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91st Giro d'Italia - Astana Team Preview Updated
By Andy McGrath
Date: 5/9/2008
91st Giro d'Italia - Astana Team Preview Updated

Better late than never? With their late inviation to the party, Astana are spolit for choice as they bring the Big Three of Contador, Klöden and Leipheimer to the battlefield…Update Benjamin Noval out - Morabito in.

Better late than never? Astana will be pleased to have secured a ride in the Giro d’Italia, but they would much rather have received their ticket months in advance, alongside everyone else. Nonetheless, after Angelo Zomegnan’s surprise U-turn, they have had a week to pick a team. Despite the hurried nature and lack of preparation, the squad seems spoilt for choice. Theirs will be the most star-studded line-up on the start line at Palermo – Leipheimer, Contador AND Klöden in the same team? Such a prospect will have the seasoned (and admittedtly less-cynical) cycling fan drooling in a Homer Simpson-esque manner: between them, the three have all finished either first, second or third in the Tour de France. Can the three co-exist happily together? On paper, surely anything less than a podium finish in Milan would be something of a poor result? Can Astana ever shake off the spectre of their doping-related past? At any rate, the Astana team here is very capable of defending the maglia rosa.

Astana for the 2008 Giro d'Italia
Assan Bazayev (Kaz)
Antonio Colom (Spa)
Alberto Contador (Spa)
Vladimir Gusev (Rus)
Maxim Iglinskiy (Kaz)
Andreas Klöden (Ger)
Levi Leipheimer (Usa)
Andrei Mizourov (Kaz)
Steve Morabito (Switzerland)
Benjamin Noval (Spa) Out
Update: (see below) Benjamin Noval out due to illness, Steve Morabito replacement.

Rewind to last July, and happy times for Albi Contador.
Photo ©

Despite the "problems" encountered with taking part in ASO-organised races, Alberto Contador has shown why he is a Tour de France champion, with a dominant, almost Armstrong-esque displays at the Tours of the Basque Country and Castilla and Leon, crowned by overall wins in both. A lot of attention will be placed on how the current Tour de France champion performs here. Though he has raced relatively little this year – and only on home soil – the twenty-five year old has enjoyed success with less-than-top-form. Logically, it would be too much to expect a top-three performance for Contador here, having only a week to prepare physically, mentally and logistically – checking out some of the horrific mountain passes is a must for a bona fide contender. However, considering that ASO don’t look like doing an about-turn for the Tour any time soon, the Giro could become a goal. This guy is the champion of the Tour de France: if he can ride himself into some form in the first ten days, who knows what’s possible? Contador’s quality is undeniable, his aggressive riding style positively exciting. Even if a high overall position eludes him, Contador will be keen to grab a stage win somewhere along the line.

Suffering not only under Astana’s wafer-thin race schedule but also under a barrage of doping rumours is Andreas Klöden. His Tour of Romandie victory may suggest that the veteran German will be spearheading the Astana challenge rather than Contador, but if he is at 100% form now, surely he can’t hold it for the next five weeks? At any rate, with his potent combination of powerful time-trialing and dependable climbing, an in-form Klöden is one of the most dangerous riders in the peloton. Looking at the formbook, he is the most logical choice for Astana team leader, though it will be fascinating to see if he can stay with the best on the toughest climbs. At the moment, he and Contador are pencilled in to have "co-leader" roles. As we've seen before with the likes of Simoni/Cunego, Visentini/Roche etc, power-sharing in the Giro d'Italia is always harmonious and problem-free...

Levi Leipheimer in the lead at California.

Of course, two star Grand Tour riders isn’t enough; Astana are also bringing Levi Leipheimer to the table. Is this a bluff? Leipheimer has also enjoyed similarly good results to his illustrious counterparts – he’s raced the same calendar as last year, and has won the Tour of California and finished third in Georgia. At 34, this is actually his first Giro d’Italia. Leipheimer is likely to have difficulties on the steeper climbs, but his ability against the clock will make him a favourite for the time-trials. One would imagine that at least one of the Astana “Big Three” will have to play a subdued lieutenant role; will this be assigned to Leipheimer?

Like the rest of the team, Leipheimer wasn’t quite expecting the call-up: “It was a big surprise to get the call from Johan. I was planning on training in the US for a couple of weeks, but now I need to fly to Italy and prepare myself for a tough three-week race. I haven’t had the opportunity to take an in-depth look at the course, but I know we’ll tackle some big climbs. I’ve also read that there are 4 time trials, which leads to me believe there will be some great opportunities for a rider like me.”

