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Offseason Capsule: Astana

Another middling season for the pyjama-clad team

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We pretty well have a formula for Astana year on year these days. 2018 followed that formula, but with an unexpected injection of classics excellence early in the year. That bug has been fixed and normal service will resume in 2019.

What we said last year

I had a memory that the comments on my Astana capsule picked up on how little love I gave to a Valgren-led cobbles squad. Not so, that came with my first cobbles ranking. I was down on the cobbles team and missed Valgren’s great year (though he was on my list of potential hilly-classics winners, fortunately). I am pleased that I gave praise to Bilbao, who proved a valuable lieutenant in the hills, and that I was more positive about Lopez than Fuglsang, who performed in line with my luke-warm preparation. Was I overboard on Lopez? Possibly, but the guy picked up two grand tour podiums, so he was worth talking about. Oh, and all those comments about Jan Hirt being a significant pick-up feel a tad overblown in retrospect, though he was useful in support.

What we got in 2018

Two grand tour podiums, two classics, thirty wins and long periods of anonymity. A middle-class year from a middle-class squad.

The classics wins were both from Michael Valgren, who was on good form all spring and book-ended his early season with wins in Omloop and Amstel, two very different courses. He was fourth in Flanders, too, and Dimension Data will be hoping he can repeat his successes. Before he got going the team did nicely in the Middle East. Dubai saw Magnus Cort Neilson grab second overall (and in two stages). In Oman he’d win a stage, with Lopez winning the mountain stage, and Lutsenko the overall. The strong start continued with Fraile winning a stage of the Basque Country. He and Cort would go on to grab consecutive stages of the Tour in July.

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Come the Alps, Bilbao, Sanchez and Lopez all took stages as they tuned up for the Giro. Bilbao would grab a Dauphine stage with the tail-end of his Giro form. The team’s attention was really on the Giro, however, and Lopez didn’t disappoint. 2018 was really his first full season without injury and he rode well, holding off a spirited Carapaz to take the youth jersery and third overall behind Froome and Dumoulin. He returned from a summer break to take a stage of Burgos in tuning up for the Vuelta where, once again, he finished third, this time behind Yates and Mas. Whilst he was off, Fuglsang put on a fair run, 4th in Romandie, 11th in Suisse and 12th in the Tour. He didn’t match his 2017 heroics but rode well enough.

The team has historically gone well in Lombardia but Lopez didn’t start and Dario Cataldo’s 16th led the team. Earlier in the Italian classics, Lopez took second in Milan-Torino, hamstrung by Gaudu engaging him in a low-speed crash. Other than a compulsory win in Almaty (this year it was Davide Villella who took the plaudits) the end of the year was a quiet one for the boys in turquoise.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

11th – Another team in that crowded middle-class, but I confess I’m surprised to see them outside the top ten. Less surprising is that this was a top-heavy team, with large contributions from a few riders (the top four provided 57% of VDS points).

Top Highlights

1. The Giro podium finish for Lopez. Yes, he was “lucky” that Yates bonked and Pinot contracted pneumonia. No, he never looked like winning and wasn’t substantially ahead of Carapaz. Still, third in the Giro at 24 is impressive stuff.

2. Take your pick of Valgren’s two wins. For me, his Omloop win edges ahead of Amstel as it was a powerful and surprising victory, and enjoyable for the team because they made up 25% of a twelve-man group at the finish, not something I saw coming.

3. Omar Fraile is one of those satisfying riders for whom crossing the line first is really important, the way you think it will be when you first get into cycling. He’s never taken a bigger win than when grabbing stage 14 of the Tour.

Bottom Lowlights

1. I think it has to be the transfer market. We’ll come back to this, but proven winners have been laving this team, but not coming in. 2016 was Nibali’s last year with the team. 2017 saw the departure of Aru (which, admittedly, looks okay so far) and in 2018 it was Valgren leaving. They aren’t deep enough to cope with this.

Ironically, I don’t think he’ll look back
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2. This was a late-season one, to say the least, but Omar Fraile and his girlfriend were in a car crash after a Madrid criterium in December. Both are expected to make a full recovery, but Fraile has cracked ribs and undergone surgery. He’s an increasingly valuable part of the team and has missed a significant part of his offseason.

3. I’m going to put Lopez in here, and come back to it in the intriguing riders section.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Ion Izagirre, Gorka Izagirre, Manele Boaro (all Bahrain Merida), Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data), Davide Ballerini (Androni), Jonas Gregaard (Riwal CeramicSpeed), Hernando Bohorquez (Manzana), Rodrigo Contreras (EPM), Yuriy Nataro (Astana City)

Outs: Michael Valgren (Dimension Data), Jesper Hansen (Cofidis), Tanel Kangert (EF Education First-Drapac), Oscar Gatto (Bora-Hansgrohe), Moreno Moser (Nippo), Sergei Chernetski (Caja Rural), Ricardo Minali (ICA), Andrey Grivko, Truls Korsaeth, Ruslan Tleubayev, Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev (all retired, the last-named with a heart condition)

Renewals: Alexey Lutsenko, Laurens De Vreese, Zhandos Bizhigtov, Daniil Fomynkh, Dimitry Gruzdevm Nikita Stalnov

There’s quite a bit of churn here, and we’ll come back to the departures, but there’s talent coming in. The Izagirre brothers are proven commodities on steep roads, which are also the preferred domain of Ballerini and Kudus, who are strong riders at their best. The former enjoyed a fantastic autumn in the Italian classics and is a promising one-day rider.

