Award-winning sports Journalist and author
Award-winning sports Journalist and author

ASTANA TEAM PROFILE 2010

There is much that is unique about Kazakhstan, but it must be the only country in the world where the coach of the national football team has been heard to complain that the nation’s cyclists enjoy a higher profile and greater financial resources are available to the athletes pedalling on two wheels than their counterparts kicking round balls.

That, however, was the claim made by the former soccer team head Arno Pijpers after he was sacked by the Kazakh Football Federation following his team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup. Indeed, at the time of Pijpers’ removal, one explanation that was suggested was that the state-sponsored professional squad Astana – named after president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s sparkling new capital city – had been so successful that it was impossible for the soccer players to match them. Pijpers himself commented that the president’s interest in cycling meant it was far easier for the cyclists to get big sponsors than for his soccer players.

 

It is all part of a bigger picture in which, through its sponsorship of the Astana squad, Kazakhstan has turned itself into one of the biggest movers in professional cycling worldwide. Since their foundation in late 2006 Astana have scored two wins in the biggest and toughest cycling event in the world, the Tour de France, as well as victories in the other three-week Tours, Spain and Italy and a host of lesser races worldwide. Alongside Kazakh national hero Alexandr Vinokourov – universally known as ‘Vino’ – who was the prime mover when it came to finding sponsorship money in his homeland, the team currently boasts the undisputed world No1 when it comes to stage racing, the Spaniard Alberto Contador.

 

On the back of the team’s success, it is likely that major cycle races may be brought to Kazakhstan. This summer the president of the International Cycling Union Pat McQuaid was expected to visit the country in the company of the greatest cyclist ever, Eddy Merckx, to investigate the possibility of its hosting one or two rounds of the ProTour series. This is a calendar of international races that draws the best teams in the world and which already includes nations outside cycling’s West European heartland: the USA, Australia, Poland. The inclusion of races in Kazakhstan would be a springboard to nations further East with a growing interest in cycling: China, Japan.

 

The blond, taciturn Vinokourov is one of the most charismatic racers in pro cycling. He is synonymous with the Astana team having been behind its formation in 2006. “The idea of a Kazakh team had been in the air since 2000, just after the Sydney Olympics,” explained Vinokourov. “My silver medal was a huge turning point in my country” – the Olympic Games had of course enjoyed colossal prestige in all the countries of the former Eastern bloc since the post-war years – “and everyone became much more interested in professional cycling. The administrators saw what was going on, and realised that they could have a professional team as well. The cycling tradition in our country goes back to the days of the Soviet Union. There have always been good Kazakh cyclists, because we have the countryside and the climate you need to progress. We have everything: flat roads, high mountains, fine roads.”

 

Now 36, Vino’ began racing in his native Petropavlovsk when he was only 13. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the droves of promising young cyclists produced by the academies of the former Soviet sports system had headed west to seek their fortunes in France and Italy, where there was good money to be made on two wheels. Vino’ was typical of the breed: well drilled, hard as nails and willing to work hard to succeed. From 1996 he raced out of the grim French industrial city of Saint Etienne: now he lives in Monaco. A little nucleus of fellow Kazakhs formed around him in France: for Vinokourov a personal turning point came when one of their number, Andrei Kivilev, died in a racing accident early in 2003. Afterwards Vino’ raced even more aggressively, dedicated his wins to Kivi and formed a Foundation to care for his extended family. That year, he threatened Lance Armstrong’s domination in the Tour de France, and eventually finished third overall.

 

By the time he won a silver medal at Sydney Vino’ was already established as one of the big characters in professional cycling. That was partly down to his piercing blue eyes and air of impenetrable confidence, but also the way he raced: Vino’ holds nothing back and is a master at choosing the perfect moment to launch a searing attack. He was particularly popular in France but he never forgot about his fellow cyclists back home. Early in his career as a pro he donated bikes to the Kazazh Cycling Federation, and 20 sets of cycling kit to his old club in Petropavlovsk. It was well known that if an ambitious young Kazakh cyclist wanted to find a place at a French team, his first call would be to Vino’, who would smooth the way. And as his profile at home rose – after Sydney he was given a captain’s rank in the army and received as a national hero by president Nazarbayev – he became friendly with the then prime minister Danial Akhmetov, a former cyclist himself. Akhmetov would later become president of the national cycling Federation.

