Astana has recorded some rather unexpected results so far this seasonâ€”for better and for worse. On the bright side, Enrico Gasparotto and Maxim Iglinsky won the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, respectively. On the other hand, Roman Kreuziger underwhelmed at the Giro dâ€™Italia, failing to contend for the overall and instead having to settle for a â€œtoo-little, too-lateâ€ stage victory.
Kreuzigerâ€™s taking a planned break in his season, and will be skipping the Tour – but enfant terrible Alexandre Vinokourov will be riding.Â After crashing out of last yearâ€™s race, Vino is back for what should really be his final Tour de France. Then again, weâ€™ve heard riders say that before, and Vino loves the limelight. Vinoâ€™s done little to indicate heâ€™ll be a factor at this yearâ€™s Tour de Franceâ€”which is a shame in a way, as the parcours actually suits his riding style and skillset. Instead, weâ€™ll likely see the 38-year-old working for Janez Brajkovic while targeting a few stages for himselfâ€”all in preparation for the Olympic games later this summer.
As for Brajkovic, the Slovenian joined his new teammate in crashing out of last yearâ€™s Tour before we had a chance to see how he would handle himself in a grand tour. Remember: this is the rider who simply dominated the 2010 Criterium du DauphinÃ© before being sent to the Tour in order to support Lance Armstrong in his final Grand Boucle. This year, Brajkovic has enjoyed a quiet string of high finishes in his Tour build-up, including top-10 rides at the Tour of Romandie and the DauphinÃ© before taking the overall victory in his home tour less than 10 days ago. Assuming he can avoid the bad luck he experienced last season, Brajkovic could easily finish inside the top-10 in Paris.
In the end, stage wins and a top-10 GC finish would be the ideal scenario for Astana, a team that might look to transfer market to find a true GC contender to fill the void created by Alberto Contadorâ€™s departure two seasons ago.
Man of the Hour
No matter what anyone ever says, this team is all about Alexandre Vinokourovâ€”at least when he races. While a challenge for a high GC finish is unlikely, there are several stages that have likely been dog-eared in his Livre du Course. Iâ€™d be surprised if he doesnâ€™t win at least one stage.
On the Hot Seat
Brajkovic created quite a stir when he defeated Contador and stacked field to win the 2010 DauphinÃ©. Unfortunately, heâ€™s done little since. This year heâ€™s healthy, in-form, and has the full support of his team. There should be nothing stopping us from seeing what heâ€™s really capable of doing.
Robert Kiserlovski finished tenth for Liquigas in the 2010 Giro dâ€™Italiaâ€”at 23 years old. After moving to Astana with Roman Kreuziger last season, the young Croat failed to repeat the result, perhaps because more was expected of him as Kreuzigerâ€™s lieutenant. This year he rides his first Tour de France and could find himself as his teamâ€™s best GC candidate if Brajkovic falls short.
Andriy Grivko is usually happy to ride for othersâ€”except during the last weekend in Juneâ€”at his National Championships, that is. This year the Ukranian rider doubled-up, winning both the road race and time trial in Bila Tserkva.
Follow Whit on Twitter at @whityost