Astana Pro Team
WorldTour ranking: 10th (Down five places from 2013)
Win count: 23 (Up from 15 in 2013)
Top riders: Vincenzo Nibali (5th), Fabio Aru (17th), Jakob Fuglsang (55th)
Where to begin with Astana’s 2014 season – the good, the bad or the ugly? Well, considering general manager Alexandre Vinokourov's respect for quality timepieces, perhaps it's best to approach the year in strictly chronological order, and start with the bad.
Astana claimed just four victories before May, with Lieuwe Westra's stage win at the Volta a Catalunya the lone WorldTour success of the spring. Vincenzo Nibali's unusually low-key start to the campaign, in particular, was viewed with considerable concern, and such was the dissatisfaction emanating from Kazakhstan that the entire roster – and not Nibali alone, as initially claimed – received a reportedly terse email of encouragement from Vinokourov in late April.
That particular brand of motivational plain-speaking coincided with Astana becoming very good very quickly, and Fabio Aru was first up to the plate. After a build-up that saw him largely eschew racing in favour of a long stint at altitude in Sestriere, he emerged at the Giro d'Italia to grab victory at Montecampione and place third place overall in Trieste. The 23-year-old had begun the Giro as second in command to Michele Scarponi, but stepped into the role of leader and carried the burden of increased expectation with considerable cool. He was more relaxed, certainly, than a progressively more hyperbolic Italian press, which compared him incessantly to the late Marco Pantani while lauding his "Stell-aru Giro" (really).
Aru's Giro showing brought much-needed WorldTour points but also upped the ante considerably for Nibali at the Tour de France. The Sicilian duly showed brief glimmers of form at the Dauphiné, even if he was a step or three behind Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, but on the biggest stage of all, he was a man transfigured. The early crashes that ended Contador and Froome's race meant that he was never truly pushed in the high mountains but Nibali had already placed a significant down payment on overall victory in week one by winning at Sheffield and then performing with such aplomb on the cobbles. He continued to hold up his end of the bargain thereafter, completing a rare hat-trick of victories in three different mountain ranges – the Vosges, the Alps and the Pyrenees – to seal a commanding victory, and join an elite group of men to win all three Grand Tours.
Nibali was backed by the strongest Astana team of the campaign, with Westra and Jakob Fuglsang providing redoubtable support early on. And while Nibali focused largely on the criterium circuit afterwards, the general upturn in Astana's fortunes continued. Sprinter Andrea Guardini emerged from two years of under-achievement to hit a brief purple patch in August and then Aru came down from the mountain once again to claim two stages and fifth place overall against a high-quality Vuelta a España field.
Yet for all that, Astana's year was to finish on an ugly note as first Valentin Ignlinskiy (EPO), then Maxim Iglinskiy (EPO) and finally stagiaire Ilya Davidenok (anabolic steroids) each returned positive tests. That Indian summer of doping scandals had been preceded by Roman Kreuziger's biological passport case – lest we forget, the suspect fluctuations in the Tinkoff-Saxo man's blood profile date back to his days at Astana – and the team's eye-watering rap sheet dates all the way back to its formation in 2006 by way of Andrey Kashechkin, Johan Bruyneel and Vinokourov himself.
The UCI has asked its Licence Commission to review Astana's place in the WorldTour for next season, although after Katusha's successful appeal to CAS in similar circumstances two years ago, a slap on the wrist perhaps seems more likely than a revocation of status. Astana has already won the backing of the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC) for its auto-suspension in the light of the first two positives, although the way in which Maxim Iglinskiy's delayed confession allowed them to race their home Tour of Almaty was met with understandable scepticism in many quarters.
Since joining the MPCC in 2013, Astana have placed great store in being seen to do all of the right things – they did not allow Nibali to use cortisone to treat a wasp sting at last year's Vuelta, for instance, and they eventually passed up on signing Franco Pellizotti – yet public relations efforts can only go so far. In particular, Vinokourov's refusal to speak openly about his 2007 blood doping positive, far less confess to wrongdoing, has created a credibility gap that no amount of auto-suspensions or WADA-approved labs in Kazakhstan can bridge.
What to expect in 2015: Astana's first hurdle of 2015 is the UCI Licence Commission, which meets in late November to decide their fate, and if they refuse the team entry to the WorldTour, it would surely trigger an exodus of talent. On the other hand, if Vinokourov emerges scolded but still clutching a licence in his hand, the question of Nibali and Aru's coexistence in the same team will dominate. In theory, the objectives could be easily split along the same lines as this year – the Giro for Aru and the Tour for Nibali – but RCS Sport will be keen to have the Tour champion back in the corsa rosa and Nibali, too, seems amenable to the idea of tackling the Giro-Tour double.
If the pair line up at the Tour together, we can expect their every utterance and sideways glance to be parsed and analysed to the nth degree, and every Italian newspaper will allude ad nauseam to Coppi and Bartali's accord at Chiavari in 1949, with Giuseppe Martinelli cast in the role of a latter-day Alfredo Binda.
Regardless of any internecine tensions, Nibali seems a safe bet to perform at a very high level in 2015. Over the past five years, no top-level stage racer has been as consistent and it would be a surprise if he wasn't on the podium Paris next July. Whether he can beat Contador, Froome and Quintana is another question altogether, but he certainly won't hand over his title easily. Aru is more of an unknown quantity but the way in which he followed up his Giro success with such an impressive showing at the Vuelta suggests that his head will not have been turned by reaction to his 2014 campaign.
Elsewhere, the team might consider granting Jakob Fuglsang greater freedom to pick up WorldTour points outside of the grand tours, particularly given how solidly he has performed on the rare occasions when he has been handed leadership roles over the past two years. The addition of Lars Boom, meanwhile, gives Astana some sort of relevance on the cobbled classics. While his supporting cast may not be the strongest, the Dutchman has the class to be a factor and he will have deep reservoirs of confidence to draw on after his win at Arenberg at the Tour.
Nibali ought to lead the line at Milan-San Remo and in the Ardennes, though much will depend on his Grand Tour programme. Andrea Guardini's late burst of success bought him another year's grace but the sprinter will need to win early, often and well if he is to force his way into the reckoning for the Giro or Tour line-ups. With Nibali and Aru on hand, though, it seems a tall order.
Best signing: It's a long time since Astana made any impact on a cobbled classic but the addition of Lars Boom to their ranks gives them a bona fide contender for victory on the pavé next spring. There was a sense that Belkin was not quite big enough for both Boom and Sep Vanmarcke's ambitions, and the Dutchman could thrive on the fresh responsibility at Astana, even if he may want for support.
Biggest loss: Valerio Agnoli's marginalisation from the beginning of 2014 seemed to augur badly for the rapport between the Kazakh and Italian elements of the team. Agnoli, lest it be forgotten, is one of Nibali's closest friends in cycling (he introduced him to his wife) and made the switch from Liquigas in 2013 as part of the Sicilian's entourage. Agnoli played a key supporting role in Nibali's Giro win last year but much to his chagrin was kept apart from him almost all year and he missed out on his Tour victory. It seems curious that the reigning Tour champion didn't have sufficient clout within his own team to secure a deal for him.
Man to watch: Rein Taaramae never quite delivered on his promise during his spell at Cofidis (11th at the 2011 Tour was the high water mark) and it will be fascinating to see if he can enjoy a renaissance in a supporting role at Astana. An operation to remove an obstruction in his larynx prompted an improvement of sorts this year – he won the Tour du Doubs and a stage of the Tour of Turkey – and the 27-year-old will hope follow in the tracks of fellow Estonian Tanel Kangert and enjoy a renaissance at Astana.
Astana Pro Team