 

 

Vino’ himself is one of a handful of cyclists who crystallise the issues currently facing their sport. In July 2007, his expulsion from the Tour de France after a positive test for blood doping shocked many observers, because Vino’s never-say-die attacking style and nose for the perfect moment to make his move had made him a darling to the media and the fans. In April this year, having served his two-year-ban, he snatched victory in one of cycling’s most prestigious one-day races, the Belgian Classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but he was booed at the finish by sceptical fans. But Vino’ himself is adamant that he is racing “clean” and other stars have called for him to be given the benefit of the doubt. “I never stopped training,” he said when asked to explain his form. “In January to prepare for this season, I was doing seven-hour rides in the mountains.” Well before the 2010 Tour de France started, Vino’ had established himself as one of the season’s stars, thanks to that Classic win and a spell in the race leader’s jersey at the Giro d’Italia.

 

The name Astana was first seen in cycling in mid-2006, when Vinokourov brought in finance from his home land after his team of the time, Liberty Seguros, when their sponsors quit a few weeks before the Tour due to a doping scandal involving their manager of the time. The moment was timely. Kazakhstan was looking for ways to raise its profile on the international stage, and professional cycling is one of the best ways to do that. It has a world calendar, copious amounts of live television coverage – particularly for the Tour de France – and a sponsorship system similar to that of Formula One, in which major backers acquire name identification with the team they finance, rather than being a mere presence on the strip.

 

Since 2006, a graph of the team’s fortunes would resemble the profile of a mountain stage in the Tour de France: some incredible highs, and corresponding low points. It has been a roller-coaster ride. “Many ups and downs, but our strength is to retain only the best moments and use the bad to rebound,” says Vinokourov. The team in the Kazakh national colours, light blue and yellow, with the emblem of the sun on its jersey, has been through three different management structures in four seasons and has been restructured twice. But that reflects the current instability of professional cycling, which is expanding rapidly worldwide, and is still struggling across the board to come to terms with a drug problem that has proved more deeply embedded than administrators and fans initially hoped.

 

In 2006, the Kazakh team didn’t actually start the Tour, in spite of frenetic work to put logos and team colours in place on the Liberty Seguros kit, bikes and buses. They got to the start in Strasbourg, but the Tour was rocked that year by a doping scandal, with a large group of riders excluded just before the flag dropped: Astana lost several riders and did not have enough personnel to ride the race. Vinokourov was not one of the accused but was denied a chance to race. He showed what might have been when he wore the team’s colours to a win in that autumn’s Vuelta a Espana, the three-week Tour of Spain, with his team mate and fellow Kazakh Andrei Kashechkin in third.

 

For 2007, the squad was completely overhauled, and a fully-fledged team was overseen by the Swiss businessman Mark Biver. The jersey bore the names of Kazakhstan’s national rail and air companies, and the state-owned mining and oil and gas enterprises. Vinokourov brought in a strong mix of riders from his homeland and former team mates from the top German squad T-Mobile. In July 2007, the team started its first Tour de France in London. The way the team is seen in its homeland was made immediately obvious to Tour followers when the ambassador Erlan Idrissov hosted a team launch at the Institute of Directors. Before the assembled media, Idrissov waxed lyrical about Vinokourov, describing him as “a snow leopard,” comparing him to Alexander the Great and adding “he is called a dark horse by the media. For the Kazakhs, this is a good thing. In our culture, horses symbolise independence and strength.”

 

This underlined one of the most unusual aspects of the Astana team: its stature as a de facto “national” team, with a core of Kazakhs on a mission to promote their homeland. This notion not completely unique in cycling, however. Although the bulk of professional cycling teams are sponsored by companies that wish to advertise and market products as diverse as pregnancy testing kits and satellite, Astana is not the only “national” team within the pro side of the sport.

 

The pioneer in that respect is a far smaller yet equally proud nation: the Basque Country, which founded its own “national” squad, Euskadi, in 1995. Now sponsored by the Basque phone company Euskaltel, the squad is more narrowly nationalist than Astana in that it only hires riders and staff who come from the Basque-speaking areas of France and Spain. Astana on the other hand, has a fully international staff, with sports directors from France, Italy and Russia overseeing cyclists from Australia, Italy and Spain around the Kazakh core led by Vinokourov. In this it is similar, for example, to the British squad Team Sky, which has a nucleus of British riders supported by international team mates and sports directors.

 

Where the Astana team is unique, however, is in its finance, which comes from the national holding company Samruk-Kazyna, whose backing for 2010 is worth an estimated £15million GBP. Samruk is to finance the team until 2012 at least. The company was formed in late 2008 after the merger of the company that manages Kazakhstan’s state assets (Samruk) and the country’s sustainable development fund (Kazyna). Its website states that the company’s key purpose is “to manage the shares of national development institutions, national companies and other entities it owns to maximise their long-term value in the world markets.” It is a massive, diverse brief which underpins much of the country’s economy. In cycling terms, no other team has a backer of such magnitude.

