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Offseason Capsule: Astana

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This is not Cuddles’ favourite team.

Buh-bye, Pistolero
Corbis via Getty Images

2017 saw the death of Michele Scarponi which marred everything for this team. They did see some sporting hope in the emergence of Miguel Angel Lopez, but depth remains a problem.

What we said last year

Sorry, we didn’t. It has been a while.

However, from the archives, a couple of relevant pieces: Jens on drugs and licenses (hasn’t reared it’s ugly head recently, so hopefully not too relevant) and Jens on team-picking polemica at Movistar and Astana – potentially relevant for both squads in 2018.

What we got in 2017

Periods with no results at all, and then some moments of brilliance. A fairly typical Astana season, in other words.

It was a slow start to the season, with the two biggest names in the squad, Aru and Lopez, limited by injury. Michael Valgren is a fine rider, but when he’s your biggest hope for the Classics, it’ll be a long spring. His 6th in E3 was a personal and team highlight on the cobbles.

The first win came in the Tour of the Alps, and was taken by Michele Scarponi. Five days later he was struck by a car in training and killed, leaving a wife and two children. A “tragedy too big to be written” said the team statement.

Back to the mundane, and Aru continued his interrupted preparation, now aiming for the Tour rather than the Giro, and was in good form in the Dauphine. He was overshadowed by Fuglsang, who won two mountain stages to nick the overall from Richie Porte in one of the season’s bigger GC shocks. Aru took centre stage in the Tour and was in yellow after stage 13, before finishing fifth. More on him later.

Elswehere, Lopez was gearing up for the Vuelta after his 2016 late- and off-season injuries carried into the early part of 2017. He won a mountain stage in Austria and took 3rd overall, then won a mountain stage in Burgos and took 4th overall. He came into the Vuelta as Aru’s lieutenant but outshone him. He won solo in two of the big mountain stages, to Calar Alto (stage 11) and Alto Hoya de la Mora (stage 15) and was 7th overall. You can argue over whether he’d announced himself with his performances in 2016, but this is when he became known as a truly world-class climber.

Little else of note happened for Vino’s men. Luis Leon Sanchez rolled back the years for a barnstorming win in a surprisingly entertaining Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli, and the team dominated the Tour of Almaty, to the surprise of precisely nobody. Aru took 7th in Lombardia, a classic the team have traditionally enjoyed.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

16th – Just two world tour teams below them, and with five riders providing 64% of the points, lack of depth is what held the turquoise hordes back through the 2017 season.

Top Highlights

1. More of this later, but in a fairly forgettable year for the Astanites, there was hope for the future aplenty with Miguel Angel Lopez continuing his emergence as, to my mind, the most exciting young GC rider in the world. He began the Vuelta nominally in service of a tired Aru, but soon became the squad leader and won two stages in the high mountains, looking incredibly powerful and repeatedly dropping Froome et al.

2. Stealing an idea from Conor, the team dinner that followed stage 5 of the Tour must have been a good moment. After a ropey start to 2017 with injuries, Fabio Aru looked solid in the Dauphine, won the Italian Nats, and started well in the Tour. Stage 5 saw him ride away from the bigs to win on the road to la Place des Belles Filles and move to within a few seconds of Froome’s lead. He’d take yellow on Bastille Day before fading slightly to finish fifth, but this was the day they dared hoped for an overall win.

Aru celebrates his stage five win
AFP/Getty Images

3. Porte, Martin, Froome, Aru, Bardet. If you’d told me in April that we’d see those five, in that order, atop the GC for the Dauphine, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, they finished 2nd-6th with Jakob Fuglsang ahead of all of them. He didn’t finish the Tour (and may have peaked too soon) but this WT win against a good field was the highlight of a career which has been good, very good in places, but almost always in service of Saxo/LeoPard/Astana’s leaders. Nice to see, and he took it with aplomb.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Michele Scarponi passed away on the 22nd April, just a few days after winning a stage of the Tour of the Alps. Cycling teams are close-knit and I can’t imagine the impact of losing a member of your team so suddenly and unexpectedly.

Italian sport was united in grief
LightRocket via Getty Images

2. (A brief aside – I did have to google here, because I thought there had been another Astana doping scandal. Not in 2017, apparently. Ho hum).

2. Hey, remember Astana’s Giro? You don’t? That’s understandable. The plan was clearly to start with Aru, but with him and Lopez still rehabbing injuries, the lack of depth in the squad became painfully apparent. Cataldo, in a distant 14th, was the highest on GC, whilst Sanchez’s podium in the mountains competition and stage 8 were probably the highlights. For a GC-focused team, this was unforgivably anonymous stuff.

3. Fabio Aru was so central to this team that we have to recongise his lowlights as well as his highlights. His injury robbed the team of relevance in the Giro, his tiredness as leader was bad news for Lopez’s chances of a top five finish, and although his Tour was good, it would have been excellent but for a couple of days where he lost lots of time. I imagine his climb of the Izoard is haunting him.

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-Scott), Omar Fraile (Dimension Data), Jan Hirt (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Hugo Houle (Ag2r La Mondiale), Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac)

Outs: Fabio Aru (UAE), Paolo Tiralongo (retired), Matti Breschel (EF-Drapac).

Renewals: Dario Cataldo, Laurens De Vreese, Jakob Fuglsang, Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev, Luis Leon Sanchez, Jakob Fuglsang, Daniil Fominykh, Pello Bilbao.

