the disease when Armstrong is present. “[His presence] brings more attention to the race. There are a lot of initiatives in favour of his fight against cancer. It has not been determined if this will be advertisement at the start and end of the stages; we are still working on it” says Angelo Zomegnan.

November 24th 2008

Alberto Contador announces that he will have surgery on his nose and vocal chords, in order to remove a polyp from the latter and correct a deviated septum. The latter was supposedly caused by a crash which has since caused the rider breathing issues. Contador admits that he may thus be slighlty behind on his training, as his throat will not allow him to train following the surgery.

November 25th 2008

Already running a team that includes Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden, Johan Bruyneel leaves open the door to another Grand Tour podium contender coming to the team by claiming “When [Alexandre Vinokourov is] done his suspension, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be able to ride for Astana.” Vinokourov is supposedly trying to sound out teams, including the Russian Katusha squad,  invited on the same day to the ProTour, as he prepares to make a comeback.

Bruyneel also discusses the possible Armstrong/Basso clash at the 2009 Giro – “It’s going to be Basso’s main goal of the season…[but] I know Lance is going to be good, he’s a competitor.”

Another fan of Armstrong is the world’s greatest cyclist in Eddy Merkcx, who nostalgically pines for the vintage, winning Armstrong to return to the fold. “Let’s hope the return sees him win and not only to launch his foundation against cancer,” he says, “A three-year pause is a lot, but he is special. I know that he is training intensely. It will be a great battle and a beautiful occasion for the fans.” He also comments on Contador, saying he is “an outstanding talent”, but does not compare the two riders.

Contador’s surgery goes as planned, although the growth on his vocal chords is not removed due to concerns the scar that would be produced would be worse then if it remained.

November 27th 2008

As Astana plan a training camp in Tenerife, Alberto Contador is awarded the Velo d’Or for the second year in a row. “In my mind, the Vélo d’Or is the world’s best award since it comes from all the specialized cycling media,” he says.

The training camp is where race plans are set to be be nailed out, according to Sean Yates. “We will be configuring the programme for next season with the directors and the riders, as well as doing some training. It’s essentially the first occasion for everyone to meet,” he says,adding that, on the Armstrong/Contador Tour conundrum, “We’ll see from there. We know that Alberto is fully going for the Tour, and whether Lance will be there with him is going to be decided somewhere down the line. Maybe he’s got an idea about that already, but in reality, he has to see how he’s going to measure up against the opposition first.”

November 30th 2008

Contador talks about his teammates at the Astana training camp. The team of this year has been very good, and big reinforcements have come [for next year]. Haimar Zubeldia’s quality is already known. He can play a fundamental part in the three-week races. Another great success of last hour has been the arrival of [Yaroslav] Popovych. He worked very hard in the Tour in 2007, and I have been very happy to know that he’s returning with us. And also arriving are riders like Jesús Hernández, with whom I train regularly. This year, he will help the quality of the team jump up.”

He is then asked about Armstrong “He has been able to win seven Tours and knows what it takes physical and mentally. His contribution will be very positive for the team. His level is still unknown, but I am convinced that his presence will strengthen Astana even more.”

Contador leaves no doubts as to what his main goal is. “Without a doubt, the Tour de France. It is the biggest race in the world, the one that changed me the life and, since I could not be there this year, my biggest dream is to race it again.I already know that it is difficult to win, there are many great riders disputing it and that many things can happen in 21 days of competition, but I will fight to the maximum to achieve a win. Focusing on the Tour will allow me a more relaxed beginning to the season – also appropriate because the operation.”

December 1st 2008

The much publicised anti-doping program of Don Catlin for Lance Armstrong is revealed not to have yet started. “It’s a tough thing to organize, but we will make it happen. All the stuff we said we were going to do will happen,” says Armstrong.

December 2nd 2008

Lance Armstrong tweets “Just did an interview with AP announcing I am doing the Tour de France in 2009.” The interview goes into this in a bit more detail then 140 characters can convey, where Armstrong admits that he will probably end up riding for Contador, as “I’m committed to riding for the best guy” and the fatigue of riding the Giro may hamper his efforts in France.

