Each year, PavÃ© previews the upcoming road season with a countdown of the top-20 teams in the sport. Yesterday we took at the first team in this yearâ€™s top-10.Â Hereâ€™s #9.
#9 â€“ Astana
Like Euskaltel, Astana has the potential to put someone on the podium in all three Grand Tours while winning several important one-day races along the way.Â With a talented core of captains and a group of underrated, but dedicated domestiques, thereâ€™s reason to believe the squad can and will bounce back after the loss of Alberto Contador.
In the spring classics last year, Maxim Iglinsky blossomed into a dark horse candidate for this yearâ€™s Classics, taking the win in the Montepaschi Strade Bianche before embarking on a terrific 4-week run.Â Iglinksy, Enrico Gasparotto, Andriy Grivko, and new addition Tomas Vaitkus give Astana a seasoned group of men ready to compete throughout March and April.Â While a Monument win might be too tall of an order (unless Aussie Allan Davis can finally breakthrough in Milan-San Remo), there will be several chances for the team to stand on the podiumâ€™s top step.Â An aggressive group unafraid to animate, look to see at least one rider tucked into the back of most of the springâ€™s important breakaways.
In the Ardennes, Roman Kreuziger and Alexandre Vinokourov will give Astana two top favorites, especially if they prove able to complement one anotherâ€™s talents (they both have a penchant for over-attacking and will need to coordinate their moves lest they nullify their collective efforts).Â From there, the Giro beckons, where Kreuziger will have the team at his disposal in an attempt to win his first Grand Tour.Â A talented climber and time trialist with two Tour de France top-10â€™s on his resume, Kreuziger has to be considered a favorite for at least the top-5.Â Even better, heâ€™s competing against his friend and former teammate, Vincenzo Nibali; their pending battle will be one of the raceâ€™s more interesting storylines.
At the Tour de France, Vino will lead to the squad.Â At 37, many say the Kazakhâ€™s best days are behind him, but letâ€™s remember that he missed almost two years of racing, in a sense making his â€œeffectiveâ€ age 35.Â In a Tour that could be a bit more wide-open, consider Vino an outside contender for a spot on the podium in Paris.Â With a full season of dedicated preparation in his legsâ€”and a nice long rest after last seasonâ€™s Tour de Franceâ€”I expect him to be a bit more competitive than many seem to think.
From there, all signs point to the summer classics and the Vuelta, races in which both Kreuziger and Vinokourov could excel if they participate.Â And last but not least, donâ€™t rule out Allan Davis on a relatively flat course at Worlds in Copenhagenâ€”he finished third last year in Melbourne and is one of the pelotonâ€™s best sprinters never to have won a big race.
Man of the Hour: Roman Kreuziger is finally free from the shadow of his former co-captains at Liquigas, but is that a good thing?Â Many have struggled without someone to share the limelight and one has to wonder if Liquigas knew what they were doing when they let him depart this past off-season.Â That said, Kreuzigerâ€™s still only 24 and has plenty of time to develop. Iâ€™m eager to see what a change of scenery does for the Czech.
On the Hot Seat: Remi Digregorioâ€™s such an easy target, but after a terribly disappointing time with FDJ and only a one-year contract with Astana, youâ€™ve got to wonder if this might be the Frenchmanâ€™s last chance.
Up-and-Comer: Maxim Iglinsky enjoyed quite a productive spring last season, winning Lâ€™Eroica, taking fourth in Tirreno-Adriatico, eighth in Milan-San Remo, seventh in Ghent-Wevelgem, and eighth in the Tour of Flandersâ€”quite an impressive string of results!Â At 29, heâ€™s riding in the prime of his career and should benefit from the addition of the powerful and experienced Tomas Vaitkus.
Best Pick-Up: Lost in the hubbub after Liquigas took first and third in last yearâ€™s Giro was Robert Kiserlovskiâ€™s tenth-place overall.Â Yes, he gained most of his time after making the mega-break on Stage 11, but he more than held his own throughout the final half of the eventâ€”and he did it while riding for Basso and Nibali.
Biggest Loss: Iâ€™ll never forget the sight of Daniel Navarro dragging a diminishing peloton up the lower slopes of the Alps and Pyrenees during last yearâ€™s Tour de France. Vinokourov will miss him this July.
And thatâ€™s it for #9.Â Share your comments below.