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Back Pocket Previews '09: Astana

Back-pocket-2_mediumAmerica's team? At least back in Lance 2.0 we had the US Postal squad, staffed by American riders, hogging the American press. Now we have two marvelous American based teams, one of which (Garmin) has a pretty hefty quotient of Americans involved, and yet it's still Lance the press dwells on. So as far as more than a few people are concerned, it's a Swiss-based team sponsored by the government of Kazakhstan, that now passes for America's team.

And I couldn't be more approving. Nationality shmationality, Astana are a thoroughly loaded outfit, were so even before Lance 3.0 was released. They are a little heavy on the stage racing, perhaps more than they ought to be given some of their other talents, but there's nothing to disparage about a team of this quality. In fact, hopefully Lance will lure in millions of American fans, only to have them see that he's advertising for the Land of Borat, and his team is a Spanish-Kazakh powerhouse. Cycling has no borders, unless sustainable watts/kg can be considered a border.

Attributes: Not to belabor the obvious, but Bruyneel has Alberto Contador, winner of the last three grand tours he attended (and two Castilla y Leons and a Pais Vasco), at his disposal. If something goes wrong, he can turn to either Levi Leipheimer (two three GT podiums) or Andreas Kloden (2nd at the Tour), or seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong. Or, hell, if he's feeling adventurous, Jani Brajkovic. Or Haimar Zubeldia, owner of three top-ten finishes. Whoever it is will be supported by world class grand tour domestiques like Chris Horner, Yaroslav Popovych, Chechu Rubiera, Ben Noval, Sergio Paulhino... can I stop now? You can argue as to whether the 1927 Yankees were really all that great, but I don't see how you can argue with this Tour lineup. Just speculating, but by the time the Tour reaches Paris I think you'd have to go back to -- what? T-Mobile 1997? Renault 1982 (Hinault, LeMond, Fignon)? -- to find a comparable stage-racing team.

Problems: Not sure Bruyneel thinks of this as a problem, but he is Belgian so perhaps some bone in his body feels the lack of cobbled classic success. Maybe having Lance ride for Vaitkus in the Tour of Flanders will make magic, but frankly while Vaitkus will be in the mix, the chances of Astana cutting through the crowd of Quick Step, Silence, Lampre, CSC... Also, Assan Bazayev can't win a lot of sprints on his own. Sometimes in these previews it may seem like I'm preaching for well-rounded teams, like when Quick Step wins a couple races in April and disappears for the rest of the year. In fact, Astana are one of the world's top scoring teams based on their stage racing alone, so I guess the concept of "problems" is all relative.

Key Rider: It's all so clearly scripted that picking out a guy who could make things turn out better than expected isn't very easy, but I'll say Brajkovic. None of the other big names have breakout potential; they are what they are. Brajkovic, meanwhile, is perhaps just coming into his own: 26 years old, coming off his best season with a late-season peak that got him second at Lombardia, arguably the best result of his career. His early glory at the Vuelta, when he briefly took the lead in 2006, got him pegged as a grand tour rider, and his improvement against the watch speaks well of his future in stage racing. But on this team, he can afford to pick his spots. He's got to be gunning for September and October again, if he can excel at Lombardia he'll love Mendrisio.

Key Moment(s): Champs-Elysees. Seriously, aren't you dying to know exactly how many podium places they take?

Passing Thought: Lance is 37. So's Horner. Levi is 35. Kloden is 33. If Bruyneel is thinking beyond this year, as he must be, then this is Contador's team, lock, stock and barrel. From the outside it looks like there are two different teams, a young, slick climber powerhouse led by AC and Jani, and another squad that looks like groupies from a Stones concert. The latter are pretty cool in their own way, and may yet change the way we view age in sport. But a better bet is on Contador and Jani.