We’ve been here with Astana before, some time ago.
Way back in 2007 in their first proper season Astana had big names such as Vinokourov, Kashechkin, Kessler and Mazzoleni suspended for doping (it’s not hard to see the link to the Deutsche Telekom team either). These actions saw them not receiving an invite to the 2008 Tour de France (and other ASO events) despite having defending champion Alberto Contador in their lineup. Not racing in the biggest events of the cycling season can only have had a massive hit to their finances and without state financing would surely have seen them go under.
2009 saw the return to racing of Vinokourov and the unretirement of Lance Armstrong who came third one his return to the Tour de France before it was expunged for his own doping exploits.
2010 saw Contador stripped of his Tour de France win due to the infamous tainted beef clenbuterol positive. Yet another doping positive and result taken away from Astana.
The period of 2011-2014 however was relatively quiet with any scandals coming later and being backdated.
Levi Leipheimer admitted that he doped whilst on the team back in 2008-9, Remy di Gregorio was taken into custody due to doping in 2011 with Astana, Roman Kreuziger was placed under investigation for anomalous blood values in 2011-2012 and Paolo Savoldelli admitted to working with Dr. Ferrari in 2007.
Which brings us to the winter break leading into the 2015 season. 5 Astana (2 full Astana riders and 3 from the junior Astana team) riders were banned for doping, a massive spike and a sign of a wider problem.
First off was Valentin Iglinsky who had a positive doping test in the Eneco Tour race, closely followed by his brother Maxim, both for using EPO. The three riders on the Pro-Continental development team were Artur Fedosseyev, Victor Okishev and Ilya Davidenok who were all caught having used steroids.
Today we’ve learnt that Astana stand to lose their racing licence for 2015 which puts certain high profile riders such as 2014 Tour de France winner Nibali in a certain bind.
Those riders such as Dario Cataldo must be regretting their decision to move to Astana and face this uncertainty, as it stands there could be a firesale but with team budgets already confirmed and presumably full for 2015, there’s only so many who will be able to find other rides this year. The likely bet would be that Oleg Tinkov could free up some funds to sign Nibali for his Tinkoff-Saxo team but some of the old guard would probably be forced into retirement.
With the UCI’s plan to reduce team numbers and Europcar’s decision to finish at the end of 2015, having many more riders than available places will cause more issues than it solves, cycling is currently much too transient and unstable financially to support their plan of 20 WorldTour teams without an ongoing battle.
Ultimately we could eventually see a situation such as Formula One, where those with high talent and good results at junior level find it impossible to attain a spot in a decent team at the highest level due to drivers managing to pay their way with sponsorship and a fear of failure.