One-day highlights but question marks in major stage races
2012 report card: With 22 wins this year Astana had one of their best seasons in recent times, with a number of high-profile one day successes. Maxim Iglinskiy and Enrico Gasparotto upset the favourites at Liège - Bastogne - Liège and Amstel Gold, while Alexandre Vinokourov stole the show in London and provided cycling with the Olympic champion the sport perhaps deserves.
However those one-day highlights masked the team's lack of success in major stage races. Roman Kreuziger's bid for the maglia rosa collapsed and despite a brave stage win in the final week, his two-year stint at the team ended in disappointment. At the Tour de France the team galvanised themselves around competing for the king of the mountains competition and Janez Brajkovic showed that without injury or illness he can finish inside the top-10. Fredrik Kessiakoff regained the spark that first brought him to everyone's attention at Fuji in 2009 and his second half of the season was in indication of Astana's strength in depth despite the lack of an all-out leader. The Giro illustrated a slight weakness in team harmony though, with Tiralongo openly questioning Kreuziger's form during the race. It may have been somewhat of side show but it will be one that Astana can't afford to repeat in the future.
Off the bike the team were forced to deal with a half-hearted investigation into race fixing allegations that centred around Vinokourov. But it was water off a duck's back for a team that has faced several negative stories in the past. Giuseppe Martinelli, to some credit, has at least tried to address the issue of doping by opening talks for the team to enter the MPCC. However two months have passed and unless they join soon the exercise will look like little more than a PR. The Padua investigation and alleged involvement of Astana riders may become a more pressing matter than involvement with the MPCC.
What to expect in 2013: Martinelli finally has another rider capable of winning a grand tour and will relish the opportunity to work with Vincenzo Nibali at the Giro. The 2010 Vuelta winner will be supported by Brajkovic, Kevin Seeldrayers and Valerio Agnoli and will be given total support. The Giro profile favours Nibali's characteristics too and with Basso no longer a genuine contender for pink and Scarponi on the thinnest of ice, Nibali will be Italy's grand tour hope.
The capture of Andrea Guardini from Farnese might turn out to be the team's best bit of business. The 23-year-old won a dozen races in 2012 and while the majority came via Langkawi and Qinghai Lake, they point to a promising future. A breakthrough stage win in the Giro this year was a measure of both speed and stamina and he'll be required to do it all again. The sprinter will return to Langkawi in February, and the signing of Jaan Kirsipuu as a directeur sportif will certainly help Guardini's transition into a new team.
Best signing: In Nibali the team have a genuine Tour de France contender. After a promising start to his career he cemented his pedigree with a shrewd and at times artful Vuelta win in 2010, before backing that up with third place at the Giro that same year. The following two seasons saw him pick up further podium places in grand tours and although his palmares may be short of wins he is able to mix it with the one-day stars as well. Nibali's Achilles heel lies in the fact that he can't out-climb Contador, nor can he out-gun Wiggins in a time trial. A rematch with the British rider at the Giro should prove a little more even than this year's Tour though, when the Italian was under the impression that the Becancon time trial was a team event until just days before the stage.
Biggest loss: Kreuziger certainly won't be missed in terms of wins – just three in two years and one top-10 results at the Giro – but his experience of riding with Nibali at Liquigas could have paid dividend. Instead Astana's biggest loss could be Vinokourov's race legs. His star may have waned but he remained one of the canniest and influential riders in the peloton and on his day he was still a contender. A move upstairs to Astana's management was always on the cards but after a near-20 year long career such a transition will take time to bed in. For now he'll sign off on documents that come across his in-tray while Martinelli handles the riders and day-to-day running of the team.
Man to watch: After relatively meagre seasons at Leopard Trek and RadioShack-Nissan Jakob Fuglsang will be looking to reboot his career at Astana. The former mountain biker has been pencilled in as the team's leader for GC at the Tour de France but it would be a major ask for the Dane to compete against the likes of Contador and Froome. Add into the mix that he's never truly shone in July, even as a super domestique, and his best options could be to concentrate on an offensive push for the King of the Mountains competition or a stage win. A proficient time trialist as well as a climber he seems ideally suited to week-long events but with a point to prove after being shunned by Bruyneel, Fuglsang could be the surprise package within the team.
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