Kazakhstan: Whither Team Astana?

12 Jul

With Alexandre Vinokourov sent crashing out of the Tour de France with a fractured femur, Team Astana has been forced to look to the future. The big-spending days of a few years ago when the team attracted the likes of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong seem to be over and the new approach shifts attention to bringing on Kazkhstan’s homegrown talent.

Vinokourov’s career was brought to a sudden end on 10 July by the horrific accident on Stage 9 of the Tour which saw Astana’s team leader hurtle into a ditch at top speed. This tour was to have been his last, but he would have wanted it to end in a less painful style.

The Astana cycling team was set up around Vinokourov in 2007 and is sponsored by Kazakhstan’s Sovereign Wealth Fund Samruk-Kazyna. The cycling team gives Kazakhstan an opportunity to garner itself positive PR on the world stage with its taking part in big-ticket events such as the Tour de France.

After a scandal-hit Tour in 2007, when Vinokourov was forced out of the race after failing a blood-doping test, the team restructured and bought in Contador and Armstrong along with team manager Johan Bruyneel. This brought success in 2009 with the team winning the Tour de France and Contador winning the individual event.

Financing problems, that emerged in May 2009, led to Bruyneel leaving Astana at the end of the season. He took Armstrong and a host of other top riders with him, but Contador stayed and reteined his title in 2010. Contador then jumped ship himself, leaving Vinokourov as the team’s number one.

Now attention is turning to the future and the search is on for the next Vino. On 4 July Kazakhstan’s Cycling Federation announced the formation of Astana-2 which will serve as a feeder team for the main squad. This team will be made up exclusively of young Kazakh riders.

Only time will tell if this new venture can discover a talent to fill the huge gap in Team Astana caused by Vinokourov’s departure or whether Samruk-Kazyna will have to dig deep once again to buy in the riders needed to keep the team at the top of the game.

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