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Back Pocket Previews: Astana

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

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.

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.

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.

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.