As the UCI Licence Commission considers Astana’s future in the WorldTour, it is not entirely clear whether its focus will be solely on the recent spate of positive tests on the team or whether its deliberations will cover the team’s entire eight and a half year history.
Certainly, the events of the here and now alone make a compelling argument for Astana’s exclusion from the 2015 WorldTour. Forget the semantics: the WorldTour and Continental teams are part of the same entity, and five positive tests in three months would be more than enough, one imagines, for most other WorldTour sponsors to pull the plug on their commitment.
When the frame of reference is widened, the picture becomes even more bleak for Astana. From Matthias Kessler to Alexandre Vinokourov, from Andrey Kashechkin to Alberto Contador, the sheer volume of doping cases involving the team over the years still astounds. The lengthy roll call of tainted names to have donned the sky-blue jerseys or called the shots from the team car is alarming.
It is striking, too, to note the amount of the times the team has been apparently on the brink of losing its ProTour (now WorldTour) status over doping or financial misdemeanours. As long ago as 2006, the UCI was threatening to revoke its licence but it never once followed through. For all the hard talk, in that period, only six other teams have enjoyed the same unbroken sequence of top flight racing as Astana.
More damning than those shadows is the litany of false dawns that has peppered the team’s history, many of which are highlighted in the timeline below. Vinokourov’s pledge to reinforce Astana’s commitment to anti-doping in 2015 sounds an awful lot like Marc Biver’s promise to do the same in 2006. In early 2008 and again in late 2012, Astana placed great store in trumpeting its internal testing system, yet in the autumn of 2014, the set-up produced five positive tests, three of them among under-23 riders who could not have been acting alone.
Yet most striking of all, perhaps, is the realisation that Astana’s timeline did not take place in a vacuum.
Astana was not the only team to have riders test positive in 2007, or 2010, or indeed 2014. It was not the only team to risk losing a WorldTour licence for financial and ethical impropriety in the past eight years. It was not only team to hire riders, managers and doctors with dubious doping histories. It was not the only team to re-hire riders who had already tested positive in its colours. It was not the only team to exploit internal testing as a PR opportunity.
The story of Astana’s tempestuous existence is also the story of a large part of the the past decade in cycling. Wednesday will provide an indication as to how the UCI intends to move the narrative forward.
June: When Liberty Seguros withdraws in the wake of Manolo Saiz's arrest as part of Operacion Puerto, Astana takes over the sponsorship of Alexandre Vinokourov's team in time for the Tour de France.
ASO's attempts to prevent the rebranded Astana-Wurth team from taking the start look to have come to nothing when the UCI rubber stamps its ProTour licence but further Puerto revelations on the eve of the Grand Départ in Strasbourg ultimately force them out of the race. Five of the team's nine-man squad is initially implicated in Operacion Puerto and their withdrawal means that Astana does not have enough riders to start the Tour.
August: Teams' association AIGCP votes unanimously for Astana's exclusion from the ProTour.
September: Vinokourov wins three stages and the general classification at the Vuelta a España, while his Astana teammate Andrey Kashechkin helps himself to third overall and a stage win.
October: Astana manager Marc Biver announces his team's new internal testing system and a "ten point" anti-doping plan. "You can only introduce a serious anti-doping policy and enforce it strictly," he says. "And to that point we have established our own anti-doping regulations."
December: Astana are initially denied a ProTour licence for 2007 after a delay in securing a bank guarantee for the team's budget. Their application is eventually approved three weeks later and the team is given a licence for four years.
April: Matthias Kessler returns a positive test for testosterone ahead of Flèche Wallonne. He is fired by the team following confirmation of the B-sample in July.
May: Eddy Mazzoleni finishes a surprise third overall at the Giro d'Italia but it turns out to be his final race as a professional. The Italian is implicated in the Oil for Drugs investigation (which dates back to 2004) the following month and is suspended by the Astana team.
June: Vinokourov says that he has ended his working relationship with former Telekom doctor Lothar Heinrich, who admitted to contributing to the doping programme on the German team. In the build-up to the Tour de France, speculation mounts that Vinokourov is among the so-called "Men in Black," a group of riders believed to be coached by Dr. Michele Ferrari and singled out for targeted testing by the UCI.
July: On the eve of the Tour, Vinokourov confirms that he had been coached by Ferrari but denies that he is his doctor. "Ferrari is not my doctor but my trainer. Doctors and trainers are complementary jobs but different," he tells Gazzetta dello Sport.
After a crash ends his overall hopes, Vinokourov returns with two improbable stage victories at the Tour. On the second rest day, it is announced that he has tested positive for a homologous blood transfusion and he is fired by the team.