Another big-name cyclist in attendance is Vladimir Gusev. After a crash ruined his chances of a good performance in the Spring Classics, the versatile Russian will be getting the kilometres into his legs at the Giro and looking to bounce back. A useful asset for the TTT (which Astana have a very good chance of winning), Gusev’s attacking instincts could be restrained by domestique duty if one of his leaders is in with a shout. Nonetheless, he is a likely top-10 time-trial finisher.

A Dauphiné Liberé stage, third in Paris-Nice, third in the Tour of the Basque Country, fourth in this year’s Tour of Georgia: Antonio “Toni” Colom has quietly amassed some handy results in recent seasons. Rarely out of the top-20 this year, the Spaniard will be relishing the task of looking after his leaders. Still, he could yet finish in the top-twenty overall, though the thirty year-old is unproven in three-week Tours.

Fellow Spaniard Benjamin Noval marked himself out as one of the most hard-working domestiques in the peloton over several years of riding for Lance Armstrong and Discovery Channel. It is likely the little mountain goat will be performing a similar role for the likes of Contador and Klöden.

Iglinskiy crosses the line first at the Tour of Romandie
Photo © Fotoreporter Sirotti

Now we come to the Kazakh brigade, spearheaded by national champion Maxim Iglinskiy. After a classy Dauphiné stage win into Valloire last year, Iglinskiy tasted the victory champagne again last week by winning a small bunch sprint on day one of the Tour of Romandie, where he finished ninth. A handy climber with a fair sprint at the end, the former Domina Vacanze man could be a darkhorse for the hillier stages. He will also be useful back-up in the mountains as well.

Rounding out the nine-man team are Andrei Mizourov and Assan Bazayev. Now 35, the former has been around the block a few times, but his class is undeniable: he still finished 21st in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Such a lofty position could be sacrificed for more domestique work this year, but the Kazakh is still very able in the high mountains. His experience can also only be an asset.
Countryman Bazayev also had a good Giro d’Italia last year, finishing third as part of a twenty-odd breakaway group on stage eight, as well as fourth into Bosa. The most clear out-and-out sprinter on board, he will be gunning for some top-tens again for the 2008 race.

In Recent Years…
Second in last year’s TTT, Astana must be favourites this time round. 2007 saw one of their “naughty” riders Eddy Mazzoleni take a shock third place overall, with former winner Savoldelli just behind the favourites in twelfth. Two years ago, as Liberty Seguros-Wurth with a profoundly different set-up and team to the one they have now, Giampaolo Caruso was twelfth overall.

To Sum Up…
With such a star-studded lineup, one feels Astana aren’t here to just make up the numbers (which is precisely what one felt for NGC-Industria Porte, the poor team who were unceremoniously uninvited). They still have something to prove to the massed critics, and will be out for both stage wins and a strong overall performance. There could be fireworks in the final week if Contador, Klöden or even Leipheimer are on their game, though the lack of sufficient preparation could also put pay to designs on the maglia rosa in Milano. Suffice to say, it would be a surprise if they didn't win a stage considering their wealth of options and talent.

Update: Benjamin Noval Out
Steve Morabito in Giro d’Italia for Astana Cycling Team

One day before the start of the Giro d’Italia, Steve Morabito joins the team in Palermo. The Swiss rider will replace Spanish rider Benjamin Noval. Noval, who earlier in the week already took Dmitry Muravyev’s spot in the team, suffers from enterocolitis, an intestinal infection. The roommate of Alberto Contador became sick on Wednesday night, could not eat and has no reserves to start in a demanding race as the Tour of Italy.

“We waited as long as possible to take a decision”, comments Team Director Sean Yates. “Friday 10 AM was our deadline. We then had to register the team. Benjamin did a test this morning. The result was negative. A team time trial is such a demanding, hard discipline. It is not safe to let him be part of the team. We hope Steve Morabito arrives in time. Steve has the right condition. He proved that already in the Tour de Romandie, where he was one of the best helpers for overall winner Andreas Klöden.”

Steve Morabito is a 25 year old Swiss rider in his 3rd season as a pro rider. Morabito started with Phonak and moved to Astana in 2007. He has ridden in the Vuelta and the Giro last year finishing 83rd. He won two stages in the Herald Sun tour in 2007 and finished in second on the G.C. and has fast legs for the finish and will add some chances for sprint wins for the Astana crew.

The Updated team line-up for the Giro d'Italia (May 10th - June 1st):
Riders: Assan Bazayev, Antonio Colom, Alberto Contador, Vladimir Gusev, Maxim Iglinskiy, Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, Andrej Mizurov & Steve Morabito.

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