I don’t hate this. The list of renewals is positive, with Bilbao and Fuglsang enjoying excellent 2017s and buckets of experience being held in the squad despite Tiralongo’s retirement. Grief aside, Scarponi’s experience will also be missed, though the squad dealt with that during 2017.

There’s lots coming in, too, with MCN probably the biggest name, certainly the one with the most potential. If I’m being pessimistic, I wonder about the ceiling for “sort of hardmen, sort of sprinters” unless they’re Sagan, but there’s no need for pessimism at this time of the year. He’s fast and talented, and this move away from a crowded Orica squad makes sense at this point in his career. Villela, Fraile, and Houle (probably in that order of significance) bring depth to the climbing legion and need to be respected.

All of this ignores the fact that a 27 year old grand tour winner just walked out of the building. Fabio Aru is a massive loss, and none of the replacements will come close to covering for that gap. It remains to be seen what he’ll achieve at UAE, but 2017 saw him fifth in the Tour, 13th in the Vuelta, 7th in Lombardia and 21st in overall VDS points. There’s no reason at all to see him slipping next year and Astana clearly didn’t want to let him go. Still, money talks and the remainder of the squad will have to do the best they can. All of which brings me on to…

Most intriguing rider

Miguel Angel Lopez.

If you read my scribblings and listen to the podcafsts, then you’re a wonderful person, and you’re sick of hearing me say this. Tough. This guy is worth talking about. A recap:

2016:

- won the Queen stage of San Luis aged 20, ahead of Quintana;

- Beat Spartacus in the uphill TT of the Swiss Tour to win the overall;

- Crashed out of the Vuelta;

- Recovered to win Milan-Torino, beating Woods and Uran, inter alia, on the final climb;

- Broke his tibia in a training crash.

2017:

- Broke thumb and needed stitches after Tour de Suisse crash in second race back;

- Won queen stages in Austria and Burgos;

- Won two mountain stages in the Vuelta, outclimbing Froome, Niabli, Contador and Zakarin. Would have taken youth classification if it existed;

This is a meteoric rise in anyone’s language, and I don’t think there can now be any doubt of his talent. There are two nagging questions that mean his 2018 is intriguing.

The first relates to injuries. He’s had too many for a young rider and he needs to stay on his bike. Finishing a first grand tour was a step in the right direction and if can enjoy an untroubled offseason, so much the better. Only time will tell on this one.

The second relates to time trials. He’s never going to be Tom Dumoulin, but we need to know if we’re looking at Romain Bardet or Fabio Aru – that is, can he time-trial well enough to limit the damage and win Grand Tours. I think he can, and there are two reasons. First is the eye test – he’s a big and powerful man; he simply doesn’t have the build of a waif-like climber. Second is his results – patchy, yes, and the Vuelta time trial was a blow, but he’s not awful - as he proved in the Suisse Tour of ‘16 and the Burgos prologue of ‘17. He’s probably got to find 60 seconds over a 40km time trial to be competitive in GC terms. Granted an uninterrupted offseason, someone with his size and youth should be able to improve.

I have no sense yet of the races he’ll target in 2018 but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win his first grand tour. He is certainly talented enough to be gracing a podium, and he’s only 23. I’m intrigued, yes, but I’m also extremely excited.

Lopez’s many fans will hope he’s working on this right now
Corbis via Getty Images

So, what happens next?

Not since Euskadel-Euskadi have we seen a team at the top level so focused on climbing. Even Movistar have a stronger cobbles squad than this lot put out in 2017. Given the number of Kazakh riders who aren’t competitive at the highest level, it is difficult for a 30-man squad to have depth across the piece, and it is clear this squad will always be focused on GC success. That said, steps have been taken this offseason to provide hope of a semi-competitive spring team, with Valgren joined by Cort Neilsen for a Danish duo that may offer some hope. Unfortunately, MCN has broken his collarbone and will have a limited offseason. Breschel will be missed, too.

Hopes are higher for the Grand Tours, despite the absence of Fabio Aru. Fuglsang and Lopez look like becoming the team leaders, and Fuglsang has created some tension by announcing that he is expecting to focus on the Tour. In truth, a season based around the Giro and Vuelta might be a more sensible development route for Lopez than heading for the Tour. Fuglsang can expect a top ten and hope for a top five. For Lopez, this might be a year too soon but he has the ability to win Grand Tours, a far higher ceiling than the Dane.

Support for both riders will be adequate without reaching Sky-like depth. Bilbao had a good first year in the WT and was excellent in an under-the-radar way in the Vuelta – he will be leaned on heavily. The new signings are all going to help a team that still can’t expect much from the Kazakstani element of their squad.

Pello did a lot of pulling in Spain this August
Corbis via Getty Images

When Astana are going well, they can compete in the one-day hilly races as well as in the grand tours. Lulu is getting on a bit but may have his days, and Lopez, Fuglsang and Valgren all have the ability to compete in hilly races, too. The obvious man to lead in such races is Sergei Chernetckii, who again put together a very solid 2017 focused on races like Lombardia and San Sebastian. He’ll ride some week-long races and will be expected to help in the Grand Tours, but I remain mystified that he’s never even turned up in the Ardennes. I can’t think of any comparable rider who hasn’t at least had a look, and it wouldn’t surprise remotely me if he was competitive in Liege.

Whoever they send, a good Ardennes week would help to bridge the gap between expected anonymity in the spring and potential glory in the summer, but it is on the highest peaks that Astana will reach their highest peak.