As Astana Turns

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As interesting weeks in cycling go, this one has been a doozy for Astana. Let’s hit the basics. First, Johan Bruyneel was forced to leave Chris Horner off Astana’s Tour de France team despite lobbying from both Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer. Second, Contador fires around across Lance’s bow by winning the Spanish national championship—in the time trial. How cool is that? And then, today, Alexandre Vinokourov says that when he returns from his two-year suspension on July 24, Bruyneel, the sports most successful director sportif—ever—will face a choice: accept Vinokourov into the team or plan his next career move.

Whew.

The situation demands a bit of examination. Say it with me: When was the last time Armstrong didn’t get his way with a Tour team? Guys were signed or not to Postal and Discovery based on his opinion. Kind of cycling’s answer to the line-item veto.

Chris Horner was left off Astana’s Tour de France squad because the title sponsor wanted to make sure that a local whose best result so far as I can find was eighth place at the Tour of Flanders … in 2007. Now I don’t have to go all Commander Data on you to point out that even without finishing the Giro d’Italia, it was obvious that Horner has stellar form. Okay, been there, covered that.

Alberto Contador’s victory in the individual time trial last Friday was the surprise win of the weekend. Surely it caught you more off guard that Jeannie Longo’s umpteenth national championship. As a three-time Grand Tour victor we have good evidence that to the degree that he has a weakness, it has been his time trialing, though it’s been good enough to bring the horse to the stable, huh?

Contador accomplished two things in winning the Spanish TT. First, he proved to himself he has the form to hold his own against the best in the world. Sure the Spanish TT championship isn’t the same thing as the Swiss championship, but he beat the best the Spanish had to offer. The win gives his confidence a huge boost and wearing that red, yellow and white skinsuit will serve as a reminder to every rider he encounters just what this climber accomplished.

I’ve been a bit critical of Contador for being kinda whiny. Not schoolgirl whiny, but definitely not alpha-male material. Even though Contador has earned his stripes and lead-dog status, he has needed to take a page from Armstrong’s book. Whether or not you like Armstrong, he has never been afraid to impose his will on any situation. It has earned him plenty of respect from other riders. Contador’s performance could inspire him to the confidence necessary to assert his supremacy openly, rather than behind closed doors.

And then we have Alexandre Vinokourov. I’ve been getting e-mails from friends alternately applauding him for having the biggest set of brass ones ever, or for being slower than a turtle set in concrete.

Astana was formed to support Vinokourov after his Liberty Seguros team imploded under the Operacion Puerto investigation. Less than a year later his entire team is sent home from the Tour following his positive test for homologous blood doping, an infraction for which fellow Kazakh teammate Andrey Kashechkin also tested positive. To save the team’s license, the sponsor overhauled team management. Bruyneel was brought in and to many watching from the sidelines, he did a great job cleaning up the team and compiled wins in two out of three Grand Tours.

And so Vinokourov says he’s in talks with Bruyneel about a spot on the team. Which is it? Why would he need to negotiate if the choices are he’s on the team or Bruyneel leaves?

Suppose for an instant (work with me) that Vinokourov does force Bruyneel out. Who would they hire to run the team for the Vuelta, Worlds, Paris-Tour and the Tour of Lombardy? All the good directors are under contract.

Then there’s the question of why Bruyneel would need to be forced out. If Vinokourov’s presence on the team is really that important to the sponsors, he can be forced down Bruyneel’s throat just as the sponsor forced Muravyev down his throat.

But while we’re at it let’s consider his suspension. It was originally set at a single year by the Kazakh Cycling Federation; the UCI appealed that decision to CAS and won. So he’s been out of the sport two years. But UCI rules stipulate he can’t ride for a ProTour team for four years. Hello? Is this thing on?

I have a theory: Vinokourov, the government of Kazakhstan and the Kazakh Cycling Federation all suffer a cultural rift with Western Thought so great as to make them seem delusional to the average American. It’s why Bruyneel was forced to take someone other than his ninth-best rider to the Tour de France. It’s why the Kazakh Cycling Federation thought they could get away with handing down only a one-year suspension to Vinokourov. It’s why Vinokourov thinks he would be more important to the sponsor than Johan-I’m-about-to-win-another-Tour-de-France-Bruyneel currently is.

He’s right. Given the choices we see them making—which have been opposite what most cycling fans consider wise—we have every reason to think they’ll do something we think crazy. Bruyneel is on his way out of this team. Getting fired by the government of Kazakhstan in order to make Vinokourov the centerpiece of its foreign policy will only hasten the inevitable. Contador is on his way out as well. The defections that will take place as riders follow Bruyneel, Armstrong and Leipheimer to what will probably be Team Livestrong/Nike will decimate the team. Contador will need to leave to go to a team with a capable director and strong support riders.

What’s the net result? For all its oil reserves, Kazakhstan is a country derided as a backwater because it can’t seem to better its lot. The movie Borat worked on the classic formula for comedy: Take a few details and stretch them to gross proportions. Working on the premise that Asia doesn’t understand America, that Kazakhs are uncivilized and live in poverty, the movie got laughs even as it offended. If Vinokourov is made king of the Astana team for a second time, we’ll be laughing, but at something that was never meant to be funny.

12 comments

  1. Tim C

    I wouldn’t doubt that Astana forfeits it’s ProTour license next year so Vino can be on the team. Contador needs to abandon ship.

  2. Fausto

    Well put. JB and Lance need a Pro Tour License to market Trek, Nike and Live Strong. JB and LA have juice with the governing bodies to make Vino sit down and shut up. Maybe? Kazakhs would rather have bad publicity with their home boy than good publicity with Tour wins and the biggest name in the sport LA. Contador needs to lead a Spanish team that can race in Italy. Levi should go French, he will bring home wins, just not the ultimate ones, which is still a huge step up for them. Horner needs some payback for being the sacraficial lamb. Astana, if it is still around, needs to line up support for him to take a big win the second half of the season. Vino, you broke our hearts once, just go away.

  3. Bill C.

    You’re right, Patrick. Bruyneel and LA are probably on their way out of Astana and we’ll see a Livestrong/Nike team rise from the ashes like the Phoenix. BUT, it’ll be WITH Contador as their sole Grand tour leader.

    Lance is ALL about winning. In his own mind, even with the hottest babes in the world on his arm, he’s nothing if he’s not *winning*. And this Tour, where he will NOT EVEN MAKE THE TOP 5 will show him two things. One is that his alpha-dog days on the roads are over, but secondly, that he can still “win” via Team Livestrong/Nike *with* Contador.

    Once Contador spanks him in the first week of the Tour, you will see an ever-so-supportive LA. I believe his NEED to win at all things will convince him to do whatever is necessary to keep AC with them.

  4. grolby

    Padraig, I think that the rule about not joining a ProTour team for four years is a team association rule (AIGCP?), not a UCI rule. So Liquigas still has their PT license after taking on Ivan Basso last year, but is no longer a member of the association in question.

  5. Bill C.

    Well, it’s all over, and I DID make several mistakes in my prediction. First, AC was forced to wait until the LAST week to officially spank LA, (heretofore known as “Thirdstrong”). LA DID make the top five, but only on the strength of the TTT, (that is to say, on the strength of AC, as he proved in both individual TTs). Take away that 40 seconds he gained over Saxo-Bank, and I don’t think he makes the cut.

    LA and JB ARE starting a new team that will be all about “winning”, but they have so soured AC on both of them that Lance is now trying to woo young MR. Schleck, sans his brother Frank. I hope Andy is level headed enough not to bite. Otherwise, he’ll end up being a TRS domestique until LA figures out he can’t win Grand Tours anymore.

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