He plays the party line at the team training camp, which is being inundated by the media, and includes surfing as part ogf its “training” regime, saying “I have confidence in the new leadership of the Tour. In the Tour, I will do my job for the team” before adding the slightly more open to interpretation “During the Tour I’ll do my best for Astana.”

Armstrong is riding in a LiveStrong branded kit, rather than the Astana kit that his teammates don.

December 3rd 2008

Adding more fuel to the fire of tension between Contador and Armstrong, Astana reveal that the two will race seperate schedules that will mean their first meeting and race together will be at the Tour de France. Armstrong has already announced his program, whilst Contador trains in a different group to the American.

It seems that the pair aren’t communicating, as Contador seem’s unaware of Armstrong’s comments that he will “support [Contador] if [he] is still strongest,” saying “Yeah, he said that? It is good that there is this attitude in the team. Armstrong is a person like everyone else, with him I have the same relationship that I have with any other teammate.”

Astana rider Chris Horner is pulled over by police for not wearing a helmet, a legal obligation since 2004, but ends up explaining to the policeman that their is a rule exception for professional riders, even carrying his license in order to prove so. “”He always has it with him as he knows the Spanish rules” smirks team spokesman Philippe Maertens.

December 4th 2008

Chris Horner is reminded of comments he made about the disbandment of Discovery Channel in 2007 “(All it is is he can’t find a sponsor. Instead he’s saying, ‘I’m Lance Armstrong, I finally couldn’t accomplish something so we’re pulling out instead.’ If I’m wrong, prove me wrong Lance — go out and find a sponsor! Instead it was ‘we’re leaving, I don’t like the sport anymore.”) He insists that this is water under the bridge, and that the opportunity to work with Armstrong at Astana was one he was desperate to take up. “The guy has been the Tour de France champion and I have been trying to get on his team for years. I don’t have any problems working for him. I don’t have any problems working for him, having conflicts with riders throughout your career is completely normal. Nothing that Lance and I have had conflicts over has been anything major.”

December 5th 2008

Tenerife -  Astana -   Lance Armstrong e Alberto Contador

Astana has its official presentation, presenting a united front by seating Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong next to one another. The media scrum is concentrated on the American’s return, and the notably vague claims by Armstrong that the team would ride for “the strongest guy”. Armstrong seems to cover all possibilities,saying “I think Alberto has obviously a tremendous amount of natural talent, and can read a race. I have a lot of respect for this man. I can’t say it any simpler. This guy is the best cyclist in the world” before adding “here are certain unwritten laws in cycling; the others ride to support the strongest rider. Whether it means supporting Alberto or Levi or Andreas, I’ll do that.”

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Armstrong adds that he feels “Ok for an old guy” and that his comeback will probably only be two years as “age is a limiting factor…or already is,” He also claims it is logical that he and Contador don’t train together as they have different season goals.  He also says he will continue training in LiveStrong kit, rather than that of Astana.

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Contador seems more like a man accepting the situation, saying “The Astana people have faith in me. Today I’m sure I’m starting the season having made the correct decision.”

Alexandre Vinokourov plans to make his comeback the next weekend in the Netherlands at the Rabobank Beach Challenge . However, he still does not have a team affiliation.

December 8th 2008

Tenerife - Allenamento  team Astana - Lance Armstrong - Albert Contador

Astana climb Mount Teide on Tenerife, as Contador and Armstrong again go their separate ways,citing different schedules. The minutiae of their movements being examined begins to tip towards the absurd. Contador confirms his season will begin at the Giro d Scilliana, and continue at Paris-Nice and the Dauphine, although not all his calender has yet been finalised.

December 10th 2008

Eddy Merckx says Armstrongs return is good for cycling, citing the number of journalists present at the Astana press conference. He finds Armstrong’s Giro presence particularly intriguing. “It is a complete novelty; he’s never done the Giro. He will introduce a lot of publicity for the Giro d’Italia. … There is a lot of interest in it. For example, I will go to see it.”

December 12th 2008

Members of Team Astana travel to, er, Astana, in order to meet the Kazakh premier. Alberto Contador, Johan Bruyneel, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Klöden and Assan Bazayev are at the chilly capital for the weekend,whilst Lance Armstrong is at a cancer charity conference in Atlanta, USA.

