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Offseason Capsule: Astana Thriving... By a Thread

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One of Cycling's top grand tour teams searches for a new image after barely surviving... and winning big.

Jaime Reina, AFP/Getty

Here's a question for you: is there anything Astana can do to change the conversation?

What I'm talking about barely merits discussion. The Astana Pro Team spent all of 2015 trying to fend off dissolution, license cancellation, doping cases, and a universe of critics. The doping events have stopped for now, and the Swiss academic audit of the team found in November that the problems they uncovered last spring around management, communication, and other vague issues had been addressed. The team carries on with its pursuit of Tour de France glory in 2016, undaunted by anything that came before.

And let's face it, the reason people aren't likely to let this go is... all that came before. Not just the three positives in 2014 (two Iglinskys and a development team rider), but the long history of the team, its association with Alexander Vinokourov, and its past links to Armstrong and Bruyneel. It all fits an easy story, that the team has always been dirty thanks to a figurehead -- Vino -- who bridges the gap from Michele Ferrari to the present day rather seamlessly. It's a bad look.

On the other side of the story are a bunch of riders claiming that they've never done anything wrong and desperately trying to go about their business. Will they ever be allowed to? Or will the baby blue lycra forever serve as a cloak of suspicion and scorn, no matter who they bring in or how they perform? That... is gonna be a tough one.

Personally I'd like to comfortably change the conversation. I'd love to talk about the southern Italian duo and the threat they pose on the road to a number of cycling's biggest stage racing stars. I'd love to talk about Mikel Landa and what he meant to the team in 2015, as well as what his departure will mean going forward. And that's what I'm here to do now. The only question is, can we do this without feeling like it's a waste of our time? I know for a lot of people the answer is no. The rest of this offseason capsule is for the people who hold out hope that the answer is or can be yes.

What We Thought Coming In

We boycotted discussing them in detail, since there were lots of other teams whose future was guaranteed on something more than the week-to-week basis Astana was living with most of last winter and spring. If we'd spoken up about them, I'm sure it would have been to predict a moderately depressing season full of distraction and a hit to their results. For starters, Vincenzo Nibali's 2014 Tour de France victory will always go down as one of the great one-offs, a master craft of guile and will rather than overwhelming talent -- and heavily reliant on the fact that while he was hammering over the cobblestones, fate was decimating the competition. Nibali was the best man to arrive in Paris, but hadn't proven that he could beat Chris Froome, and he probably never would. Beyond Nibali, Fabio Aru's second place at the 2014 Giro suggested he could grab a top step -- again, if nobody better showed up. And after that, results would be duct-taped together into occasional good days, and a lot of forgettable ones.

What We Got

Nibali turned in his worst season, by almost any measure, since 2011, and is now in power-sharing talks with the team as it reckons with what they have on their hands in Aru. Not that Nibali was a dramatically different rider in 2015, but he was a step off his all-for-France peak from the year before, and ceded the podium to two guys who weren't in Paris last July and a third guy who... who... let's move on. Once the pressure of winning a second Tour went away, Nibali was essentially back to his old self.

Aru and Landa teamed up to make the team downright exciting in the other two grand tours, as the Sardinian completed a two-year leap into the cycling stratosphere, while Landa came around Jon Izagirre to become the next big hope of Basque cycling. Between them the youngsters grabbed three podium places (one of each step), five stage wins, and a week of Giro dominance (four stages) that won't be forgotten too quickly. History will focus on Aru's overall win in the Vuelta, but Vuelta wins always come heavily caveatted by the wildly varying rates of exhaustion in the peloton. That Giro campaign? I mean, it's not like they beat down Froome and Contador, but... well, they sort of beat down Contador, at least in week 3. It was poetic.

That, plus getting the boot in Spain, brought us to Angry Vinny, whereupon Nibali got himself in shape for the World Championships (not a great course for him) and sealed a part of his legacy by adding Il Lombardia to his palmares, making him a rare combination of grand tour and classics class. Angry Vinny is one of the things I truly believe in in cycling -- that if you challenge Nibali in any way, you'll see a rider respond with the kind of determination that makes champions. Is he the be-all, end-all in modern cycling? Debatable. But if he falls short in any category, it definitely is not his mentality.

The team's 33 victories are double the slate from two years earlier and a big step up from 2014 (23 wins), so we can gloss over the lack of progress by Lars Boom toward a Classics victory. Instead, we can celebrate an early season blitz by Andrea Guardini, who sprinted to eight victories including the World Ports Classic; the progress of young Kazakh climber Alexey Lutsenko, who won a Tour de Suisse stage plus a couple races back home; and we'd be remiss if failing to mention Rein Taaramae's nice bounce-back campaign (three stage race victories) in his first and last Astana campaign. And Diego Rosa dropped a few hints that he might be the next uphill winner, bagging Milano-Torino and taking fifth in Lombardia, when not playing the expert lieutenant to his countrymen.

