RCS Sports, organiser of the Giro d'Italia, announced yesterday that ProTour team Astana has officially been invited to participate in the 2008 edition of the race, which begins on May 10. After consultation with the team management of NGC Medical-OTC Industria Porte, which was one of the surprise names on the original list of invites on February 1, it was decided that its Grand Tour debut was to be delayed and Astana granted the final spot on the race.
The inclusion of the Kazakh squad comes after a successful early season, which has seen it rise to the lead in the team's classification of the ProTour. Most recently Andreas Klöden won the Tour of Romandie, moving him to fifth overall in the series while Alberto Contador is third.
"I would like to thank RCS for reconsidering our team in the selection process," team manager Johan Bruyneel said in a press release. "RCS has recognized that not inviting one of the best stage racing teams would have been a mistake and detrimental to the race and sport of cycling.
"I am most happy for our sponsors, team and fans," he added. "Throughout all the political battles, our sponsors have continued to support us and our new mission for the team. The riders and staff have handled themselves in a professional manner and remained focused on winning bike races. And our loyal fans have filled the race routes cheering for us. It's a big honour to let them know we will now race in Italy."
Although very pleased with the invitation, Bruyneel did acknowledge that the short notice will present the team with some challenges. "Preparation for a Grand Tour involves intensive planning, both for our staff and riders," he said. "Many people may not realize that riders schedule their season-long training programs around these three-week races. The one-week notice is certainly an extra challenge, but I'm confident that our team will show up motivated."
"I think that we proved in Romandie that we are the best team in the world for stage races," continued Bruyneel. "Increasingly, more people understand what this team stands for and that we are an important and indispensable team."
Leipheimer, Contador and Klöden to attend
For the favourites, such as defending champion Danilo Di Luca and Gilberto Simoni, the inclusion of Astana presents a new set of rivals, all of whom have proven their Grand Tour capabilities. Heading the Astana team will be Tour of Romandie overall winner Andreas Klöden. The German will have the support from 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and America's Levi Leipheimer.
"After my nice overall victory today at the Tour of Romandie and my time-trial victory on Friday, I finally feel my form is close to where it needs to be," said Klöden. "The first part of the season was tough due to my illnesses, but that's now behind me and I can focus on the Tour of Italy, my first Giro."
Like Klöden, Contador and Leipheimer are also making their Giro debut. Leipheimer is still in the United States of America, where he had a successful Tour de Georgia, finishing in third place overall. "It was a big surprise to get the call from Johan," he said. "I was planning on training in the US for a couple of weeks, but now I need to fly to Italy and prepare myself for a tough three-week race.
"I haven't had the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the course, but I know we'll tackle some big climbs," he added. "I've also read that there are four time trials, which leads to me believe there will be some great opportunities for a rider like me."
Tour de France winner Contador received the news while recovering from a dental operation, but is looking forward to the challenge that the race presents. "It was a big surprise to me when Johan called me, since I was on a holiday," said Contador. "It is a big challenge for me and our team."
The 22 confirmed teams for the 91st Giro: AG2R-La Mondiale, Barloworld, Caisse D'Epargne, Cofidis, CSF Group-Navigare, Diquigiovanni-Androni, Euskaltel Euskadi, Française Des Jeux, Gerolsteiner, High Road, Lampre, Liquigas, LPR Brakes, Quick Step, Rabobank , Saunier Duval-Scott, Silence-Lotto, Slipstream, Team CSC, Team Milram, Tinkoff Credit System and Astana