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Spotlight '08: Astana

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Ah, Team Bruyneel, always a pleasure to blog about, if only for the suspense of wondering how the folks at the Paceline will skewer whatever I say. The obvious, overarching summary of their season is simply, you ain't seen nothing yet. Astana got put in the penalty box, but still came out swinging so forcefully that you wonder what might have been had they played a full season. And that was before adding a certain 7-time Tour de France champion. Anyway, onto the summary, with my Back Pocket Preview natterings in italics.

Attributes: World's best stage-racing squad. Alberto Contador. Phat budget. Bottomless supply of vengeful anger (see next item).

April showers brought unexpected May flowers, and Astana's last-ditch invite to the Giro d'Italia helped dissipate the frustration of being kicked out of all the ASO races. When to his surprise Alberto Contador won, suddenly their young captain was on track toward a different seasonal goal than the one they started with, but no less monumental: victory in all three grand tours (over 14 months). As a team, they were inferior to LPR and others in the Giro, but that was circumstantial; by September, their claim to the world's stage racing title was intact.

Problems: This could take a while... Indelible stain of 2007 scandals. Sole occupant of crosshairs in sport's biggest controversy. Excluded from two grand tours, one of which constituted about 80% of their objectives. Quick Step treat them like their personal Classics development squad. Kits improbably worsened by addition of black panties. To recap: they're ugly and nobody likes them.

Kudos to Astana and Bruyneel for soldiering on. Not that there was much choice, but the negative pressure applied to them in early 2008 could easily have chased away the sponsor, driven the team apart, or at least depressed morale for a long while. Instead, the Giro win helped right the ship rather dramatically, and they behaved rather professionally from then on. They still have their doubters, and adding Lance Armstrong will only breathe new life into the whisper campaigns, but the only tangible issue was Vlad Gusev's wild and wacky blood values.

Still, if you want problems, look no further than the classics. Again, April was a bizarre month for the team, and they didn't get to try their luck at most of the best events. Gregory Rast was Mr. Lucky 13, at de Ronde and Plouay, while Dimitry Muravyev placed top 20 at Flanders and Serguei Ivanov ran a respectable 7th at Amstel Gold. Going forward, Rast, Muravyev and Tomas Vaitkus give Bruyneed a shot on the cobbles, while they'll be swarming the hillier rides with a long list of guys, not including Ivanov (Katyusha) but more like Horner, Armstrong, Contador... you get the point. If this year was a dud in the one-day events, Astana probably deserve a do-over.

Key Rider(s): Vlad Gusev. Assuming Paris-Roubaix remains off the calendar, Gusev will still have one primary objective, the Tour of Flanders, to vent on. For a team short on places to strut their stuff, this is pretty big. And Gusev, at 26, is just rolling into his formidable prime.

Eh... hey, at least I don't try to hide my mistakes. Whatever he was on, it wasn't doing him much good anyway. Really, this was a two-man team. Nobody was within a thousand CQ points of either Leipheimer or Contador, and after the mysterious Kloden, the now-departed Ivanov, and the somewhat mercurial Brajkovic, there simply weren't many results.

Key Moment: Other than de Ronde, I'd say Madrid. Really, there aren't many other choices for the massive catharsis they surely seek. But if they take the top six spots in the Vuelta, as expected, I suppose that would send a message.

As bad as my prior prediction was... it's nice to see I wasn't completely drunk when I wrote the initial preview. The Vuelta showed that Astana had at least two grand tour aces to play, and as unthinkable as it still seems, they were able to play them both, simultaneously, without inciting brawls on the team bus.

Passing Thought: It's tempting to think of them as Discover-stana 2.0, but it's not especially true. Last year Discovery were a veteran Tour team, and Gusev was the 5th youngest guy, trailed by mostly unheralded guys like Fumi Beppu and Trent Lowe. Astana were similarly constituted, formed around vets Vinokourov, Savoldelli and Kloden. Now, while they retain a core of Tour vets, Vlad ranks around 13th-youngest. There are also 8 Kazaks, four Swiss and five Spaniards, making them an intriguing and unique squad going forward... assuming they actually do go forward.

Eh... backpedaling again. Let's see, who were their big offseason additions? Ah yes, Lance Armstrong and Yaroslav Popovych. Look, I'm not against this, I just think they need to find a spot for Ekimov. Seriously though, while the older guys and the Undisputed Champ will suck most of the oxygen out of the air, there are still some interesting developments happening within the team. Apart from the emerging cobbles bunch, there's Assan Bazayev's 14th in the worlds road race, worth remembering perhaps. With Katyusha's emergence, they'll no longer have a monopoly on young eastern bloc studs, and they're running out of Americans to reel in. Riis has built a much more well-rounded, long-term squad. But Astana will likely score as many headlines as Sexy Back in 2009, if not more.