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In training with Astana

8 Aug 2019

This article was originally published in issue 86 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Witts Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

The Kazakh team insist their chequered past is behind them, as Cyclist learns at a pre-season training camp in Spain

Astana is a team that arouses suspicion. Much of it is warranted, owing to a long list of doping scandals; some of it, arguably, is simply down to the West’s scepticism of the exotic East.

But when Cyclist pays a visit to the Astana training camp near Benidorm in Spain in mid-December 2018, there is no sense of a team lurking beneath a cloud of controversy.

Laughter and cheering erupt from behind a curtain in the hotel restaurant, startling some of the nearby pensioners who are here for a spot of winter warmth.

In the closed-off area, Astana riders are tucking into the buffet dinner as new recruit Manuele Boaro climbs to his feet to address his teammates. ‘I look forward to a successful season,’ Boaro declares.

He is dressed in the Bahrain-Merida kit from his previous contract, adhering to the UCI’s rather ludicrous rule that a rider, despite being able to train with his new team, must wear his old kit until 1st January.

He also has what looks like a handkerchief, knotted in each corner, balanced on his head. Boaro then downs a glass of red wine, resulting in further banging of tables and raucous reaction from the rest of the team.

Fellow newcomer Merhawi Kudos from Dimension Data then follows suit. This is initiation Astana-style and, as it transpires, will lay the intoxicated foundations for the late-night shooting of the video for ‘Astana Pro Team – First-Ever Cycling Rap’ (look it up on YouTube).

The rap song, performed by the team, features such classic lines as, ‘I’m Vino, behind me is Martino,’ and, ‘It’s Lopez, Superman. Climbing fast is his plan.’

‘It’s going to be memorable,’ says Sven Jonker, the team’s Dutch press officer.

Anyone who’s seen the video since its release would surely concur. ‘It’s great for team bonding and to lighten the atmosphere and perception of the team,’ Jonker adds. And it’s a team that could certainly benefit from some positive PR.

Nefarious past

Astana, the team named after the capital of Kazakhstan, are unmistakeable in their sky-blue apparel. It’s this commitment to the colour that, suggests Jonker, is partly why many in the cycling community view the team’s every success – of which there were 33 in 2018, plus 62 podium places – with distrust.

‘Maybe a change of kit would represent a fresh start from the complicated past,’ says Jonker.

The ‘complicated past’ is a polite way of referring to a doping palmarès that reads like a Who’s Who of cycling. Alberto Contador won, and then lost, the 2010 Tour de France while racing for Astana after testing positive for clenbuterol.

Three years earlier, Alexander Vinokourov was caught blood doping at the 2007 Tour (his initial defence came from the Beano book of medicine, arguing that the blood rushing to his legs a day prior to the test raised haematocrit levels).

Then there’s Lance Armstrong. While the Texan never admitted to doping during his sole season (2009) with Astana, USADA stated the chances that it didn’t happen were one in a million.

Even in the brave new cycling world, guarded by the biological passport, Astana continued to be beset by doping controversies.

Soon after Vincenzo Nibali won the sixth of the team’s eight Grand Tour titles in 2014, five senior and development riders were caught doping with EPO and steroids.

The UCI investigated the team and it looked like their race licence would be rescinded. To much criticism, they retained their WorldTour spot but with ‘special measures’.

According to former rider and now general manager Vinokourov, it meant ‘we had to improve our organising structure, building more effective communication between team riders and staff and management.

‘There were a lot of different things we had to improve, but finally we managed to adhere to all the requirements and build an even stronger team.’

It’s not obvious what that means, but since then the highest-profile Astana rider to test positive (for human growth hormone) has been Tatiana Antoshina, who races for the women’s team.

Let’s hope this really does indicate that things have changed inside the Kazakh squad.

An easy five-hour ride

‘Today’s ride is around 150-160km,’ says trainer and Pep Guardiola-lookalike Artitz Arberas. Cyclist will be in Arberas’s car alongside directeur sportif Lars Michaelsen, who won Gent-Wevelgem in 1995 and wore the Vuelta’s leader’s jersey for three days in 1997.

‘We’ll work on the aerobic capacity of the riders,’ Arberas adds.

‘We’ve been working them hard on this camp and they’re flying home tomorrow, so today’s going to be an easy effort.’

We’d argue that a five-hour ride on hilly terrain, with last night’s vin rouge still coursing through the veins, is far from easy. But it shouldn’t prove too demanding for a team that includes ‘Superman’ – the nickname given to the team’s current Grand Tour hopeful, Miguel Angel Lopez.

The 25-year-old Colombian enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2018, finishing third at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta. The ever-improving performance of the 1.64m, 59kg rider convinced the team to release Fabio Aru in 2017.

The team’s other Grand Tour leader is Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang, the former under-23 mountain bike World Champion who turned road pro in 2006, but didn’t really rise to prominence until 2017 when he outwitted Richie Porte to win the Critérium du Dauphiné.

They’re here on the training camp but not in the group we’re shadowing. They’re in groups two and three, whose primary aims are the Giro and Tour respectively. We’re following group one, which comprises riders heading to January’s Tour Down Under.

‘It means every training ride has been, on average, 30 minutes longer and more intense,’ explains Laurens De Vreese, the domestique who took centre stage in ‘that rap’ and will provide support duties for the team’s leader in Australia, Luis León Sánchez (who will go on to claim an impressive fourth in the general classification at the Tour Down Under).

The group also includes six Kazakh riders, including arguably the most successful homegrown rider, Alexey Lutsenko, who won a stage of the Vuelta in 2017.