December 13th 2008

The Centenary edition of the Giro d’Italia is revealed to mixed reviews, as the route contains few o the historic climbs of the race. Whilst climbs like Blokhaus feature, new names like Vesuvius and the like feature, as does a mammoth 61km lumpy time trial. Danilo Di Luca had already made clear that he thought the race may be adapted to Armstrong, and the course does seem to be to his advantage given his 2005 strengths.

Armstrong himself says “The weather may be bad, which will play an important factor in the race.The second week is highlighted by the long time trial of 62km. As a professional I’ve never done such a long time trial. So, this will be a crucial day in the Giro.”

Johan Bruyneel is more concerned that the major difficulties are in the second week, rather than backloaded into the third. “At least we can say that the revealed route is original,” he comments, “The two key stages will be the long individual time trial and the stage to Block Haus. We are used to big stage races with decisive mountain stages in the last week. We will have to change our usual strategy.”

Still, with a Dolce and Gabana designed jersey, a finish in capital city Rome and the promise of Armstrong’s presence, the Giro looks to be an interesting proposition.

December 18th 2008

Alberto Contador leaves the door open to participating in the 2009 Vuelta a Espana. “It is an option because this year the Vuelta left me feeling very good. My aim in 2009 is the Tour of France, which I could not race this year, but the door is opened to take part in the next Vuelta.”

December 21st 2008

The UCI formally requests the doubling of Alexandre Vinokourov’s ban to two years, following reports that the Kazakh was planning a comeback despite having retired to get around the UCI’s original two year request. “As far as the UCI is concerned, he wasn’t given the right sanction in the first place,” they say.

December 22nd 2008

Astana rider Andreas Kloden denies that he traveled to the Freiburg University Clinic for a blood transfusion during the 2006 Tour de France, after Patrik Sinkewitz supposedly alleges this, then retracts the comments. “”My whole life I have followed the rules, which have been presented to me by the UCI and the NADA” says Kloden.

2008 Wins

30. Tomas Vaitkus – Volta a Algarve, Stage 2, 21/2/2008
31. Levi Leipheimer – Tour of California, Stage 5 TT, 22/2/2008

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32. Levi Leipheimer – Tour of California Overall, 24/2/2008
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33. Jose Rubiera – Vuelta a Murcia, Stage 2, 5/3/2008
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34. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, Stage 1 TT, 24/3/2008
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35. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, Stage 4, 27/3/2008
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36. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Castilla y Leon Overall, 28/3/2008
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37. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Pais Vasco, Stage 1, 7/4/2008
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38. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Pais Vasco, Stage 6, 12/4/2008
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39. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Pais Vasco Overall, 12/4/2008
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40. Maxim Iglinksy, Tour de Romandie Stage 1, 30/4/2008
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41. Andreas Kloden, Tour de Romandie Stage 3 TT, 2/5/2008
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42. Andreas Kloden, Tour de Romandie Overall, 4/5/2008
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43. Alberto Contador, Giro d’Italia Overall, 1/6/2008
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44. Levi Leipheimer, Dauphine Libere, Prologue TT, 8/6/2008
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45. Andrey Mizourov, Kazakhstan National TT, 26/6/2008
46. Vladimir Gusev, Russian National TT, 27/6/2008
47. Sergio Paulinhio, Portuguese National TT, 28/6/2008
48. Assan Bazayev, Kazakhstan National Road Race, 28/6/2008
49. Tomas Vaitkus, Lithuanian National Road Race, 28/6/2008
50. Serguei Ivanov, Russian National Road Race, 29/6/2008
51. Rene Haselbacher, Osterich Rundfahrt, Stage 5, 11/7/2008
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52. Serguei Ivanov, Tour de Wallonie Overall, 30/7/2008
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53. Levi Leipheimer, Clasica Ciclista a los Puertos, 24/8/2008
54. Levi Leipheimer, Vuelta a Espana, Stage 5 TT, 3/9/2008
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55. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Espana, Stage 13, 13/9/2008
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56. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Espana. Stage 14, 14/9/2008
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57. Levi Leipheimer, Vuelta a Espana, Stage 20, 20/9/2008
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58. Alberto Contador, Vuelta a Espana Overall, 21/9/2008
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