By Mark Zalewski, North American Editor in Albuquerque, New Mexico
The new Astana team – taken over by ex-Discovery Channel Team Manager Johan Bruyneel – presented itself to assembled media during a pre-season training camp in the southwest American city of Albuquerque. Belgian Bruyneel spoke to the media yesterday, along side his first and third place finishers of last year's Tour de France, Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer, answering questions about the new programme and their hopes for the upcoming season.
"This is a completely new team," Bruyneel said bluntly. "The name of the sponsor is the same but the management has changed, the structure has changed, the riders have changed – and above all I think the philosophy has changed.
"I was surprised by the passion and the determination to keep this team going," he noted regarding the sponsor's willingness to continue after last year's scandals. Astana is a group of businesses based in Kazakhstan's capital city that first got involved with the sport in mid-2006 thanks to the successes of Alexander Vinokourov, who was thrown out of last year's Tour.
"It's been a big challenge, but I think it looked a lot bigger when I started then when I look back on it now. I'm very confident we will pull this off and make this like any other team."
That sentiment, to be just like any other team focused on winning races and not worrying about doping scandals, is easier said than done. And Bruyneel recognised this. "You cannot change perception from today to tomorrow; we have to prove things have changed."
The team chose this locale because of Bruyneel's recent association with the Belgian Cycling Centre, which has had a training base here for years. The new name of the Cycling Centre is the Johan Bruyneel Cycling Academy.
Bruyneel was also asked about recent press reports that the organisers of the Tour de France may decide to exclude Team Astana in the 2008 edition based on resent reports about the 2007 winner.
"You say it right, reports," he said. "What I have seen are reports in the press. I have not seen any official communication from the [Tour organiser] ASO that they want to exclude the team from the Tour de France. What they have said is that no team is a guarantee, that all teams have to meet certain standards. All teams have been invited to have a meeting with the people from the ASO, we have been there too, and had long discussions. From the time we walked out of that meeting until today we have met all the standards."
"Of course there are certain people that would want to see that, but I think it is based on one or two press reports that have snowballed. I really see no reason why we wouldn't be there. This team has nothing to do with what happened in 2007. The three of us sitting here were not part of that team – it's not their responsibility and not my responsibility. I cannot change what happened but I can change what is going to happen."
Check back with Cyclingnews for more coverage of the Astana camp, including photos and feature interviews.