Out Of Time, Money, And Good Ideas – The Astana Story

…Or, “What I Learned This Summer At The Giro D’italia”

Cutting to the chase, it’s been a lousy month for the squad whose paychecks are mailed from Kazahkstan. 

First, they packed wrong for their Italian holiday; namely, they failed to bring along Alberto Contador in case they encountered a serious bike race in their travels.  Instead, they arrived with a gaggle of riders assigned to achieve their bipolar strategy of a) helping Levi win the race, if he’s able, or b) helping Lance win the race, if he’s more able.  

So Chris Horner got assigned to sit up front and break wind, and he did such a stupendous job that day after day he ended up sitting prominently among the top 10 in the GC — even though he wasn’t supposed to be a factor in the race.  [Don’t we all wish we had a guy like Chris leading out our club-ride so we could be delivered to the finish line in such comfort?].  But, as luck would have it, Horner hit the pavement and his ticket was punched.

That left Lance pulling for Levi, presumably, unless Lance were to beat Levi in the individual time trial — the prospect of which had us so intrigued.  The good news for Lance is that he looked like the man-of-old as he stomped the pedals; the bad news was that his split times were more like an old man.  Granted, he’s still probably top 20 or so in the world when it comes to TT’ing, but his teammate, former domestique, and fellow senior citizen Levi Leipheimer, is simply faster at it.  So were a bunch of other guys.

When the dust settled, even Lance knew he was relegated to a lot of bottle-fetching in the coming days.

But what about Levi?  Could he actually win the Giro with Lance pulling him along, chasing down breaks, and doing all the twittering for both of them?

After the individual time trial – Levi’s specialty, mind you, which he was supposed to have won by a minute or two – Levi sat a not too disturbing 40 seconds down from the overall race leader.  Not exactly where the team playbook called for him to be, but after almost a week and a half of sitting on wheels his legs had to have a lot of life left in them.  

Which he would need.  

When you’re behind in the GC, at some point it becomes unlikely that you’re going to win by waiting for everybody else lose.  At some point you’ve got to get out of the saddle and seize the day. Typically, Levi manages that in time trials, then tries to minimize his losses on the mountain stages. 

But now, younger guys like the Rusky, Denis Menchov, were showing young-Armstrongesque panache in their ability to climb and TT, and to offer Levi a good view of their back tire when Levi should have been giving them a look at his own.

When Menchov won the time trial and grabbed the pink jersey, it completely upended Astana’s aforementioned strategy for the Giro.  So now Levi would have to do his attacking in the mountains.  In Italy.  Against a bunch of Italian rockets like Basso and Pellizoti, as well at Menchov, and Sastre, and former Giro champion Danilo Di Luca. 

Perhaps it didn’t boost Levi’s confidence when Di Luca was quoted as saying “I’ve never seen Leipheimer attack.  In other words, Levi is viewed in the peloton as this year’s Cadel Evans.  A guy who rides well overall, sucks wheels for weeks at a time, but simply can’t or won’t attack if their life depended on it.  

Leipheimer wasn’t ready to concede the point, mind you.  “If I feel good enough, I will attack, I promise you that,” Leipheimer countered.  Note to Levi:  We’re still waiting.

Astana’s patriarch, Johan Bruyneel, weighed in thus: “Obviously, it would be better to be 40 (seconds) ahead than 40 behind, but there are still a lot of hard stages to come. We’ll just have to see and maybe take advantage of a bad moment of Menchov or one of the other favorites to attack and gain some time.”

Right, Johan.  Except that these guys haven’t been having a lot of those “bad moments.”

Leipheimer said the Petrano mountain stage on Monday would be his best chance to make a mark. “I think Monte Petrano is the biggest day we have between now and the finish,” he told reporters Friday morning. “And there’s two uphill finishes with Blockhaus and Vesuvio, but Petrano is a long day and it’s probably going to be hot. Some guys can just crack.”  

As of today’s fun-run up Blockhaus, it’s clear that when Levi said “some guys,”  he meant to add “…like me and Lance, for example.” 

While the aforementioned guys who were supposed to have weak moments didn’t particularly seem to, it wasn’t lost on anybody that Levi got dropped off Lance’s wheel today when Lance tried to bridge the gap to those aforementioned individuals.  Nor was it lost on anybody that Lance managed to get precisely halfway across the bridge before running out of steam and dropping back to give shade to Levi.  

The two of them limped home licking their wounds and perhaps rethinking strategies for that little bike race in France a few weeks from now.

Which brings us back to Contador.

Only a few months ago it was Lance announcing his comeback, and the press seizing on the intrigue of Lance vs. Alberto – which would be king?  Funny how all it took was a quick trip to the Pasta House to sort that out. 

Last year Contador rode the race and won it with style.  This year, neither Lance and Levi will get so much as a faint whiff of the podium. Heck, they may not even be allowed in the VIP tent at the closing ceremony.  If they do, it’ll be to fetch drinks for the VIPs.  They’re probably starting to get used to that by now.

Which brings us back to Astana. 

You may recall that the team quit paying rider salaries months ago.  Those Kazakhs are proving pretty clever at ensuring they get the money’s worth at the Giro.  And who can blame the sponsors for wanting their names bleached off the jerseys halfway through the race?  

But we digress.

It’s rumored that Lance and his moneyed friends may be poised to purchase the club, which finds itself with two things going for it at the moment: a) a singular leader who can win the big races for them – provided they bring him along – until his contract expires and he bolts for a less screwed-up organization, and b) a deep-discount price.

All that aside, it’s been a fantastic Giro.

Share your thoughts about Lance, Levi, Alberto, Astana and the Giro in the box below.


  1. Paul Andrews says:

    Great review, accurate observations. Even though I blogged from the beginning that Lance’s chances for the Giro (and even the Tour) were being hyped, I feel bad for the guy. It’s tough for heroes to go out on top and not want to recapture the glory, everyone from Michael Jordan to Brett Favre. OTOH Lance has done wonders to kindle interest in cycling, and bring a lot of money back to the sport. Let’s face it, no one would be paying much attention to Giro (as in the past) if Lance weren’t riding, and the Tour would be ho-hum as well. Even if his aura is tainted, faded and “so over,” credit him with sticking it out and doing the sport a big favor.

  2. System6 says:

    Totally agree about Lance bringing massive attention to races like the Giro and Tour Down Under — and that’s unquestionably great for the sport.

    Also, he deserves praise simply for having the courage to get back in the pro peloton and bust his ass. On top of that, he’s doing remarkably well. It’s just that when you were absolute the best in the world for nearly a decade, there’s almost no way you can ever hope to live up to the standards of your former self.

    Personally, I’m more interested in watching guys like Contador, Di Luca, and Menchov, who (as far as we know) are clean and are among the next generation of champions. I look forward to seeing even younger ones like Tyler Phinney make their mark, as well.

    Notwithstanding the turmoil at Astana, it would be a spectacle for Lance and Johan to buy it out and run it. Undoubtedly they would put together a squad that would be better than a perpetual also-ran, which is what their Giro troop appears to be. Would they go after Basso again? Quite possibly. Would they be able to keep Contador? Perhaps – if their pockets are deep enough and they name him “The Guy,” and don’t go after more “The Guys” like Basso, etc.