Lutsenko, like most of the team’s Kazakh riders, will remain in this part of Spain for the winter, as temperatures average -4°C to -19°C in his home country. After the camp, Lopez will head back to Colombia while Fuglsang flies to his home in Monaco.

‘It’s been a busy camp,’ Fuglsang says. ‘We’ve had bike fitting, insoles moulded, the team presentation, aerodynamic analysis on the track in Valencia, plus medical checks at the hospital in Alicante.

‘Those are particularly important. We had one guy who had to leave the team because of fainting last year and the subsequent cardiac report from testing back in September.’

That rider, with whom Astana ‘decided not to extend contractual relations for 2019’, was Bakhtiyar Kozhatayev. His heart condition, while not life-threatening, was ‘incompatible with the loads that exist in the WorldTour’.

It’s an understandable precaution, bearing in mind that five years earlier, 19-year-old Astana Continental rider Yerlan Pernebekov died of a stroke on a training camp. There was no evidence of doping involved.

Training nirvana

Back to our group one training ride, and Sanchez, in search of racing legs, scorches off the front of the group. It’s effortless speed, helped by roads that are silky smooth and free of traffic. It’s why the likes of Sunweb, AG2R, Direct Energie, Dimension Data and Katusha regularly head here. That and the topography.

‘There’s a choice of climbs,’ says Arberas. ‘Some are long and steady, averaging 5-6% and reaching heights of 1,000m, measuring around 6-15km.

‘Then there are short, explosive ones that reach 25%.’ Today’s ride has more of the former with occasional instances of the latter thrown in.

De Vreese nearly topples off his bike on one of those 25% ascents, although more because he’s riding one-handed with his mobile in his other hand than becuse he’s unable to cope with the gradient. For the most part, though, the 150km pre-Christmas ride passes without incident.

Lemon and orange groves, cacti, olive trees and conifers line the road and provide a vibrant burst of colour against the dry, mountainous backdrop.

It’s a far cry from Benidorm, the manmade dystopia down the road that every now and then pokes its ugly head above the mist on the horizon. I ask Michaelsen whether the riders will train on Christmas Day. ‘They should do,’ he responds. ‘I certainly did, sometimes up to six hours.

‘It’s easy to say it’s raining today so I’ll only do two hours. But say that once and it happens again and again. It’s too easy. You’d never achieve your goals like that.’

How have things changed since he raced? ‘There used to be a greater focus on winter miles at lower intensity.

‘Nowadays, it’s fewer miles but at a higher intensity. We used to race more too, but one thing that has remained the same is moto-pacing. It’s a really effective way to simulate race situations.’

That shift in training intensity is credited to Team Sky, which brings us neatly onto our next subject. Was it a surprise that the media behemoths are going to withdraw from the sport at the end of 2019?

‘We were a little surprised, but I know the team had been planning for it for a while,’ says Michaelsen. ‘When they were sold to Comcast, they gave away the power of decision. They have to rely on the brand they’ve built up being strong enough to be sold.’

Spreading the Kazakh word

Once back at the hotel, the riders head to their rooms to shower before lunch. We try to track down Vinokourov for an interview, but it seems he has already evaporated into the warm Spanish sun and headed to the airport to return to Kazakhstan, where he has a second home (‘a gift for winning the Olympics’).

Instead we talk to team manager Dmitriy Fofonov, a Kazakh former pro who rode for Astana from 2010 to 2012.

‘The aim of the team is to develop the sport in our country,’ he says. ‘That’s why as well as the WorldTour team Astana has ProContinental, Continental and women’s teams.

‘The team is also there to spread the word about our country and our capital. That’s why the WorldTour team has around 30% Kazakh riders. That and their ability, of course.’

Astana have been spreading the word about Kazakhstan since the team was founded in 2007.

In that time they’ve been financed by Samruk Kazyna, the state sovereign wealth fund that owns much of the country’s resources, including its gas, oil, banking, telecoms and postal services.

The team is also sponsored by the Astana Presidential Club, an umbrella organisation that also finances football, basketball, ice hockey and boxing teams.

‘We used to have a team in the Dakar Rally too,’ adds Fofonov.

‘Twenty-seven years ago, when Kazakhstan declared independence [from the USSR], Astana used to be two small buildings. Now it’s crazy and even has its own White House.’

The Guardian called Astana ‘one of the strangest capital cities on Earth… where shiny metal and glass implausibly rises up from the Kazakh steppe like some post-modern Lego set that has stumbled into the opening sequence of Dallas.’

Before we can discuss the magnificent madness of the city in the desert further, Jonker calls us upstairs to talk with De Vreese while he has a post-ride massage.

In the hotel room, the 30-year-old Belgian displays the same sort of confidence as in the rap video by dropping his towel and obliging us to conduct the interview while confronted by his waist-down nudity.

Still, De Vreese’s physical openness is reflected in a candid conversation where he reveals he hasn’t had a break since his last race in China at the end of October, partly down to the precarious nature of cycling and a one-year contract.

He explains why he doesn’t use WhatsApp (‘cycling is all about teamwork and you need to communicate – that’s why I simply chat to someone if I want to know what’s going on’) and how the boost in the numbers of coaches has improved the team – ‘apart from the shit ones’.

So what are his hopes for 2019? ‘I think the Izagirre brothers [Ion and Gorka, arriving from Bahrain-Merida] will strengthen the team, while personally I’ll give the team everything I can,’ he says.

That evening at dinner, the mood is more sedate than it was last night. Perhaps the hangovers have kicked in. Perhaps the open and welcoming atmosphere was only a temporary break from the real, closed Astana?

For the sake of cycling and the team, let’s hope not.