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2022 team preview: Astana Qazaqstan

Vincenzo Nibali (L) last won the Giro in 2016 with Astana, and will be joined at Astana Qazaqstan in 2022 by Alexey Lutsenko and Miguel Angel Lopez
Vincenzo Nibali (L) last won the Giro in 2016 with Astana, and will be joined at Astana Qazaqstan in 2022 by Alexey Lutsenko and Miguel Angel Lopez (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Who?

  • Manager: Alexander Vinokourov
  • Squad size: 31
  • Average age: 26.6

The Astana Qazaqstan jersey remains sky blue and Alexander Vinokourov is back in charge but the Kazakhstani team starts a new chapter in 2022 with a shakeup of their goals and 15 new riders in a 31-rider roster.

Just six months ago Vinokourov had been sidelined in a power struggle with team manager Yana Seel, who had the backing of then title sponsor and team stakeholder Premier Tech. His long reign in charge of the team finally seemed over but somehow he managed to fight back once again, secure the sponsorship and political support from Kazakhstan to take back control of the team and push Seel out.

Vinokourov is an expert at survival. He was banned for blood doping but in 2007 is able to still manage a team because his offences occurred before the application of the 2011 UCI rule that stops former dopers from having a role in the sport.

Astana traditionally targeted the Grand Tours with a series of victories thanks to Vincenzo Nibali in the last decade. The Italian returns in 2022 but as a veteran enjoying a swan song, not an overall Gran Tour contender. That responsibility falls to another returning rider: Miguel Ángel López, who is back with Astana after his Vuelta a España spat and emotional divorce from Movistar.

Nibali returns after five seasons away, bringing his younger brother Antonio and a small group of loyal staff, while Gianni Moscon moves across from Ineos Grenadiers and brings domestique Leonardo Basso. Joe Dombrowski, David de la Cruz, and Valerio Conti are among the perhaps unexpected signings but can all perhaps land results without blowing the limited budget. The two neo-pros are under-23 Kazakhstan champion Nurbergen Nurlykhassym and Michele Gazzoli of Italy.

Astana has long had a core of Italian staff under the control of veteran directeur sportif Beppe Martinelli and Italian will return as the team’s first language in 2022 after the influx of more Italian riders and staff. Alexandr Shefer returns from a short spell in the wild at Gazprom-Rusvelo and Mario Manzoni will also be in the mixed Kazakhstani-Italian team cars along with Martinelli, Stefano Zanini and Bruno Cenghialta.

Alexey Lutsenko leads the Kazakhstan group of riders and has said he is targeting the Tour de France podium in 2022 after finishing seventh in 2021.

"Despite a difficult transfer period, we managed to gather a strong and ambitious team, with a number of riders who are able to lead the whole team in the fight for big achievements in the next season," Vinokourov said, while accepting the loss of riders like Jakob Fuglsang, Gorka and Ion Izagirre, Omar Fraile, Aleksandr Vlasov and Luis León Sanchez.

"We lost some strong leaders, but at the same time, we gained other high-class riders. The team has a new face, but we remain the same Astana team, which is well known all over the world.”

ESPINOSA DE LOS MONTEROS SPAIN AUGUST 16 A general view of Alex Aranburu Deba of Spain Omar Fraile Matarranz of Spain Gorka Izagirre Insausti of Spain Ion Izagirre Insausti of Spain Yuriy Natarov of Kazahkstan scar Rodriguez Garaikoetxea of Spain Luis Leon Sanchez Gil of Spain Aleksander Vlasov of Russia and Team Astana Premier Tech and the peloton compete during the 76th Tour of Spain 2021 Stage 3 a 2028km stage from Santo Domingo de Silos to Espinosa de los Monteros Picn Blanco 1485m lavuelta LaVuelta21 CapitalMundialdelCiclismo on August 16 2021 in Espinosa de los Monteros Spain Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo MorenoGetty Images

Astana lead the peloton at the Vuelta a España (Image credit: Gonzalo Arroyo MorenoGetty Images)

How did they fare in 2021?

Wins: 13

UCI World Ranking: 13th

Despite the near season-long conflict at management level, the Astana riders fought on whenever they could, chasing results, placing and UCI ranking points. They ended 2021 in a safe 13th place in the UCI ranking and with 13 victories. That appears a reasonable annual palmarès but the devil is in the detail and five of the victories were individual national time trial victories. Another two were national road race titles and so only six victories came during the regular season.      

Alexey Lutsenko surprisingly won the 16.4km time trial stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné as he prepared for his solid Tour de France. Earlier on Ion Izagirre and Alex Aranburu won stages at Itzulia Basque Country but have now moved on to Cofidis and Movistar, respectively, for 2022. Lutsenko won the Coppa Agostoni in Italy and talented Italian Samuele Battistella took the new end of season Veneto Classic to end on a high but the 2021 season was not as successful as the riders, management and sponsors had hoped.