 

That stems from a subtly different mindset to that of free-market based Western Europe. “Samruk is a state foundation that draws together the main natural resources of the country,” explains Vinokourov. “It stands for Kazakhstan’s economic power and it supports projects that have national significance. The Astana team is one of those projects that have huge value for the way our country is seen throughout the world. Our economic system is essentially dependent upon the state and it is inconceivable that a cycling team that is flying the national flag could not be backed by the state. It’s a matter of national pride rather than business. The men who run the Kazakh economy don’t need a cycling team to do business.”

 

The closeness of the company’s ties with the sport in Kazakhstan was illustrated over the winter of 2009-10 when its chairman Kairat Kalimbetov was named head of the country’s national cycling federation. He was explicit about the team’s mission: to promote the country abroad and inspire its people at home. “Your achievements are important for enhancing Kazakhstan’s image worldwide. The cyclists have set a very high standard, which we must all attain.” He was echoing the words of the iconic Russian cyclist Viatcheslav Ekimov, who described the team as “the bridge to Kazakhstan.”

 

Vinokourov’s ban had led to a clear-out of the team’s senior management at the end of 2007, and in 2008 the squad was run by Lance Armstrong’s former boss at the Discovery Channel team, the former Belgian pro Johan Bruyneel. Bruyneel had masterminded all seven of Armstrong’s Tour wins between 1999 and his retirement in 2005 and had retired when the Discovery sponsorship deal ended at the end of 2007. He was brought back into the sport and brought Contador and a nucleus of the Texan’s former team mates and team management with him to Astana. They included Ekimov, an Olympic gold medallist at Seoul and the first Russian to win a stage in the Tour de France. Under Bruyneel, Astana introduced an independently-administered anti-doping system run by a reputable Danish scientist, Dr Rasmus Damsgaard. It also used Trek bikes, the make made famous by Armstrong as he rode to those seven Tour wins.

 

With Vinokourov on the sidelines in 2008, Astana did not receive an invitation to that year’s Tour de France. They did, however, get an offer to race in the Giro d’Italia, second only to the Tour in prestige and toughness, but it came at a week’s notice since the organisers of the Giro had been unable to decide whether or not they wanted the Kazakh squad. Most teams would not contemplate winning a race as long and hard as the Giro with only a week to put a roster together, but Astana were lucky to have Alberto Contador in their ranks. The little bird-like Spaniard is one of the finest mountain climbers in cycling, nicknamed El Pistolero, because of a distinctive “shooting gesture” he makes whenever he wins a race. He had been among the first draft of riders who joined Astana when it changed management in 2006. He was then signed by Bruyneel, one of the best talent-spotters in the sport, and went on to win the 2007 Tour de France racing for the American team Discovery Channel.

 

The Spaniard was dragged away from a beach holiday, but ended up winning that Giro with his usual devastating displays in the mountains. He followed that one up with victory in his own national Tour at the end of the season, meaning that Astana had won both the three-week Tours it entered in 2008. But Bruyneel’s presence at Astana was to lead to even bigger things for the Kazakh team. When Armstrong began contemplating a comeback to cycling in early September 2008, it seemed incredible at the time, but the only team he was ever likely to choose was Astana. As he said, why would he consider racing with anyone other than his old Belgian mentor? Astana was managed by the same core group that had helped him win all those Tours, and included the nucleus of devoted, selfless team riders who had supported him: the Spaniard “Chechu” Rubiera, for example, and the American Levi Leipheimer.

 

Armstrong’s signature was on a contract by late September 2008. In essence, Armstrong was coming home in coming to Astana, but having the most high-profile cyclist in the sport in their colours was a twist that Vinokourov and his contacts in the Kazakh government could never have contemplated when they had begun putting the team together only two years earlier. This was the biggest comeback the sport had ever seen: the biggest winner the Tour de France had ever produced, returning to the top at nearly 40 years old. And he was doing it in the colours of Kazakhstan. That unlikely alliance raised eyebrows back in the states, to put it mildly.

 

Armstrong would race for Astana in 2009 for expenses only – his comeback was intended to be free publicity for his cancer charity – and the buzz began immediately: the testicular cancer survivor was determined to win the Tour de France. That, however, ignored the fact that Astana already had a leader in Contador, who had won all three of the major Tours, a feat that had eluded the American. It meant Bruyneel faced a nasty dilemma as 2009 began. He had hired his former protégé Armstrong. The bond between the pair was unbreakable, dating back 10 years, to the period when, with Armstrong’s cancer a recent memory, no other manager believed the Texan could win major races, let alone figure in the Tour de France. On the other hand, he also had Contador, who was younger and stronger than the Texan, but with whom the bond could never be the same. He had to choose between the best Tour de France racer of the moment – Contador – and the best in history, and probably the most single-minded: Armstrong.

