Monday, April 23, 2012

The Three Versions of Astana

In light of Astana's victories in the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, we think this is a good time to re-visit three different version the Astana squad and tell the story of its formation. Many cycling fans knew Astana mostly from the time that it had both Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong in its ranks, namely Astana version 2. But the Astana of 2012 is nothing like Astana version 2: it is the latest version 3.

The story of Astana is full of intrigue, hostile takeovers, and continuous re-definition of the team. Before we embark, it is important to keep in mind that in its short life (it was founded formally only in 2007), it has had three different régimes controlling the team.

Hindsight is 20-20, but Astana's wins in the 2012 Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège makes sense in the context of Astana version 3. We tell the story in the following.

Unlike most other sports, cycling teams change their names according to the primary sponsor(s) of the team at a given time. This means that what is essentially the same team changes its name from US Postal to Discovery Channel to Astana to RadioShack. Conversely, the same sponsor name can be used by different teams. In this occasion we visit the history of the various teams that have come to call themselves "Astana" at different points in history.

Astana version 0 came from the remnants of Manolo Saiz's ONCE/Liberty Seguros team that folded in 2006 due to Operacion Puerto. Ambitious Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov had joined Saiz's squad to be its team leader for the Tour de France while at the same time bringing funding from Astana the Kazakh conglomerate. When Liberty Seguros quit sponsorship due to the doping scandal, Astana jumped in to keep the team alive.

Unfortunately, Operacion Puerto stopped them from participating in the 2006 Tour de France. Doping allegations notwithstanding, this team had in its ranks a young Alberto Contador, Luis-Leon Sanchez, Michele Scarponi, and Jose-Joachin Rojas: riders who have gone on to great performances since then.

Undeterred by the demise of the team, Vinokourov "took over" the entire team for 2007 and founded Astana version 1, even if the new team had nothing in common to the old one. This team was registered in Switzerland, managed by Marc Biver, and had in its ranks the Kazakh duo of Alexandre Vinokourov, Andrey Kashechkin, along with Andreas Klöden, Paolo Savoldelli, Matthias Kessler, Grégory Rast, and Spanish climber Antonio Colom.

The choice of Biver as general manager was considered unusual: up to that time he was a sports agent for cyclists and a race organizer of Tour de Suisse, but he had never worked at the helm of a team. Perhaps because of this, he brought none other than the legendary Walter Godefroot into the team to be the technical manager supervising the athletes and directeurs sportif. Godefroot's former team T-Mobile had just folded, and Vinokourov his former rider convinced him to undo his retirement. Directeurs sportif were Alexandre Shefer, Giovanni Fidanza, Adriano Baffi, and none other than Mario Kummer a veteran of T-Mobile.

Unfortunately Astana v.1 was beset with doping issues, as Astana v.0 was: none other than Vinokourov was caught doping in the Tour de France after an amazing comeback winning the second week TdF ITT after heavily crashing the day before. Furthermore, riders Kashechkin and Kessler were also caught in doping tests. All were sanctioned and had to leave the sport at least temporarily.

Amazingly, sponsor Astana was undeterred, even if they insisted on a regime change, thus came Astana version 2. With Vinokourov absent, who better to bring into the helm than the legendary manager Johan Bruyneel? After all, he needed a new sponsor for 2008 after Discovery Channel left the sport. Bruyneel had several demands: new bike sponsors, the hiring of most of his Discovery Channel squad including riders and supporters, and an anti-doping supervisor Rasmus Damsgaard. A nearly all-new team of DS was brought onboard, including the ageless Viatcheslav Ekimov, Alain Gallopin, Sean Yates, and Shefer the only survivor of the regime change. Walter Godefroot returned to retirement once again, and Mario Kummer retired for the first time.

This new regime sounded all great, as the roster included Alberto Contador, fresh off his 2007 TdF win. We won't discuss their grand tour drama much (which included the un-invite of Contador from many top races and un-retirement of Lance Armstrong), but it is noteworthy that Astana v.2 was very much oriented for the grand tours. At the end of the 2009 TdF, it was made public that Bruyneel and Armstrong had found a new sponsor RadioShack and both were leaving Astana.

Still undeterred, sponsor Astana once again places all its faith in Vinokourov just in time for him to return to the sport. Interestingly, Alberto Contador wasn't invited to follow in Bruyneel's game of musical chairs and stayed in Astana version 3. For 2010, a completely new team management structure was introduced, led by Giuseppe Martinelli and Guido Bontempi. Once again, Shefer survived the regime change and was moved up to general (non-technical) manager.

The choice of Martinelli was technical manager was yet another interesting choice: he was very accomplished as directeur sportif, having guided Marco Pantani, Stefano Garzelli, Gilberto Simoni, and Damino Cunego to victories in the Giro d'Italia, and Pantani to his Giro-TdF double in 1998.

But most recently Martinelli was head of the Lampre squad, and was considered none other than "[Damino] Cunego's personal manager, mentor, and Lampre-Fondital Director Sportif..." But after a few seasons of having to work under Giuseppe Sarroni at Lampre, perhaps he had had enough. Notably, he had been at the helm of some of Cunego's top wins at the classics: Amstel Gold in 2006, Giro di Lombardia in 2007 and 2008.

Martinelli brought a new flavor to the team: it won LBL with none other than Vinokourov in 2009 and Monte Paschi Strade Bianche in 2010 with Maxim Iglinsky. The departure of Alberto Contador to Saxo Bank for 2011 (where he was found guilty for doping offenses he did while in Astana) meant that their grand tour GC ambition became limited largely to Roman Kreuzinger and Janez Brajkovič's Giro d'Italia ambition. Enrico Gasparotto was brought into the squad to lead their charge in the Ardennes classics, finishing third in Amstel in 2010.

Hindsight is 20-20, but Astana's wins in the 2012 Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège makes sense in the context of Astana v.3. We are now eager to see how the squad defines itself for 2013 and beyond.

What did you think of Astana's victories in the Ardennes classics?

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