Lutsenko’s seventh overall at the Tour deserves respect for his resilience but needs context: he finished 12:23 down on Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) but was rarely seen on the attack and rode defensively in the mountains. Guilluame Martin (Cofidis) finished eighth overall at 15:33 but arguably made a far bigger impact on the Tour. Lutsenko and Astana were just happy to float in cycling’s result 'Bermuda triangle', buoyed by a Tour de France top-10 result.

It perhaps summed up their 2021 season and Vinokorouv’s biggest win was arguably taking back control of the team in late summer.

In for 2022: Miguel Ángel López (from Movistar); Vincenzo Nibali and Antonio Nibali (Trek-Segafredo); Gianni Moscon, Leonardo Basso and Sebastian Henao (Ineos Grenadiers); David de La Cruz, Alexandr Riabushenko, Valerio Conti and Joe Dombrowski (UAE Team Emirates); Simone Velasco (Gazprom-Rusvelo); Andrey Zeits (BikeExchange); Michele Gazzoli (Colpack-Ballan); and Nurbergen Nurlykhassym (Vino-Astana Motors).

Out for 2022: Jakob Fuglsang and Hugo Houle (to Israel Start-Up Nation), Luis Leon Sanchez (Bahrain Victorious), Ion Izagirre (Cofidis), Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Merhawi Kudus (EF Education-Nippo), Omar Fraile (Ineos Grenadiers), Alex Aranburu and Alex Rodriguez (Movistar), Nikita Stalnov (retired), Matteo Sobrero (BikeExchange-Jayco), Jonas Gregaard (Uno-X), Rodrigo Contreras (EPM-Scott) and Andrea Piccolo (Gazprom-Rusvelo)

Key riders

TOPSHOT Team Astana rider Colombias Miguel Angel Lopez competes during the 20th stage of the 107th edition of the Tour de France cycling race a time trial of 36 km between Lure and La Planche des Belles Filles on September 19 2020 Photo by AnneChristine POUJOULAT AFP Photo by ANNECHRISTINE POUJOULATAFP via Getty Images

Miguel Ángel López is back at Astana for 2022 (Image credit: Anne Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

Miguel Ángel López: The Colombian climber turned professional with Astana in 2015 but left to join Movistar in 2021, only for his spell at the Spanish squad to last just ninth months. It started with a two-month delay to the season due to COVID-19, some success in the early summer but then the acrimonious divorce from Movistar following his sudden exit from the Vuelta a España. That opened the door to his return to Astana and a deal was done in October.  

López has been known for his emotive and aggressive reactions in races; his slug at a Giro d’Italia tifosi still circulating on social media. He is a talented, pure climber and so a Grand Tour contender but Astana will be hoping they can manage his tantrums better than the Movistar management. They see it as a bet worth taking after the loss of Jakob Figlsang and, especially, Aleksandr Vlasov to Bora-Hansgrohe.

López has described his return to Astana Qazaqstan as a homecoming, and stated it was “time to dream big” as he outlined plans to target the Giro d’Italia in 2022.

“I’m seeing the same directors as before, riders I’ve ridden with before, like Vincenzo and Lutsenko. I’m practically re-taking the path I was on a year previously,” he said. “It’s a good atmosphere and we’re focused on working hard. For me, it’s a new challenge to come back and give the best of myself."

Vincenzo Nibali: The 'Shark of the Messina Strait' was happy to leave Astana five years ago as the Bahrain Merida team was created around him. Now he returns, long past his peak, struggling to compete with the new generation of talented riders and after two frustrating seasons at Trek-Segafredo, where his lack of results matched his growing incompatibility with the American team.

Nibali’s aspirations and his salary have no doubt been downgraded for 2022 but he can count on Beppe Martinelli to say the right things from the team car and protect him in the Italian media. Martinelli has already suggested that Nibali would be able to race in a free role, while Nibali has hinted he wants to test his Classics skills at the Tour of Flanders before targeting the Ardennes and then riding the Giro d’Italia. After winning all three Grand Tours, Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia during his career, a celebratory stage victory send off would surely be the happy ending everyone in Astana and Italy is hoping for.        

Joe Dombrowski: Despite his boyish looks and skinny climber’s build, Dombrowski is now 30 years old and a WorldTour veteran, with nine seasons in the professional peloton. The American burst on the scene with an impressive victory at the under-23 Giro d’Italia in 2012 and joined Team Sky. He won the Tour of Utah in 2015 and was third on GC in 2019 with Slipstream teams but an early iliac artery problem and then surgery greatly affected his early career. He moved to EF Education and then UAE Team Emirates and won stage 4 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia but was strangely considered surplus to requirements for 2022.

