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TIME’S UP FOR ASTANA?

Three years ago, a consortium of Kazakh companies, backed and encouraged by the Kazakh government, stepped in to save Alexandre Vinokourov’s ailing team, which had been brought to its knees by the Operacion Puerto affair.

The entire blood-doping scandal was made public when police arrested Liberty Seguros-Würth manager Manolo Saiz with a briefcase full of money bound for Dr Eufamiano Fuentes.

Liberty Seguros pulled the plug during the Giro and by the time the Dauphiné Libéré started a couple of weeks later, the team was simply Würth, riding on in old Liberty Seguros kit with the company’s logos removed.

Astana came to the rescue because the Kazakhs believed Vinokourov could win the Tour. Unfortunately for them, the Astana-Würth team was denied a start in the Tour because they were left with only five riders once those involved in Operacion Puerto had been removed.

It got worse. In 2007, Vinoukourov, then Kashechkin tested positive for banned blood transfusions.

With their two key figures banned, Astana’s involvement looked tenuous until a smiling Johan Bruyneel came to the rescue. He hired Alberto Contador and won the Giro and the Vuelta in 2008, which compensated for being excluded from the Tour.

Then the soap opera took another twist when the Texan swaggered in and declared himself sheriff.

Suddenly the alliance looked as uneasy as it did incongruous. The eastern European nation, the Americans and the Belgian. The team is owned by Bruyneel. They ride the bikes Lance rode. The little yellow LiveStrong band was added to the kit. It’s easy to presume the Kazakhs had little say left except to keep forking over the money.

But as the economic slowdown began to bite, Kazakhstan has been harder hit than most. The airline Air Astana pulled its support of the team. Other companies in the consortium have simply stopped paying. Reports say the €2m bond lodged with the UCI to cover salaries has gone. Riders have not been paid. The end is nigh.

Armstrong and Bruyneel are okay, though. For a start Armstrong wasn’t even drawing a salary from Astana, and his revenue comes from his long-term sponsors such as Nike, Oakley and Trek.

It seems the Giro d’Italia will be Astana’s last race. Nikolai Proskurin, vice-president of the Kazakh cycling federation, said: “The team has been experiencing financial problems for the past two months. I don’t exclude that the team may find another sponsor, drop its name and compete under the flag of another country.”

In the current climate Armstrong won’t find it easy to replace the funding gap, but it will happen and he will have a team he can call his own again.

Suddenly the comeback is more than just a return to racing. He’s not here for a season or two, he’s got designs on a longer-term presence in the sport as a team owner and manager. That presence will steer cycling one direction, and it’s up to those who do not share the Armstrong vision of the sport to stand up boldly to fight for what they believe in.

GIRO BRITANNIA

The Giro d’Italia gets underway on Saturday, and while I am awaiting the fight for the pink jersey with a certain amount of trepidation, there is still plenty to look forward to.

For a start, the route is characteristically exciting. Whatever you think about Angelo Zomegnan, he and his team of planners make the most of the country they have to work with.

The team time trial, the early summit finishes, the criterium in Milan and the monster time trial are all fascinating stages – and that’s just the first half of the race.

Even if a bunch of dubious-looking riders dominate the general classification, every day will throw up something of interest.

And there are nine British riders in the race, which is a record participation in the Giro d’Italia.

Saturday’s team time trial provides a fascinating showdown between Garmin-Slipstream and Columbia-Highroad. It’s Bradley Wiggins and David Millar versus Mark Cavendish. If one of the teams wins and a British rider is first across the line, we would have the first British maglia rosa holder.

Of course if Columbia do a decent ride but fail to win, Cavendish could take the pink jersey by winning one or both of the flat stages on Sunday or Monday and the time bonuses that go with them.

A reader emailed to ask how many of the British riders were born in Britain.

Well, of the nine Ben Swift (Rotherham, Yorkshire), Dan Lloyd (Christchurch, Dorset), Ian Stannard (Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire) and Mark Cavendish (Laxey, Isle of Man) were born in the British Isles.

Bradley Wiggins was born in Ghent, Belgium, where his Australian father Gary was living and competing as a track cyclist, but grew up in London.

David Millar has joint British-Maltese nationality. He was born on an RAF base in Malta, where his father was serving. Both his parents are Scottish. Millar even represented Malta in the Small Country Olympics in 2001, winning the individual time trial.

