Astana gets first stage victory and yellow jersey

Levi Leipheimer (Astana) on his way to the Tour of California yellow jersey

Levi Leipheimer (Astana) on his way to the Tour of California yellow jersey (Image credit: Jon Devich)

Leipheimer comments on his team's exclusions

By Kirsten Robbins in San Jose, California

Astana is living up to Levi Leipheimer's promise to respond in a sporting way to recent snubs from Grand Tour organizers. The team boasted its first stage victory and yellow jersey for the 2008 season and thereby presented a case on their bikes as to why they should be included in the French organization ASO's Tour de France and Paris-Nice and the Italian organization RCS's Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo.

In the Volta ao Algarve, Tomas Vaitkus won the second stage from Lagoa to Lagos. Vaitkus, who finished second in stage one on Wednesday, was the fastest man in stage two's group sprint Thursday. He was faster than Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner), Björn Schröder (Team Milram), Javier Benitez (Benfica), Kenny Dehaes (Topsport Vlaanderen), Bernhard Eisel (High Road) and Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto). It was the Lithuanian's and the team's first victory of the season.

After crossing the line, Vaitkus was very emotional. "The team worked so hard for me. I couldn't believe that they had so much confidence in me. I really could cry now. This is extra special after all we've been through the past few weeks." Astana was not invited to compete in either the Giro d'Italia or the Tour de France in recent weeks despite having the 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and third placed rider Leipheimer on its squad.

Sports Director Alexander Shefer was very proud of Astana's effort in the Algarve. "Our riders did a great job. Together with Cofidis and Gerolsteiner, they had to work so long to close an 11 minute gap. Four riders (two Belgian and two Portuguese riders) were in the front. The last man, Preben Vanhecke, was only caught in the last 500 meters. It is a pity that Tomas lost one second yesterday [Wednesday - ed.], otherwise we would have had two yellow jerseys in one day."

Meanwhile in the Tour of California, Leipheimer started stage four from Seaside to San Luis Obispo clad in yellow after a strong stage three, the queen stage with five climbs, in which he broke away with Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and finished second after the Dutch rider.

Leipheimer commented on his team being excluded from the world-class events as being vague and disappointing. "I think it's the same as always," said Leipheimer to Cyclingnews. "We are really frustrated as a team because they have given us no explanation. I think that the arguments that the two organizations [ASO and RCS] have given to exclude us are very vague and weak and inconsistent and we left to wonder and try to come to a conclusion. It's really difficult to be in that position."

ASO's decision to not invite Astana ruled out hopes of Contador defending his title both the Tour de France and Paris-Nice. Furthermore, the decision affected Johan Bruyneel's hopes of winning the team competition in a similar fashion as his former Discovery Channel team did.

RCS's recent decision to exclude Astana from Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo puts a stop to Andreas Klöden's chances of defending his 2007 title in the later event. Although Leipheimer has not spoken with his Klöden, who was in the midst of a heavy training block preparing for Tirreno-Adriatico, he knows his team-mate is disappointed in RCS's exclusion.

"Kloden won the race last year and he was really looking forward to defending his title in Terrino, he had prepared all winter for it," said Leipheimer. "To have it taken away for an unexplainable reason is really frustrating. I know he feels the same as Alberto does, who is the defending champion of Paris Nice and defending champion of the Tour de France and he can't even go there an defend his title. These are two races that they were targeting all year long and so the three of us feel the same."

Leipheimer reiterated that the only real way to fight the organizations is to prove to the organizers their worthiness by using their legs to win races against other world-class teams and riders and in other world-class events. "We are just trying to keep our heads up and we've come out here with something to prove, especially today," said Leipheimer after taking control of the golden jersey in the Tour of California.

"I think that's the best thing we can do is to try to race our bikes as best as we can and fight back in that way," he said. "Were just hoping that the fans will speak up and they will let the organizers know that the races won't be the same without us. Whoever were to win this year's Tour, without us, it can't feel that great and they can't feel like they were the best rider in the world."

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