August: Andrey Kashechkin also tests positive for blood doping during an out-of-competition test carried out in Belek, Turkey.
September: Astana fires Jose Antonio Redondo for "violating team rules." At the World Championships in Stuttgart, then-ProTour manager Alain Rumpf says that Astana's status is "under surveillance" due to the positive cases and reports of unpaid wages.
November: Former US Postal and Discovery Channel manager Johan Bruyneel is named as manager of Astana, bringing nine riders including Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer with him. Current Katusha manager Viatcheslav Ekimov is hired as a middle man between the sponsors and management.
December: Vinokourov announces his retirement even though the Kazakh federation opts to hand him a one-year ban rather than the expected two. The UCI's appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport eventually sees Vinokourov serve a two-year ban.
January: The latest iteration of Astana is presented in Albuquerque. "This is a completely new team," Bruyneel says. "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." The team employs Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard to run its internal testing programme. The Dane performs the same role for the CSC-Saxo Bank team.
February: After RCS Sport leaves Astana off the list of invitees to the Giro d'Italia, ASO follows suit by confirming that the squad is not welcome at the Tour de France, despite the presence of defending champion Contador. "The team Astana has betrayed the organiser's confidence last year," ASO says.
March: Patrik Sinkewitz tells German authorities that Astana rider Andreas Klöden participated in blood doping on the T-Mobile team during of the 2006 Tour de France. An investigation ends in 2009 when Klöden agrees to pay an unspecified sum to a charity for handicapped children.
May: RCS Sport revises its decision on Astana one week before the Giro and at short notice Bruyneel's squad takes the place vacated by NGC Medical. Contador goes on to win the Giro.
July: Astana announces that Vladimir Gusev has been fired after internal testing detects "suspect values." "This proves that Dr. Damsgaard's system works and we are committed to racing clean," Bruyneel says. The Court of Arbitration for Sport finds in Gusev's favour in a wrongful dismissal claim the following year.
September: Lance Armstrong announces that he will come out of retirement in 2009 and race for Astana.
October: Vinokourov intimates that he will return to racing when his ban expires. "I think have my place at Astana," he tells Belgian television. "When he's done his suspension, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to ride for Astana," Bruyneel says.
December: The UCI confirms that it has appealed to CAS to ensure that Vinokourov will serve a full two-year ban.
February: Astana confirms that Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard will continue to carry out internal testing at the team.
March: The French anti-doping agency (AFLD) claims that Armstrong behaved improperly during an out-of-competition test on March 17 by disappearing from the sight of the tester for a period of 20 minutes. Armstrong denies wrongdoing. "We told the tester we wanted to check with the UCI to confirm who he was and to make sure he wasn't just some French guy with a backpack and some equipment to take my blood and urine," he says.
April: The Associated Press reports that Astana has delayed in paying its riders' salaries for March and Air Astana withdraws its support for the team.
May: During the Giro d'Italia, Armstrong and his teammates protest by wearing jerseys with the non-paying sponsors' logos faded out. "I don't know them, I don't have a personal relationship with them, but I get frustrated," Armstrong tells AP. "These Kazakhs, they don't return phone calls and there's not a lot of clarity about what is going to happen."
UCI president Pat McQuaid acknowledges that the team's ProTour status is potentially at risk. "There is still a possibility that we could be going to the licence commission in early June asking for a withdrawal of the licence," he says.
June: Alberto Contador is heavily linked with a pre-Tour switch to Garmin as rumours abound of Astana's financial difficulties but the Spaniard eventually lines up alongside Armstrong at the Grand Départ in Monaco. Assan Bazayev is handed a two-week internal suspension and misses the Tour de Suisse after incorrectly reporting his whereabouts for anti-doping purposes.
July: At the Grand Départ of the Tour, Vinokourov announces that he will return to racing with Astana, even though he has yet to negotiate with team manager Johan Bruyneel. "This is the team we have created in 2006 with the president of the Kazakh cycling federation, this is our baby," Vinokourov says at a press conference in Monaco.
Contador goes on to win the Tour de France despite internal strife with Armstrong, who finishes in third place.
August: Vinokourov returns from a two-year ban to ride a criterium in Castillon-la-Bataille wearing kit bearing his own picture and the legend "Vino Forever." He then rides for the Kazakh national team at the Tour de l'Ain before re-signing for Astana in time for the Vuelta a España.
September: Vinokourov's return prompts the departure of Bruyneel and Armstrong to the newly-established RadioShack team. "He more or less demanded my departure if I didn't allow him in the team," Bruyneel complains. "When I came in I had made it clear that I hoped I didn't have to take him in the team. It turned out differently. Vinokourov is back in the team and that's why I'm leaving."
