By Laura Weislo in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
The bright teal of the 'new' Astana team stood out against the earth tone setting of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as hundreds of fans, supporters and local dignitaries gathered at the USA presentation of the squad on Thursday night. Riders and staff lined up against the wall in the wings, awaiting their chance to be introduced to the crowd as flamenco guitarists and dancers performed, giving a distinctly southwestern American flavour to the presentation of the Kazakh-backed outfit.
Billed as the Astana Cycling Team's USA launch, the event which followed the team's week-long training camp was less a traditional team presentation, and more a celebration of a partnership between this culture-proud community and its newly adopted band of athletes. The crowd was brought to its feet by the appearance of Spaniard Alberto Contador, and for a widely bilingual Latin-American crowd, the connection to the Tour de France champion through the mother tongue was heartfelt.
Equal in prominence to Contador was general manager Johan Bruyneel, who was honoured by a long video tribute of clips from the US Postal years followed by a standing ovation. After viewing clips of Bruyneel coaching, somewhat oddly, George Hincapie through his heartbreaking flat in the Arenberg forest of Paris-Roubaix 2002, and Armstrong's loss to Erik Dekker in the 2001 Amstel Gold , Bruyneel stood up to give the usual thank you's, and delivered a message not so much about the team, but about its associations with the community of this mid-size high desert town.
The event, which was open to the paying public, was a fundraiser for two of Bruyneel's pet charities, the American Diabetes Association (New Mexico chapter), which he supports in his hopes to fight the effects of childhood obesity, and the Multiple Sclerosis society (Rio Grande chapter), but the ceremony was befitting of visiting royalty. Set on a stage with a backdrop of colours taken straight from the high desert sunset, flamenco dancers pounded the stage with several vigorous performances, and then, as the evening wound down, emerged to present the team staff and finally each rider on the 2008 squad. Absentee riders and staff were introduced by video, and the familiar name Jose Luis Rubiera received a healthy round of applause.
American Chris Horner and German Andreas Klöden were some of the last riders to take the stage, each receiving a resounding reception before giving a brief word and stepping back to let the team's top stars, Levi Leipheimer and Contador, have their turn in the spotlight. Leipheimer conceded the leadership in the Tour de France to his Spanish team-mate Contador, and humbly accepted his third place in last year's event, where he missed the next step up by just eight seconds. "Every rider can go back and try to pick out seconds they could have picked up here and there," Leipheimer told the crowd, "but you have good luck and you have bad luck along the way. In the end, you deserve your placing."
Contador's appearance before the crowd was the night's apex, and dancers clad in special yellow dresses escorted him to center stage in order to answer questions about his life as the 2007 Tour champion. With much of the Spaniard's answers clearly left lost in translation to the non-Spanish speakers, the cheers and laughter in the audience showed that Contador had a second family in Albuquerque who spoke his language.
The Astana team will remain in Albuquerque through the week's end, before a part of the squad will head to defend Leipheimer's title in the Tour of California, while the rest will return to Europe to prepare to defend Contador's Paris-Nice title as well as Klöden's 2007 victory of Tirreno-Adriatico.