Astana saw an opportunity to sign him, De la Cruz, Riabushenko and Conti from UAE Team Emirates as an experienced Grand Tour package of varying talents, betting at least one of them will win something of significance during the season.  

“I feel sometimes it can be good to change. You can kind of glean new things from being in a new environment and working with new people, and I think also it can probably put on a new pressure. It can be rejuvenating in a way,” Dombrowski said with optimism. “I have a potential to fill a role of either my own opportunities looking for either stages particularly the Grand Tours which I like, or helping a GC rider maybe in the Grand Tours or week-long stage races.”

Alexey Lutsenko: Like Vinokourov before him, Lutsenko flies the flag for Kazakhstan and so directly carries the hopes of the Astana Qazaqstan team and its sovereign wealth fund sponsors. The 29-year-old recently signed a three-year contract extension and will target the Ardennes Classics and the Tour of Flanders but also wants to return to the Tour de France.

Few riders tend to develop into Grand Tour riders at the age of 29 and Lutsenko has the punchy build of a Classics rider but is aiming as high as the podium in Paris next year. It is a risky but much desired transformation, with the aim of filling the GC role left by Fuglsang and Vlasov and stepping up to replace Nibali in the team hierarchy.

“We changed a lot in our preparation, it’s completely different for a lot of things, like eating. There are a lot of things to change if you want to be a Grand Tour rider,” he said. "This year with my seventh in the Tour I proved that I can be in the mix with the best riders. Thanks to the team and staff I did an amazing job this year, so I think that we’ll try and do everything possible in the next few years to reach this goal. Nothing is impossible and it’s a really big goal."

Gianni Moscon: Astana Qazaqstan are taking punts on a number of riders for 2022 and Gianni Moscon arguably represents their biggest bet. They will no doubt pay little attention to his misdemeanours of the past and just hope he finally lands some major results in the cobbled Classics. Of course, Moscon’s lamentable racial abuse of Kevin Reza at the 2017 Tour de Romandie and collection of race disqualifications cannot be forgotten as long as he fails to acknowledge his mistakes and shows true remorse. Moscon has always given the impression that he views himself as a man sinned against rather than a sinner. He has continued that stance after moving to Astana.

“I think that the people who really know me also know what I’m like,” Moscon said recently. “Obviously, over the years, some episodes happened and they were presented in a certain way. And the context in which I found myself also contributed to creating an image of me that doesn’t correspond with the reality.”

Moscon joins Astana Qazaqstan after spending his entire professional career at Ineos Grenadiers. His six years on the team included a podium at Il Lombardia and two top-five finishes at Paris-Roubaix. He was also part of a number of Grand Tour winning teams but had slipped into more of a support role at Ineos, both sides aware their relationship was over and change needed.  

 A return to Paris-Roubaix is inevitable in 2022 and Moscon will be expected to lead Astana Qazaqstan’s Classics squad even if Lutsenko and Nibali ride Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.

“I’m an endurance athlete. After five hours, I can be up there with the best,” he said. “But I always say that the most beautiful race is the race that you win. It doesn’t matter which one: the important thing is to win something.”

Moscon

Gianni Moscon heads to the team next season (Image credit: Getty Images)

Strengths

Astana Qazaqstan have undergone a shakeup for 2022 with Vinokourov ultimately taking back control of his team but being forced to operate on a lower budget and with lower expectations.

The core of the team and experienced staff remain and Vinokourov has tried to spend wisely, opting and hoping veterans like Nibali and outcasts like Moscon can prove far more valuable than the cost of their contracts and live off formal glories.  

Apart from Gazzoli and Battistella, there’s little investment in talented young riders but Dombrowski, Conti, De la Cruz and Velasco could all land WorldTour results, especially in Grand Tours.

Weaknesses

Astana was once a super team, taking on Team Sky in Grand Tours and winning at least one of them for a number of seasons. Vinokourov is back in control but has lost Premier Tech as a sponsor and talented riders such as Fuglsang, Vlasov and Sobrero.

The team roster remains at 31 but the overall quality has been watered down. They appear more like Manchester United signing Cristiano Ronaldo for the column inches in Italy and brand visibility than the likes of Manchester City building for long-term success with a pool of major young talent. One or two major wins are likely and López will surely love to prove a point to Movistar, but it seems a shallow team strategy that could be exposed in 2022.

Verdict

Astana Qazaqstan is weaker than in 2021 and has a lower budget but is hoping that López, Nibali and Moscon can somehow turn their careers around with help from a solid team structure and lack of sponsor pressure. If any of the three win big, then Vino will have proved he deserves to be back in charge. 

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