There can be no hiding from the plain fact: Astana Continental team was suspended for doping, and that too multiple instances caught within the space of a few months. That was the immediate, proximate cause. But one cannot simply ignore the wider historical perspective before judging them. Some Astana riders were caught doping at a time when the whole sport of cycling was facing a moral and identity crisis. To understand this better, we need to take a look back at the history of doping in professional cycling.
Doping: As Old As Pro Cycling
There is a particular wikipedia page dedicated exclusively to “doping in the Tour de France.” It is long, exhaustively well researched and quite shocking. It talks about how doping was not only an integral part of pro cycling from the earliest days of the tour, but how it was acknowledged and tolerated for over half a century.
Cycling is one of the most gruelling and painful sports ever. So pro cyclists took everything from alcohol, to cocaine and painkillers, to even voodoo drugs to fight through the pain and compete. With such an established tradition, when bans on doping were enforced in the 1970s, there was minimal impact. Doping just progressed to steroids and more intricate cocktails like EPO.
The Shadow of Lance Armstrong
The Astana Continental team was created in the same year (2012) that disgraced cycling star Lance Armstrong was stripped of his 7 Tour de France titles for doping. The team was created to be the feeder club of the Astana Pro team, which itself had its fair share of doping related controversies much like any other UCI team in the competition.
The cycling world was in an unprecedented crisis. For decades even after doping had been banned, it had been allowed to continue and even thrive. Now the fall of a global cycling star, adored and respected by hundreds of millions of people around the world, had put the whole credibility of the sport into question. It was indeed a much needed development for the overall well-being of pro cycling.
Five Incidents In Three Months
So when 2014 witnessed 5 members of the Astana Cycling set-up failing drug tests, drastic action was necessary. It all started in September-October of that year when two riders of the senior Astana Pro team, Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy, tested positive for EPO while playing for Kazakhstan’s World Tour Team.
This was quickly followed by the suspension of a junior Astana Continental rider, Ilya Davidenok, this time for anabolic steroids.
This was a serious issue for the Astana Pro Team, because one of the Iglinskiy brothers had been part of the Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali’s team, and three doping incidents caught within the space of a few weeks had drawn scrutiny on their famous Tour de France victory. The team’s elite tour status was also under threat.
Things soon spiralled out of control and Astana Continental was caught in the middle of a perfect doping storm when two more riders from their junior roster was caught by November. When Victor Okishev and Artur Fedossyev failed separate drug tests in November, the crisis reached boiling point. Now even the UCI, the global cycling governing body was caught up in the scandal, with the renewal of Astana’s pro tour license for the next season in doubt under the shadow of doping.
Extreme Situations and Extreme Measures
After a 5th positive drug test in a matter of months, the die was cast for both Astana Teams. Something serious had to be done to salvage their reputation and steer the team back to respectability. After the Iglinskiy brothers incident, Astana Pro team had voluntarily withdrawn from the Tour of Beijing, the final event of the 2014 cycling calendar. They were duty bound to do so, since Astana was a signatory to the Movement for Credible Cycling, which had stricter anti-doping rules than even the WADA.
But when three members of their junior feeder team also tested positive in quick succession, the Astana management had to take drastic action. The Astana Pro team manager at that juncture was Alexandre Vinokurov, an ex-cycling champion with his own history of anti-doping issues.
Vinokurov did not waste much time, summarily suspending the entire Astana Continental team indefinitely in the last week of November 2014. The manager of the Astana Continental set-up, Dmitri Seydoun was also sacked as part of the cleaning drive. The Kazakh Cycling Federation also backed Vinokurov, suspending all Astana Continental activity indefinitely.
The sacking of the team was essential for the future of the Astana Cycling program as a whole. But Astana Continental never competed again under that name. The team was disbanded and reconstituted under a new name, management and new UCI license in 2015.