November: After attempting leave Astana, Contador confirms that he will remain at the team for the final year of his existing contract, albeit with the reservations "that the team retains its ProTour license and strict compliance with the code of ethics and internal doping control system." At the end of the month, the UCI confirms that Astana will retain its ProTour licence for 2010.
Following the departure of Bruyneel and his staff, Yvon Sanquer joins Astana as team manager while Giuseppe Martinelli arrives as directeur sportif.
April: Vinokourov wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège but is booed by some fans as he mounts the podium. "We are here to talk about my victory, not about doping," he says afterwards. In December 2011, Swiss magazine L'llustre alleges that Vinokourov paid breakaway companion Alexandr Kolobnev a bribe of €100,000. "It's my private life," Vinokourov retorts. "It's another story to blacken my name. I often loan money left and right."
July: Contador wins the Tour de France and immediately afterwards reveals that he is leaving Astana to join Saxo Bank in 2011.
August: Yvon Sanquer is dismissed as manager of Astana. Martinelli takes over management of the sporting side of the team while Aidar Makhmetov is named as commercial manager.
September: It emerges that Contador returned a positive test for Clenbuterol on the second rest day of the 2010 Tour. After a drawn-out legal process, CAS finds against him in February 2012 and he is stripped of his 2010 Tour win.
January: The Kazakh Cycling Federation threatens legal action against Sanquer after he complained that he had been unfairly dismissed by the Astana team. Sanquer protested that he was hired to ensure the team's ProTour status and then sidelined immediately afterwards.
May: New signing Roman Kreuziger finishes 5th at the Giro d'Italia and wins the best young rider classification. When the UCI opens biological passport proceedings against him in 2014, the anomalies it cites date from 2011 and 2012, the two years he spent at Astana.
July: Alexandre Vinokourov announces his retirement from cycling after breaking his femur in a crash at the Tour de France.
August: Following Vinokourov's retirement, Aidar Makhmetov signs Andrey Kashechkin from Lampre to take his place on the roster. Vinokourov responds by performing a prompt U-turn on his retirement decision, although that meant that Astana now had 29 registered riders rather than the permitted 28. Days later, the team announces that 24-year-old Roman Kireyev had retired from cycling with immediate effect, citing a back injury, thus opening space for Vinokourov to return. "Without my points the team would be forced to become a Professional Continental team because they haven't signed anyone for 2012," Vinokourov says.
November: Vinokourov confirms that he will race one final season in 2012 before taking on a role in Astana's management. He is listed among ruling party Nur Otan's list of candidates for the Kazakh general election in January 2012.
April: Astana are dominant at the Ardennes Classics as Enrico Gasparotto wins Amstel Gold Race and Maxim Iglinskiy lands Liège-Bastogne-Liège. "He rode to perfection. He did it the Vino way!" Vinokourov says of Iglinskiy.
August: Vinokourov wins the Olympic road race by out-sprinting Rigoberto Uran in London. On retirement shortly afterwards he becomes the general manager of the Astana team.
October: Former Astana employees Armstrong, Bruyneel, Leipheimer, Dr. Pedro Celaya and Dr. Luis del Moral are all implicated by USADA in its report on the systematic doping programme in place at the US Postal and Discovery Channel teams.
November: Astana states its intention to join the Movement for Credible Cycling. The team also announces an increased internal anti-doping testing programme based at the Orbassano anti-doping laboratory in the Piedmont region of Italy.
"During these last few years I think everybody knows [Ferrari] is out of cycling," Martinelli says. "If some stupid person after that goes to Ferrari I think they really should not be racing anymore. Since I arrived, from 2010, I have never seen the Ferraris - I have not seen them with our team. I think the idiots - we have a lot of them in our sport - have understood the story now and they are very careful."
January: Vincenzo Nibali arrives at Astana from Liquigas, bringing Valerio Agnoli and Alessandro Vanotti with him.
May: Nibali wins the Giro d'Italia.
September: Nibali finishes second overall at the Vuelta a España, losing the red jersey to Chris Horner on the penultimate day of racing. The Sicilian is afflicted by a wasp sting midway through the race but on the instructions of Vinokourov, he follows MPCC regulations and refuses treatment with cortisone, to the apparent annoyance of Martinelli.
December: Astana pulls out of signing Franco Pellizotti as a result of its membership of the MPCC. Under the rules of the movement, Pellizotti would not have been eligible to race until May 2014, two full years after the expiration of his ban for biological passport violations. The team does, however, complete the signing of Michele Scarponi despite the ban he served the previous winter for frequenting Dr. Michele Ferrari. He had previously served a ban for blood doping under the supervision of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes.