 

That triangular relationship was what made Astana’s second Tour de France, 2009, the polar opposite of its debut in 2007. Astana was the team that wrote the story of the race, from start to finish. From the off, it was clear that Armstrong wanted to win the race, and Bruyneel would probably behind him, while Contador would have to race for himself. But it was equally obvious that Contador was far stronger than the older man: in the opening time trial in Monte Carlo, the Spaniard finished faster. Two days later it was Armstrong’s turn to steal a march, escaping from the field on the stage into the Mediterranean resort of La Grande Motte to gain time on Contador. As Armstrong and his Spanish team mate eyed each other suspiciously, each day seemed to mark a new round in their psychological battle. Armstrong’s break had enabled him to slip ahead of Contador in the standings: when Astana won the team time trial stage at Montpellier the following day, it seemed briefly as if the Texan might pull on the fabled yellow leader’s jersey. But he fell a fraction of a second short, and that left the way open for Contador to make his move, when the Tour entered the Pyrenees. His solo attack at Andorra put him in the race lead, but it was not welcomed by Armstrong, who commented that it had not been in the team’s plan.

 

Disunity of this kind is rare in a Tour de France team, where success is largely dependent on a team functioning as a perfect unit, with each rider willing to subordinate his personal interests to the squad’s plan for the three weeks. But as the race went on, Contador became more isolated. There were tense moments around the dinner table in the evening, and by the final week he was looking after himself, for example relying on his brother to drive him to the race start on occasion. It was tense for the Astana riders and management, but it made for a great race as far as the watching media were concerned and it guaranteed the team celebrity status.

 

As the Tour went on, it became clear that the Armstong-Contador-Bruyneel trio was not going to last beyond the finish in Paris. The tensions had begun to emerge earlier. The build-up to the 2009 Tour de France had been marked by a brief period in which the team seemed to be running out of money, apparently because Samruk-Kazyna was having to direct funds elsewhere during the worldwide financial crisis. During the Giro d’Italia, the lack of cashflow prompted Armstrong and his team mates to race with “faded” jerseys, on which most of the sponsors’ logos had been washed out. The issue was only resolved 18 days before the Tour de France began, it seems after intervention at the highest level. While this was going on, Armstrong had begun speculating publicly about financing the team through his personal contacts, and after the Tour was over, he confirmed that he and Bruyneel would be leaving to form their own squad financed by the American electronic store firm Radioshack.

 

Armstrong had never seemed entirely to take the Astana project on board – he was often seen wearing kit from his Livestrong cancer charity or the bike shop he owns in Austin, Texas rather than team strip – and the suspicion persists that Astana was a handy launchpad for founding his own squad. “It’s not my team, it’s not my sponsor,” he said at one point. The period after the Tour was marked by uncertainty: would Vinokourov return to the team after his drugs ban – he had held a press conference before the start of the Tour at which he announced he would come back to Astana whether or not Bruyneel wanted it? In that event, would Bruyneel leave? And would Contador respond to the overtures of other teams?

 

Upheaval followed uncertainty: Vino’s return to the team he had founded and Bruyneel’s departure led to massive changes within Astana, for the second time within two years. Most of Armstrong’s former team mates who had come with the Belgian left as well, and that left Astana in search of management and riders at comparatively short notice. For a while it was unclear quite who would be supporting Contador as he attempted to win the Tour de France in 2010, but eventually the roster took shape.

 

The French manager Yvon Sanquer was hired, an intriguing choice because his previous experience included rebuilding the French squad Festina after it was hit by the sport’s biggest ever drugs scandal back in 1998. Along with him came the wily Italian [italic] direttore sportive [end italic] Giuseppe Martinelli, for years the management power behind the iconic Italian Marco Pantani. Contador stayed, and with the Spaniard and Vinokourov on board, all that the management needed to find was support riders.

 

The most high-profile of these is the Spaniard Oscar Pereiro, a quiet man who was awarded victory in the 2006 Tour de France after the first man home, America’s Floyd Landis, was disqualified for doping. Martinelli brought in two strong Italians, Paolo Tiralongo and Enrico Gasparotto, both men capable of riding alongside Contador in the hardest phases of the Tour.  The Kazakhs make up 13 of the 27 men on the roster, ranging from seasoned names like Dimitri Fofonov, who has spent 10 years racing for French teams to a bevy of youngsters. The project they have taken on is simple, yet massive: keeping Contador at the top of world cycling, and guiding him to a third Tour de France win in four years.

This article appeared in “K” magazine in August 2010