The team's depth was shown in people like Luis Leon Sanchez, Michele Scarponi, and Jakob Fuglsang, Sure, the former two have checkered pasts, but not so Fuglsang, who was effective enough to threaten teams in the Tour and the Ardennes Classics overly focused on Nibali. And old Paolo Tiralongo somehow extracted two more wins from his 38-year-old legs. And on the other end of the scale, 21-year-old Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez opened his account with two stage wins and a fourth overall in the Vuelta a Burgos. Combined with his Boyaca pedigree (same region as Nairo Quintana), it may be time to crank up the hype machine for another Colombian scalatore.

Top Three Highlights

  1. Aru Wins the Vuelta. Part of the greatness of this win is the reflected glory Aru enjoyed thanks to his counterpart in battle, Tom Dumoulin. Your win is only as good as the guy you beat, and while Doom slipped to sixth overall in the penultimate stage, it was Aru who steadily pressured him and rode a brilliant race of his own to withstand the tactical awesomeness of the Dutchman.
  2. Shark Week at the Giro. Misnomer? After all, Nibali was about the only Astanese not to make an impact (or even appear) at the Giro in the third week of competition, but the way Aru and Landa were circling Alberto Contador could only be likened to the relentless predators of the sea.
  3. Classics Glory in Lombardia. Speaking of, it's always a special moment for a team to win a Monument. Astana have spent a lot of money on doing so, and the fact that it was their Tour guy who paid off in the end made it just as cool.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. Nibali tossed from the Vuelta. Even having a soigneur kicked out is embarrassing for a World Tour team. Having the previous Tour de France winner busted for assistance? Not a good look.
  2. Landa Exits. It's not so much that Astana have one less horse to back. It's seeing that horse make Sky (of all teams) stronger.
  3. Stage 2 of the Tour. Sure, the dream of a repeat was always dicey at best, but could it have lasted longer than 24 hours? By the time the race it Zeeland it was Froome who used his instincts and handling ability to put way too much time into Nibali, not the other way around.

Comings and Goings for 2016

Landa, Taaramae (Katusha) and Borut Bozic (Cofidis) are out. Incoming are Eros Capecchi, Matvey Nikitin, Gatis Smukulis, and Oleg Zemlyakov. Not exactly a spending spree by Vino, but with Nibali on the last year of his contract, I suppose Astana need to save their pennies for now.

What to Expect Next

Astana have announced that Aru will take over for Nibali at Tour de France in 2016, with the Sicilian heading back to the Giro d'Italia before a possible return to the Tour as a tune-up for the Olympic Road Race in Rio, where he will get plenty of attention if he's on form. Nibali himself has said that Aru should get a chance to ride for himself in France, making this one of history's least acrimonious power-shifts. Sure, Aru's lack of strength against the watch should detonate his chances at the Tour, but he'll be there to lay the groundwork for whatever comes next, a year or three down the line.

Nothing will change the team's makeup for the classics, where Lars Boom will again be counted on to grab a placing somewhere if he can. Boom's value to the team was evident when he bagged sixth in de Ronde and fourth in Paris-Roubaix with only Bozic and Laurens de Vreese for company. As the torch is passed from Boonen and Cancellara, there is still hope that Boom can win a monument, and his last effort was the best of his career so far. But the lack of support means Astana will continue to ask the unreasonable of him, and he won't be anyone's pick to deliver.

Lutsenko and Lopez will be youngsters of interest going forward, and part of that is thanks to the excellent stage-racing depth the team enjoys, where it can have one or both kids on hand and not worry too much about their responsibilities in the mountains. Guardini remains the team's designated sprinter, and he does well enough in B- and C-list events to pay his bills.

But to take a stab at my opening question, I do not believe the conversation around Astana will cease to contain loads of suspicion. For that to change, it would mean getting some distance from Vino himself, something a Kazakh-named and funded team is going to do when hell freezes over. Vinokourov in his racing days was almost the second coming of Bernard Hinault, clever and hyper-aggressive to great effect, but his transgressions and total lack of self-awareness shown toward them lead outsiders like us to wonder if he can be in charge of a clean team. Perhaps he can. Perhaps he's working on the inside counseling the young guys and veterans alike not to make the choices he made. Perhaps the string of cases that popped up a year ago were what the team said they were -- the isolated incidents resulting from individual riders screwing up, not indicative of the mindset of anyone else on the team. I am open to all of that being true. But in our age of suspicion, proving the negative against the backdrop of Vino and the events of 2014... like I said, it'd be nice to change the conversation, but it is simply too much, too soon to expect.