January: In an interview with BiciSport, Valerio Agnoli laments that he has been side-lined by Astana's Kazakh management and prevented from following the same race programme as his close friend Nibali. He later downplays the perception that he had also criticised Nibali in the interview and throughout the year, rumours of strife between the Italian and Kazakh arms of the team recur in the Italian press.
April: After a low-key start to the season, Vinokourov sends an email of admonishment to Astana riders and staff, lamenting the team's lowly standings in the WorldTour rankings. When the email reaches the public domain in Gazzetta dello Sport in June, it is initially – and erroneously – reported that Nibali was the sole recipient of such an email.
May: Fabio Aru emerges to finish third overall at the Giro d'Italia and win a stage atop Montecampione. Gazzetta dello Sport claims that Aru's result has "saved" Martinelli's job as directeur sportif.
July: Vincenzo Nibali wins the Tour de France, claiming four stages along the way. He responds calmly to questions about his Astana team's insalubrious past and the prevalence of doping in cycling. "I've always been a standard bearer for anti-doping," he says, though noting that when it comes to doping cases, "The mother of the imbecile is always pregnant."
At Nibali's rest day press conference in Lignan-sur-Orb, Vinokourov declines to talk about his 2007 positive test. "2007 is in the past and I don't want to return to that topic," he says. At the Tour finish in Paris, Vinokourov meets with UCI president Brian Cookson, who reportedly asks him to appear before the Cycling Independent Reform Commission.
September 10: Astana sacks Valentin Iglinskiy immediately after his prompt confession when it emerges that he returned a positive test for EPO at the Eneco Tour in August.
October 1: It is revealed that Maxim Iglinskiy returned a positive test for EPO in an out-of-competition test for EPO on August 1.
October 6: Iglinskiy's four-day delay in deciding not to seek a B-sample analysis allows Astana to compete at the Tour of Lombardy and, more importantly, home race the Tour of Almaty, before the team suspends itself for the Tour of Beijing, as per MPCC procedures following two positive tests in a twelve-month period. Astana are criticised for following the letter of the law rather than its spirit, but their actions are defended by MPCC president Roger Legeay.
October 16: It is announced that Astana stagiaire Ilya Davidenok returned a positive test for anabolic androgenic steroids on August 28 at the Tour de l'Avenir, where he was racing for the Kazakh national team. Davidenok was a member of the Astana Continental team. The UCI confirms that it will ask the WorldTour Licence Commission to undertake a full review of the team's management and anti-doping policies.
October 21: Astana directeur sportif Dmitriy Fofonov speaks on Astana's behalf at the MPCC annual general meeting rather than the absent Vinokourov. The team selects Fofonov to speak due to his rapport with MPCC president Roger Legeay, his command of French and the fact that he successfully appealed for a reduced ban when he tested positive for hepatminol at the 2008 Tour, while riding for Legeay's Credit Agricole team.
October 22: At the Tour de France presentation in Paris, Vinokourov tells Cyclingnews that he feels "angry and betrayed" by the Iglinskiy positives but dismisses the idea of speaking to the CIRC about his own 2007 positive. "I can't keep paying for it for all my life," he says.
November 6: Members of Astana's management appear before the UCI Licence Commission to outline their new anti-doping measures.
November 19: Astana Continental rider Victor Okishev is revealed to have tested positive for anabolic androgenic steroids at May's Asian Games, where he won the under-23 time trial. "All Continental Team Astana riders and staff are shocked and disappointed by the news that comes from a UCI Press Release this Wednesday, effectively six months after the sample was taken," the team says in a statement.
November 26: Astana Continental rider Artur Fedosseyev becomes the fifth rider from the Astana set-up to return a positive test in 2014, after it emerges he tested positive for an anabolic steroid on August 16.
November 28: The Kazakh Cycling Federation suspends Astana Continental Team, while manager Dmitri Sedoun is fired. Vinokourov, Nibali and others claim repeatedly that they were two completely separate set-ups, but it is a fact that Sedoun also served as a directeur sportif for the WorldTour team.
December 4: The UCI announces the first 16 WorldTour teams for 2015 but defers a decision on Astana’s status until December 10.
December 8: Two days before the Licence Commission's decision, Astana's credibility is dealt another blow when Gazzetta dello Sport reports that Dr. Michele Ferrari was photographed visiting the team's training camp at Montecatini Terme in November 2013. Astana declines to comment though Ferrari forcefully denies the allegation in a statement on his website.