Righteous indignation – we’re all good at it.

The Astana situation gives us the opportunity to use words like ‘scandal,’ ‘disgrace,’ ‘joke,’ ‘appalling’ and all the rest.

Here’s the ‘but’; whilst here at VeloVeritas we’re not card carrying members of the UCI and Brian Cookson Fan Clubs we do understand that that the organisation has to work within a framework called ‘rules.’

When the UCI denied Katusha a licence a season or two ago, the Russians took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and duly won; their licence was granted and the men from Aigle dropped big legal bucks.

The reason they won was because the UCI had not issued an official warning to Kathusa that their licence was in jeopardy.

No warning has been issued to Astana and if they were denied the licence it would be ‘Katusha all over again,’ the Kazakhs would be successful, no question, especially with the Katusha precedent set.

Astana’s 2015 licence has been granted but with a warning appended.

And now that we’ve clarified that, let’s move on.

Astana, CAS
The Astana soigneurs say hi at the Giro a few years ago. Photo©Ed Hood

Instead of me ranting on we thought we’d canvas the views of a couple of gentleman who have well-educated views on the boys in baby blue.

Scotsman Alastair Hamilton spent Friday with the team at their training camp in Spain; here are his thoughts;

“As with every story there are two sides, this is not to say that the Astana team is innocent of all charges; but we need to step back from what we read in La Gazzetta dello Sport and other media outlets, particularly the ones on the Internet written in English.

“Firstly, Astana management made mistakes – taking on Johan Bruyneel while Alexandre Vinokourov was suspended didn’t help their image. Re-employing Valentin Iglinsky as a favour to his more talented and popular brother, Maxim after he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, wasn’t the best idea either.

“Vinokourov hasn’t helped the Kazakh cause either; after his suspension he didn’t make the tearful apology that everyone wants and now expect from erring riders. Like Alejandro Valverde; he said nothing and got back to racing…and won the Olympics.

“Through all the recent problems the team has said practically nothing, and then when they received the WorldTour license the team staff celebrated, as anyone would who had just found out their future jobs were secure.

“So, yes the Astana team has history.

“Then we look at the other side of the story.

“Astana announced that Vincenzo Nibali would not ride the Giro d’Italia, which did not go down well with the race organizers RCS. As you probably know RCS, own La Gazzetta and since the announcement of Nibali’s non-riding of the Giro, the writing on any doping subject has always leaned towards making the connection to Astana. If you look at the names of the accused riders in the Ferrari case, they do not all ride for Astana.

“As to the list and the other papers from the Padova Investigation, no one has seen them, the case is still open. Where is the photograph of Ferrari visiting the Astana hotel in Italy? If it exists, why have La Gazzetta not used it on the front page?

“As to a certain website; they are copying La Gazzetta and spicing it up for extra clicks. This is the same site that loved Lance, hated Lance and was then the first to interview him after his life ban. It’s good business to find someone to love/hate and go along with and stoke public perception, it brings in those important clicks.

“So, does Astana deserve to be in the top league? Yes, because they are one of the best teams on the road.

“Should they be watched? Yes.

“But there’s a lot of money involved and the UCI needs teams and money.”

Al hits one of the nails on the head with his words on Vino – whilst the likes of Big Ryder and Danielson’s pasts are well under the carpet, Vino’s is always accompanied by reference to his 2007 suspension.

The attitude that riders such as Vino, Valverde and Scarponi have is that; ‘We were at it, got caught, served our time and that’s an end of it.

Virtually the whole peloton was kitted up but they were some of the ones who got caught – but please don’t ask them to beg forgiveness for what was the sport’s virtual ‘default position.’

Astana, CAS
Vinokourov outsprints Uran for the top spot in London. Photo©Marca

And to add insult to injury, Old Vino went out and spoiled the Chris/Jason/Wiggo party by winning the London Olympic road race.