Bohorquez is a young Colombian climber and it is hard to know just where he places in the crowded ranks of superb young climbers that nation produces. Contreras, meanwhile, is a time triallist with WT experience at Quick Step and, just 24, can’t be discounted, nor should be thought a one-dimensional climber. Gregaard and Nataro may not be from climbing hotspots but both are climbing/GC riders who will need more seasoning but have the talent to succeed at this level.

That’s a bike, Jonas.... Jesus, where did we find this guy?
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What we see here is representative of the Astana project, which is now broadly in a steady-state. This is a Kazakh with Italian roots and a strong Danish influence. The team’s biggest focus will always be on general classification and climbing, and they’ve historically enjoyed success in hilly one-day races with their more versatile climbers. However, they are somewhat limited by a need to hold Kazakh riders (nine of their 28 riders this year, which is about par) and are willing to take a punt on cobbles in particular to allow them to meet this goal. That’s not to say that all their Kazakh riders are useless, but if Astana didn’t exist, I can’t see more than three or four of them finding their way to a World Tour team.

Where riders have moved on their replacements do similar things and I don’t think we’ll see much change. The likes of the Izagirres and Ballerini have one-day chops to replace Chernetski and Moser (and will provide an upgrade) whist the mountain support for the GC leaders is pretty similar. The big loss is Valgren, presumably a casualty of budgets and the team’s focus beyond his strength. He’ll be missed in the Ardennes but there’s some remaining talent. On the cobbles, it is a massive loss.

Most intriguing rider

As mentioned above, for the second year running I’m here to talk about Miguel Angel Lopez. I spent a lot of time building him up coming into the 2018 season, before declaring my belief that he was the best climber in the world as we prepared for Tirenno Adriatico. He then took podiums at the Giro and Vuelta, as discussed. So, vindication?

Down in one! Down in one! Down in one!
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Well… no. Not really. The results were there. The chance to be pleased with myself, a chance I usually take, is there. It just didn’t feel like I thought it would. The Lopez I was looking forward to seeing, as I said way back in March last year, was the Lopez who burst away from everyone in the ’17 Vuelta. The electric, unmatched climber. The guy who could be the next Contador. The Lopez we got in 2018 was a very solid climber, but none of his attacks really stuck. He didn’t win a grand tour stage. His time trialling certainly didn’t improve and arguably regressed. His ability to create trouble for himself began to look like a habit (running out of road and going into a wheat field, clashing with Gaudu when not really looking forwards, that sort of thing). It was all a bit… ordinary. Not ordinary ordinary, just not stand up and shout at the telly extraordinary.

I picked Yates to win the 2019 Vuelta, and Doom to win the 2019 Giro. They’re both, in my mind, safer picks. They’re also the stories I tell myself when I’m worrying that we won’t see Lopez rise to his very best. Both were riders who looked unbelievable, then settled for a while at “good but not superb” then stepped up, again, to “routinely world class”. Lopez has had a settling year. He’s put together a full year on the road, completed two GTs as leader and stood on two podiums. He’s not twenty-five turned twenty five between this article being written and being posted.

I’m grading Miguel very harshly, because I feel like I’ve got skin in the game, but my hope for 2019 is that we see the electricity of 2017, combined with the consistency of 2018, and hopefully with fewer mental errors that cause him to ship time. If he manages that, he’ll be winning grand tours. If not, he might have found a ceiling. I’ve got two cycling mantras at the moment, and they’re clashing when I think about Miggy. Is this a time to chant “fluid climbing is a fungible skill” or “give guys a year longer before you give up”? Intriguing indeed.

So, what happens next?

I’m reasonably confident about this season, which means I’m almost certainly going to be wrong. There isn’t much by way of sprinting, or cobbles, though they retain credibility through Cort. This team will succeed or fail based on the level of success they can achieve in general classification (most particularly in the grand tours) and to a lesser extent in the hilly classics. The current plan has Lopez going back to the Giro and the Vuelta, which I think is a mistake, and Fuglsang doing the Ardennes and the Tour. He’s also scheduled to ride Flanders. At 33 he’d be a late debutante but let’s not focus on that, and be glad he’s going to the party at all.

In support of the pair we have Bilbao, Hirt, the Izagirres and plenty more. At no point will the mountain train rival Sky’s, but nor will it be an excuse for falling short of goals. I think those goals need to be pretty lofty for this team, because stagnation is a risk.

There’s no reason Lopez can’t win a Grand Tour this year. If he doesn’t, he certainly needs to win a World Tour stage race (he’s scheduled for Paris-Nice, Catalunya, the Alps and Romandie, which gives him chances) and repeat his dual-podium trick. The rest of the team need to keep grabbing stages, competing in the toughest hilly classics, and trying to keep the victory total high whilst boosting the team’s presence in the biggest races. Losing Valgren is bad, but it isn’t enough of an excuse. This team should step forward in 2019.

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