By Kirsten Robbins in Road Atlanta Braselton, Georgia
Thursday marked the halfway point of the Tour de Georgia, a race that Team Astana has been hoping to win. In the first three days, the invited mixture of both domestic and ProTour teams saw flat to rolling stages that ended in riveting field sprints with the yellow jersey passing off on one sprinter's back and onto another, weighing heavily on the accumulation of time bonuses.
But the flat stages made way for the team time trial held Thursday afternoon. Astana has been relatively quiet in terms of podium appearances thus far this tour, but they've been working steadily to keep the race in check and the field together to protect the chances of their favourite rider, Levi Leipheimer.
"So far so good," Astana's directeur sportif Viatcheslav Ekimov told Cyclingnews regarding the team's interests prior to the team time trial, where the squad was hoping to excel. Despite losing several riders over the duration of the event, the team finished second just two seconds behind the stage four winners, Slipstream Chipotle.
"We've done three stages and everything seems under control. There have been some moves and some different interests amongst the other teams but at the end of the day the bunch has come to the finish line and that has been perfect for us. It is normal that we have been pulling breaks back because the peloton is relying on our shoulders, feeling in advance that we are the potential leaders of this race and we have our GC interests approaching."
Ekimov carried high hopes into the 16km time trial stage. He had been looking for even the slightest advantage before heading into the hills. "Today [Thursday] was a big day," said Ekimov. "It is the first day where there will be little gaps on GC. But we are definitely looking to Saturday's stage in Brasstown Bald because it has the king climb on it and that will be our goal because it is a good stage for Levi."
Astana is no stranger to team time trialling and went into the race relying on its experience. "It doesn't depend on the course but on the tactics the team uses in the particular event. Its all about the length of the pulls, they can't be too long or too short, they have to be somewhere in the middle," said Ekimov of the tactical event. "In this team time trial the most important issue is to not lose the overall speed, it has to be a steady effort and if you manage to do that you'll fly." No matter what happened, Ekimov knew there would not be big time gaps, "but every second counts for the GC riders here."
Astana is focused on an overall victory in this year's Tour de Georgia because of its need to reiterate to the cycling world its hopes of being added to the ASO's roster for this summer's Tour de France. "We try to come here with the maximum motivation for every single race," said Ekimov. "Because we need to send a message to the cycling world and the cycling authorities that our team cannot be treated the way we are being treated now. This is one of our opportunities to do that, it is a big event for us. However, I don't think they are going to change their minds. I know these guys and they pretty tough to take a decision but once they do they don't change."