And then there’s the cultural aspect; if you turn pro in the West and it doesn’t work out you can start a coaching company or move into the ‘civilian’ world with relative ease.

This is still not the case in the East where living standards are lower than in the West.

Becoming a successful professional cyclist is still the route to a better life for young Russian and Kazakh riders – much more so than in the West.

Astana, CAS
Vinokourov interviewed at the start of Stage 9 when in the lead at the 2010 Giro. Photo©Ed Hood

A man who’s views on East European and Soviet Cycling who’s knowledge is sought after by authors writing on the subject is VeloVeritas’s own Ivan.

Here are his views;

“Lotto’s main man, Marc Sergeant has said that the worrying aspect about the Astana situation is the fact that it’s the young guys who are being caught because the culture has not changed – Astana are not introducing a cultural sea-change, but only managing the doping better at the Astana top team level, he thinks that other factors influenced the decision – beyond the facts of the case.

[However, as we explained in the intro, we also believe that the UCI was constrained by it’s own rules.]

“No one can understand Astana without understanding the Soviet mentality and their sporting psychology, Astana’s approach and attitude to these things is not Kazakh and it is not from 2014; the culture is pure Soviet – the idea that the end justify the means and only winning counts.

“The Soviet Union as a political construct no longer exists, but all its constituent parts have retained all the old Soviet culture and mentality, Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Turkmenistan and all the rest. They are all the same Soviet republics, maybe with an admixture of non-democratic nationalist parties, but in essence the USSR still exists and the culture is the same and the leaders of these teams are ex-Soviet athletes eg Vino and Ekimov.

“And the culture is hard and unforgiving, the rule is that there are no rules and only victory counts, Vino and Eki are beasts, but not just physically, more especially mentally. I have read some horrific accounts of the Soviet riders’ attitude to winning and towards their fellow competitors in various Peace Race accounts.

“They were truly the hardest sportsmen on earth; Frans Verbeeck and Walter Godefroot were pussies compared to Yury Kashirin, Valery Likhachev, Aavo Pikkuus, Riho Suun and the rest, even legendary tough guys like Olaf Ludwig, Bernd Drogan, Stanislaw Szozda and Ryszard Szurkowski thought they were animals – Andre Tchmil, Vino and Eki are just the same.

“Sergeant’s point proves that the old Soviet mentality exists and the younger Astana riders still believe that only winning counts and anything goes; the young Katusha guys are the same.

“At the highest level in these teams they are more circumspect ie “canny” but it is all a game, at least to the Russian riders.”

None of the above absolves any team from kitting up but perhaps it helps us better understand why they do it.

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Vinokourov celebrated the start of the stage with a balloon launch. Photo©Ed Hood

VeloVeritas’s Conclusions:

  • Right wing, knee jerk reactions are a waste of time in a European Union where the ‘rights of the individual’ are sacred in legislation and law. That four year WADA ban has still to be tested in court, remember?
  • The UCI should – and will, hopefully – watch Astana like hawks; no more Festina, Telekom, Phonak or US Postal, PLEASE.
  • But, as they say in the USA; ‘cash is king’…
  • Crocodile tears don’t mean you didn’t kit up – a needle is still a needle whether it’s Canada, the USA, the UK or Kazahstan.
  • Don’t let focussing on Astana mean you forget what’s going on in other teams – and we don’t just mean Lampre…

– but that’s another rant.


PS.  A year or two ago, Dave and I were at the Giro, it was the rest day and inbetween interviews we wandered into a bike shop in Marina di Città Sant’Angelo.

It transpired that the owner had been one of Francesco Moser’s loyal lieutenants but had his own moment of glory when he won the GC in the 1986 Tirreno-Adriatico.

He was a nice guy and chatted to us for ages, proud to show us the pictures and tell us that his son was an ‘up and coming’ ciclista.

The father was Luciano, the son Matteo – their surname; Rabottini.

It’s all so sad…