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Astana: What a Mess!

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They may yet win the Tour de France. In fact, they probably will. But does any pro tour team carry a stranger aura than the Bruyneel's Faded Baby Blues? To wit:

* Today La Gazzetta (via CN) carries an interview with Alberto Contador in which he describes Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong as rivals. Contador goes on to talk about how little he has been with Lance, and how he will have to deal with his erstwhile teammates on the road at the Tour.

* Then there's the ongoing cash crisis, whereby (according to De Telegraaf) Astana have until 5pm today to send the UCI 6 million euros or the team may be shut down. Immediately.

* Oh, and Assan Bazayev was suspended earlier this week, continuing a succession of Kazakh champions to run afoul of the doping rules. Bazayev's ousting was due to his being unavailable for testing rather than a positive test, but still. Wearing the Kazakh brand is an awkward burden these days, and about to get worse in a month or so when Vinokourov comes back. That last part may turn out to be the team's death knell: if the sponsors insist they want to hire Vino, Bruyneel and his charges will have to choose between outright pariah status or walking away from the squad.

All of this has shown up in the team's performance. After a couple years where Discovery and Astana hovered around 5th in the rankings, they currently sit 8th. As I mentioned yesterday, they are sporting 14 wins, mostly through Contador, and but for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco mostly of low significance. They remain by far the most intriguing team for the Tour de France, but for two possible reasons: the power and the sideshow. Here's their short list for the Tour:

  • Alberto Contador
  • Lance Armstrong
  • Levi Leipheimer
  • Andreas Klöden
  • Janez Brajkovic
  • Haimar Zubeldia
  • Thomas Vaitkus
  • Chris Horner
  • Yaroslav Popovych
  • And the domestiques, Muravyev, Paulinho, Rast, Iglingky and Noval

Is this one team, or three? Given Contador's comments, I'd guess the latter. It's nice to throw a lot of talent at a race, but remember Jan Ullrich's final T-Mobile squads, where Vinokourov was freelancing, being chased down by (second-placed) Klöden on behalf of team captain Ullrich? It's quite easy to envision a similar scenario unfolding at this year's Tour.

And I for one can't wait to see that happen. One of the lesser staples of Cycling is the team-in-turmoil during a grand tour. Three weeks is a long time, and everyone in the race is heavily invested in the outcome, financially, physically and emotionally. So when fortune upends the team order and the wrong guy starts looking like the best bet, loyalties change fast. There is a long history of colorful inter-team rivalries emerging, from the best known battles (Ullrich-Vino, Ullrich-Riis, Cunego-Simoni, LeMond-Hinault, Visentini-Roche) and further back in time -- I'm not a walking history but ask Giro double-champion Franco Balmamion about some of his mates. It's been a while since we have seen a squad blown wide open on the road of a major Tour, so we are due here.

However, even by internal-team-turmoil standards Astana are exceptionally strange. Contador is a rare mega-champion, whereas most of the intramural stuff has been touched off by the captain's fading form (Riis, Hinault, etc.). The main pretender to his captaincy is an aged mega-mega-champion, who might be taken less seriously if the media (from bored journalists to voracious sponsors) weren't doing everything possible to pump up his candidacy. Just look on the Astana website: alongside the usual news is an article about people making sculptures out of Lance's time trial discs. Everywhere he goes, the circus follows. But it doesn't end there: another four guys with Tour podium histories or potentials are further lurking around. And while Levi, Zubeldia, Kloden and Brajkovic may all say the right things, you have to wonder what they think of Lance as Plan B. Something like, "why should that older guy who's done nothing this year be second in line instead of me?" Lance's position in the race is explicable on its face, but once the race starts and the road turns up, that could change in a hurry. Does anyone think Lance will quietly take his place at the front of the first of five climbs? And is there any reason Zubeldia should drop back to help Armstrong when he gets in trouble on the first major Pyrenean climb?

I wouldn't go so far as to say all of this is good for cycling, but it could make for some incredible ratings. Stay tuned, this soap opera has new installments every day.