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Offseason Capsule: Astana, Land of the Misfit Stage Racers

Astana began as a national project, created as a vehicle for the ambitions of Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin. But over the years, the team has morphed, replacing its homegrown talent with big name foreign riders. Kashechkin is invisible after a morass of doping scandals, Vino is now retired and in team management, and the team now has a reputation as a rich buyer of discontented talent. But can the current mix of young Kazakh talent and riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Jacob Fuglsang gel and produce the results it paid for?

Ok, let's get the obvious over with right away - it is no longer the off season. But, this idea has been bubbling around my head for a while, so you get to read it anyway. Yay you!

It is hard to pin down exactly what Astana is these days. Over previous years, it has been clear - the team has been either Alexander Vinokourov's or Johan Bruyneel's playtoy. Now, only ten of the team's twenty nine riders hail from Kazakstan and Vino is finally gone in a blaze of Olympic glory. The team is the natural go-to for any promising Kazakh rider, but by the numbers it is more an Italian team than anything else. Not only do numbers (10/29 riders on the roster) favor the Italians, but most of the big new signingss - Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru, to be exact - are Italian. Other potential big hitters hail from Denmark or Sweden. It feels as if Astana has simply gone to a sale, picking up items on discount rather than adhering to a shopping list. A second place finisher in the baby Giro here, a young sprinter there, and, ooh! Look! There's a special on former Vuelta winners on aisle three!

But, on closer inspection, things start to make sense. The team management is slowly building a grand tour squad with new signings ranging all the way from promising young all-rounders and climbers to mature GC contenders entering the peak years of their careers. A lot of riders who previously made little sense - why was Kevin Seeldraeyers, a Belgian GC rider, on a Kazakh team again? - now fit into a larger picture as lieutenants with a captain to work for at last. Astana is becoming a GC squad and it might just pull off a grand tour win.

What We Thought Coming In

We did not preview Astana last year, but most of the attention - at least on my part - was focused on Vinokourov's final season. After falling on Stage 9 of the 2011 Tour de France and breaking a femur, Vino announced his retirement from the sport. It came as no surprise when he reneged on his statement and re-joined Astana for a swansong, but all wondered exactly what he would have following such a serious injury and at the ripe age of 38. Bombastic attacks were sure to occur, but would they still stick?

Elsewhere, expectations were on Roman Kreuziger to finally make a leap in development past promising 9th place finishes in the Tour de France at a young age in both 2009 and 2010. The Giro d'Italia was Kreuziger's focus this season after a strong fifth place showing in 2011 and he could be counted as a legitimate podium threat on the 2013 course.

What We Got

WHOA. If you had told me Astana would win a monument, I would have had a hard time believing you. Maybe Brajkovic could win Lombardia - he has finished second there before - but odds were low. If you told me they would win two of the Ardennes classics and finish in the top five of another, I would have bet a pretty penny against you. Yet that is exactly what they did and, perhaps, will be what they are most remembered for this year. Enrico Gasparotto out-sprinted Jelle Vandendert and Peter Sagan atop the Cauberg and was one-upped only by Maxim Iglinsky's solo win at Liegé. Iglinsky has always been around there in the classics but was more known for his presence in cobbled races than in the hillier races that followed, so his win in Ans was ever more memorable.

Elsewhere, Vinokourov's final season was quiet - until August, that is. In the waning kilometers of the Olympic road race in London, the old fox jumped across to a move initiated by Rigoberto Uran Uran and out-sprinted the young Columbian rider to win a gold medal. A few other results shone as well. Janez Brajkovič, finally free of the Bruyneel ship, won the Tour of Slovenia, a stage of the Volta a Catalunya, and finished 9th, although anonymously, in the Tour de France. Fredrick Kessiakoff - still known more for his background as a mountain biker than his road results - took time trial wins in the Tour de Suisse and Vuelta a Espańa. Stage victories at the Giro and smaller stage races kept the all-important UCI points and sponsor exposure rolling in.

Indeed, Astana met or exceeded expectations on almost all fronts. The exception was perhaps Roman Kreuziger, who appears to still paying karma back for his "small motor" comment about Vincenzo Nibali years ago. Long heralded as a future grand tour winner, Kreuziger continued his streak of almost successes in shorter stage races before failing to crack a grand tour podium. Failure to develop further is one thing, but what perhaps stung most was the fact 2012 was the first time in three years Kreuziger had failed to crack the top ten in a Grand Tour.

Top 3 Highlights

  1. Maxim Iglinsky wins Liegé - Bastogne - Liegé. Gasparatto's win in Amstel was equally unexpected, but Iglinsky gets the tip for winning a monument and for the dominant fashion of his win.

  2. Vino wins the Olympic gold medal in the road race. Yes, he wasn't racing for Astana in that particular race, but did it not still draw attention to the team? And, technically, Vino is still on board with management.

  3. Fredrick Kessiakoff wins Stage 11 of the Vuelta. Coupled with his time trial win in the Tour de Suisse and his fifth place in the World Championships time trial, the former mountain biker stepped up a notch.

Bottom 3 Lowlights

  1. Roman Kreuziger's anonymous GC results. 3rd at Tirreno Adriatico was as good as it got.

  2. Is Andrey Kashechkin really still racing? I never would have known the former perennial stage race podium threat was by looking at the top half of results lists.

  3. Borut Božič's continued slide into anonymity. Really, I'm grasping for straws here. Božič was on fire in 2010 and 2011 but was only on the top of the podium once in 2012, in the national championships of Slovenia.

Where Do They Go From Here?

Even after Astana's success in April, all eyes will be on new signings to bring in results. Nibali faces a junction in his career - he seems to stand little chance of winning the Tour in the next few years if Contador, Wiggins, or Froome are firing on all cylinders, so there is a decision of whether he should target podium finishes in France or wins in Italy or Spain. In 2013, he has his eye on winning the Giro, though he picked the unlucky year when Wiggins decided he would like to do the same.

Even if Nibali does not win the Giro (or the Vuelta, should he decide to target it as well), he is consistent and can be counted on for a podium finish. The real potential for growth lies in two other new signings - Jacob Fuglsang and Fabio Aru. Fuglsang has been on the brink of a breakthrough, it seems, since his 2009 season. He is an apt climber and an excellent time trialist but has seemed to stagnate. Last year, he hardly got to race after his displeasure with the Leopard Trek management became public. He responded to non-selection for the Tour de France by winning the Tour of Austria but the results tapered off after that. In a new environment, he may finally be able to flourish.

Aru, on the other hand, is in only his first year in the elite ranks. He is a scintillating climbing prospect who finished a close second in the Baby Giro last year and took second on an uphill finish in Stage 6 of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. I could talk more about Aru, but we already have a fantastic piece by Vlaanderen90 profiling him and his prospects for this year, so go read it instead! Aru is joined by a few other development prospects, most notably the pair of young Italian sprinters Andrea Guardini and Jacobo Guarnieri. Astana has none too good a record in developing riders, but they do have a lot to work with this year.

In the end, Astana's success may boil down to the internal atmosphere the team can create. Nibali and Fuglsang were both discontented and may profit from a change in environment, so long as the environment is more cohesive than prior years. Likewise, whether it can transform a bevy of young talent, including U23 World Champion Alexey Lutsenko, into proper professionals will come down to creating the proper tenor all season long. Lets hope Vino and his cohort can get this right.