I’ve not paid much attention to Lance Armstrong’s comeback bid for an 8th Tour de France crown, but said attempt has clearly captured the imagination of many. Having not viewed more than a few minutes of Versus’ coverage, I can’t tell you, for instance, if there’s been any discussion of the circumstances that have rendered, in the words of David Roth at The New Republic, “one of America’s last golden boys… a walking (or riding) advertisement for the Kazakh government” One of Roth’s sources calls Team Astansa, “the weirdest, skankiest team in cycling history”. Hey, finally a reason to root for Lance!
Astana rose from the ashes of the risibly corrupt Liberty Seguros Cycling Team, which disbanded in 2006 when manager Manolo Saiz was caught in the anti-doping sting Operacion Puerto. Liberty Seguros’ star racer, Kazakh cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov and then-Prime Minister Akhmetov cobbled together some Kazakh sponsors and Astana was born. Vinokourov and Kazakh teammate Andrei Kashechkin promptly tested positive for blood doping, and Astana was kicked out of the 2007 Tour de France and banned in ’08. Bruyneel was hired shortly thereafter in an attempt to re-brand the team and largely cleaned house, but Armstrong’s current Astana teammate Andreas Kloeden has been dogged by doping rumors for years and Astana hasn’t shaken its rep. “There’s a high bar for hijinks in this sport,” Lindsey says. “But Astana is a different creature than any cycling has seen in 50 years.”
The last year hasn’t been kind to Astana, either. In May’s Giro d’Italia, one of the cyling world’s biggest events, all of Astana’s active racers, with the exception of Kazakh-born Andrey Zeits, covered up the names of their Kazakh sponsors to protest months of unpaid salaries. Armstrong, who receives no salary from Astana but covered up the logos on his jersey in a show of solidarity, was rumored to be considering American sponsors in case Astana went belly-up. It didn’t, and Astana was able to pay the bank guarantees necessary to get it into the Tour de France. Still, the whole experience begs the question of why Armstrong, who has been famously prickly over allegations of doping, would ride for such an extravagantly tainted organization.