Kazakhstan’s high and mighty will squeeze into their Lycra shorts as they get behind the flagship Astana Cycling Team in this year’s Tour de France. They hope for a repeat of Astana’s first place success in last year’s Tour as the race kicks off in Rotterdam on July 3.
Astana’s top rider Alberto Contador is the favorite to be wearing the winning yellow jersey for the third time when the grueling race reaches its climax in Paris on July 25. But this year Astana will ride without Lance Armstrong, who quit the team along with eleven other Astana riders for Team Radio Shack last year. Contador is the only rider left from last year’s winning nine-member Team Astana.
Contador and Armstrong have a troubled relationship and cycling fans are looking forward to another round of their intense rivalry.
“My relationship with Lance is zero,” Contador said at a news conference a day after winning the race last year. “He is a great rider and has completed a great race, but it is another thing on a personal level, where I have never had great admiration for him and I never will.”
This could be the last year the two rivals battle it out. Seven-time winner Armstrong announced in June that this will be his last Tour de France. He came out of early retirement in 2009 to ride for Astana and finished in third place, some five minutes behind Contador.
Another wildcard in the mix is Kazakhstan’s favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, who returns to the race after serving a two-year ban for blood-doping offenses in the 2007 Tour. Kazakh PR gurus originally set up the team in 2006 to support Vinokourov and bring Kazakhstan onto the world sports stage.
Kazakhstan’s state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna, with its powerful head Kayrat Kelimbetov, supports Team Astana. Kelimbetov is president of the Cycling Federation of Kazakhstan.
Expect Contador and Armstrong to lock horns to determine whether the old champ can regain his title from the young pretender, with Vinokourov waiting in the wings if either should slip up.