Alexey Lutsenko: Astana's next big thing

Alexey Lutsenko leads the growing group of Kazakhstan riders at the Astana team in 2017 as the Asian country looks to develop its riders as part of the WorldTour team project.

Fabio Aru, Jakob Fuglsang and new signing Michael Valgren will have leadership roles next season, but 24-year-old Lutsenko was presented on stage at the official team presentation as a rider to watch and will have protected status in races like Paris-Nice and the Classics – both on the cobbles and in the Ardennes.

Lutsenko is arguably the most successful and most promising Kazakhstan rider since team manager Alexander Vinokourov. He is a key to the nation's cycling hopes after several years of embarrassing scandals. The two are very similar as riders and both have a strong aggressive streak. Lutsenko won the under-23 world title in Valkenburg in 2012, producing a long sprint to beat Bryan Coquard. Since then, Vinokourov has taken Lutsenko under his wing and ensures he has the right race programme and preparation.

Like many Asian and Russian riders, Lutsenko is reserved and softly spoken but is clearly confident about his ability and has plenty of ambition. He is the natural leader of the Kazakhstani riders at the Astana WorldTour team.

"It's always nice to be compared to Vinokourov because I'm aggressive just like he was. I'm honoured whenever anyone compares me to him but to be honest I don't try to copy Vinokourov, I just hope to enjoy my own career," he told Cyclingnews at a recent Astana training camp, being careful to praise Vinokourov but not afraid to step out from his shadow.

Lutsenko's 2016 season was built around peaking for the Rio Olympics and the road race event, with Vinokourov hoping he could follow on from his own success in 2012 in London. Lutsenko showed his ability by winning the stage of Paris-Nice to Salon-de-Provence with a powerful solo attack. He finished 14th at the Tour of Flanders and rode the Tour de France to build his form for Rio.

However, his Olympic ambitions ended the day before his flight to Rio when he was hit by a car in training. A foot injury left him out of action for three weeks. He bounced back by winning the Tour of Almaty at home and then the Tour of Hainan stage race in China in late October.

"Looking back, I think 2016 was a good season for me," he argued.

"I won the stage in Paris-Nice and then at the end I won the Tour of Hainan in China. Of course I regret not being able to ride the Olympic road race in Rio. I think I was at my very best after finishing the Tour de France, just as we'd hoped, so it was a huge pity to miss it. I crashed just one day before travelling to Rio.

"However, I've put it behind me now and I don't want to think back to it. It's a missed opportunity but it motivates me even more for 2017."

Targeting the Classics and short stage races in 2017

Despite the influx of Valgren, Oscar Gatto, Pello Bilbao, Matti Breschel and Moreno Moser to bolster the Astana Classics squad, and replace Lars Boom, Diego Rosa and Lieuwe Westra, Lutsenko is confident he can carve out a place for his developing talents in the major Classics team. He does not seem afraid to take on older and more successful riders at Astana.

"Astana is a big team with major goals in the Grand tours, so it's not easy to get a place in the team for the most important races. But I think I've earned my place in the races I want to target because of my results," he said proudly.

"Of course I'm from Kazakhstan and so the team hopes I can do well and helps me and I know I have the support and backing of Alexander Vinokourov and the sports directors. I hope I can pay back their trust in me in the Classics in 2017.

"I've done well in stage races in the past and so I think I can going forward I think I can do well in the general classification of races like Paris-Nice if I know the stages and prepare specifically. Paris-Nice is a goal for 2017.

"I also like the Classics because I'm an aggressive rider. I think the hilly profile of the Tour of Flanders suits me and I think I proved I'm suited to the hills of the Amstel Gold Race by winning the under-23 world title in Valkenburg in 2013. For a similar reason I'd also like to do well in Liege-Bastogne-Liege."

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