Astana Continental was the junior team of the Astana Cycling project, meaning that they were always in the shadows of the Astana Pro team and its then manager Alexandre Vinokurov. The Olympic Champion is a national hero and successful politician in his homeland, but doping allegations and controversies have plagued him his entire career. It can even be said that the demise of the original Astana Continental team in 2014 was at least in part due to the long running controversies surrounding the Astana Pro Team and Vinokurov.
2006: Controversial Origins
The entire Astana project itself was born under a shadow of doping related controversy in 2006. That year, the Spanish government unearthed widespread doping in cycling through the infamous Operation Puerto. Vinokurov’s Liberty Seguros team were one of the many implicated. The Astana Pro team was born when he managed to convince the Kazakh government and the Samruk Kazyna group of companies to take over the team and run it as a Kazakh cycling set-up.
2007: Vinokurov Doping Bans
Within a year, Astana was involved in a doping controversy when their star rider Vinokurov was caught for blood doping infractions during the Tour de France. He was also found to have had connections with Dr Michele Ferrari, the infamous cycling trainer banned from the sport for promoting doping. To make matter worse, two other Astana riders were caught the same year for testosterone use and blood doping. The team had to quit the Tour and change the management as a result of these controversies. Vinokurov received a 2 year ban from the Tour for his infractions.
2008-09: Power Struggles and Money Woes
Though Astana were barred from the Tour de France in 2008 on ethical grounds, the arrival of their new team leader Alberto Contador rejuvenated the squad somewhat. There were setback too, including an instance where they were successfully sued by a trainer who had been sacked for doping.
Lance Armstrong joined Astana in 2009 on his comeback to cycling, joining his ex-manager Bruyneel who was the team manager. A long running feud immediately ensues between Contador and Armstrong.
The team also faced a severe financial crisis in mid 2009, prompting several riders including Armstrong to ride at the Giro with the names of the team sponsors blocked out.
The return of Vinokurov to the team towards the end of 2009 resulted in fresh power struggles that finally led to the ouster of team manager Johan Bruyneel. Many riders also left the team, including Lance Armstrong who left to start a new team. After just two years, Astana was looking at another managerial overhaul.
2010: Contador Doping Scandal
The fall of Lance Armstrong had begun in earnest with the US authorities launching an investigation into the allegations of doping. His past association with Astana would add to the team’s negative image overall. But the main controversy for Astana in 2010 was Alberto Contador’s doping. The rider, who had won the Tour de France for Astana in 2009, repeated his achievement in 2010. But he failed a drug test and was stripped of his 2010 title after testing positive for clenbuterol.
2012: The Fallout of Armstrong USADA Report
The US anti-doping agency report implicated several former Astana members in doping, including riders Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer, team manager Bruyneel, Doctors del Moral and Celaya. The whole incident only added to the overall cloud of doping related allegations and suspicion centred above the team. Astana Continental was created as a junior team in the midst of such a negative atmosphere surrounding the Kazakh cycling set-up.
2014: Build up to the Débâcle
In retrospect, the 2014 doping scandal was just the pinnacle of a long series of controversies and allegations that surrounded the entire Astana organisation as a whole. The year started on a sour note with another ghost from the past, or so to speak. Roman Kreuziger, a former Astana rider from the 2011-12 season, was embroiled in a scandal involving suspected impropriety involving his biological passport during his time at Astana.
The arrival of Vincenzo Nibali in place of Contador had led a period of stability and a period of sustained success in the Tour after the frequent crises of the early years at Astana. And the growing Astana Continental squad had also shown a measure of promise in the UCI Continental circuit in its first couple of seasons. But the string of doping violations involving all levels of the Astana cycling team put the whole organization in serious jeopardy. Thanks to the history of doping controversies surrounding the Astana senior team, team Astana Continental never stood a chance after their young riders were also implicated in a big way in 2014 doping controversies.