Jeremy Hunt was born in Macklin, Canada, but grew up in the West Country. Charly Wegelius, whose father was a Finnish Olympic showjumper, was born in Finland but grew up in York.

Chris Froome’s parents are both from the UK, but he was born in Kenya and brought up in South Africa.

Whatever their origins, they’re all racing with a British licence, which makes them as British as a cup of tea and slice of Victoria sponge.

Everyone is expecting Cavendish to win a stage or two, but don’t be surprised if there are some very strong performances from the other eight too.

BOS DESERVES A BAN

Sometimes I think cycling fans could start an argument in an empty room.

Take the Theo Bos incident at the recent Presidential Tour of Turkey. I can’t quite see how any of the arguments in defence of Bos stack up.

Okay, so the television pictures didn’t show everything that happened in the run-up to the incident, but there is nothing Darryl Impey could have done to warrant being hauled to the floor by the Dutchman.

Even if Impey had cut across Bos, the Rabobank rider should have kept his hands to himself.

Yes, the road was narrowing. Yes, Bos was probably going to collide with the barriers anyway.

But he reached out, grabbed a fistful of Impey’s yellow jersey and pulled him down.

Quite rightly, the UCI is investigating and it seems proper that Bos should receive a ban, a fine and a serious talking to.

TOUR OF THE GILA

I couldn’t quite get my head around why Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner wanted to ride the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico.

Okay, so they wanted a little bit of racing on home soil before the Giro but a national level event against a bunch of semi-pros is hardly preparation for the second biggest stage race in the world.

What’s even less fathomable is why Leipheimer went all out to win it, attacking on the first road stage and then hammering home the advantage in the time trial.

It all smacked of an over-competitive dad forcing his way into his son’s little league baseball team before proceeding to smack the ball out of sight and yelling “Yeaaaah, in your face, losers” at their tiny, tear-stained heads.

Armstrong blathered on a bit about how Ivan Basso would be paying attention. Really? Perhaps Basso noted Armstrong could only finish third in the time trial. We bet he’s quaking in his bespoke shoes.

The big half-truth about the whole story was that Armstrong’s presence was good for the race, and good for cycling.

Not really. It was good for Armstrong. Good for SRAM, the race sponsor, and a company Armstrong has a stake in. And it was probably good for the riders who got a chance to say they raced with him.

Fleetingly the Tour of the Gila may have felt the benefit of brushing shoulders with Armstrong, but what happens next year when he’s not there? Will anyone pay any extra attention to the Tour of the Gila? No, probably not.

All it proved is that Armstrong could turn up to any race in the world, big or small, and steal the headlines. I’ll let each reader make up his or her own mind as to whether that’s good for cycling.

DODGY PASSPORT

The most troubling thing about Davide Rebellin’s positive test for CERA was that nothing showed up on his biological passport.

That’s the only conclusion one can draw from the case. Testing for the passport scheme was introduced in January 2008. The UCI stated each rider should expect to have 12 blood tests (at least 10 of which would be out-of-competition), and four urine tests (at least three out-of-competition) in a 12-month period. That’s in addition to any testing undertaken at races.

Effective trend-spotting relies on having a significant body of data, the UCI has always argued. It stands to reason you can’t spot an irregularity until you know what’s regular.

The Olympic Games were held in August. Rebellin won his silver medal with CERA in his system. Eight months later, in April 2009, Rebellin won Flèche Wallonne.

The UCI has argued that longitudinal testing would be far more effective than trying to catch riders with banned substances in their system at events. Either the biological passport system is not working or the UCI has been sitting on results it suspects are dodgy without taking any action.

ACTIVE REST

While Lance and Levi ride the Giro, Alberto is training.

His last race was the Tour of the Basque Country, which he won. That finished on April 11. His next race is scheduled to be the Dauphiné Libéré, which starts on June 7. That’s 56 days without any competition.

And people question the propriety of out-of-competition testing? It strikes me that if riders are going to take two months off in the middle of the season it’s in the interests of the sport to at least be able to test them while they’re out of the public eye.

And finally… No reply yet to last week’s open letter to UCI president Pat McQuaid. Presumably he’s too busy reading draft after draft of revised technical regulations determining the width of brake cables.

THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT IN 2009
April 29: An open letter to Pat McQuaid
Find links to all previous editions of The Wednesday Comment here.