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The Livestream Diaries: Astana pulls a “Bewitched”

In 1969 the producers of the now-classic sitcom, Bewitched, faced a difficult choice. When Dick York, (who co-starred as Elizabeth Montgomery’s husband, Darrin Stephens) suffered a debilitating back injury, executives took the unusual step of replacing him mid-series. Without explanation, the show’s sixth season debuted with a new leading man: actor Dick Sargent. The casting change — in which York was quietly replaced by a lookalike — has become the stuff of pop culture legend and may just be providing the blueprint for a situation comedy now playing out in Kazakhstan.

That’s right: Astana’s got a brand new Darrin.

It all started in 2007 when the team (underwritten by a coalition of state-owned companies) began as a vehicle for Kazakh champion Alexander Vinokourov. Astana’s first year would be a turbulent one. After prevailing in its struggle to earn ProTour status, the team was subsequently “invited to withdraw” from the Tour de France, after tests revealed that Vinokourov possessed both his own red blood cells and others he had apparently rented for the occasion. The rider was sacked for blood doping following confirmation of his B sample.

The same drama would play out weeks later for Vinokourov’s teammate and fellow Kazakh, Andrey Kashechkin. Kashechkin, who held eighth place in the Tour’s general classification at the time of Astana’s withdrawal, tested positive for the same procedure in an out-of-competition test that August.

Both men took a two-year hiatus from the sport, with Vinokourov rejoining Astana in late 2009 and Kashechkin landing at Lampre-ISD in 2010. Though the latter has since struggled to achieve results (racking up DNF’s in 2011’s Tour of the Basque Country, Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné), Vinokourov picked up right where he left off. The rider was key to Alberto Contador’s 2010 Tour de France win (snagging stage 13 for himself) and took individual victories at Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Giro del Trentino.

Given his impressive results, it took many by surprise when Vinokourov announced that 2011 would be his swan song — presumably so he could assume a management role within the squad. Sadly this timeline accelerated when he crashed out of the 2011 Tour de France with a broken femur on stage 9. Speaking on French TV shortly thereafter, Vino announced what appeared to be his retirement.

“As far as competing goes, I think I will leave it there,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ll get back on my bike as a professional. I’m going to call it a day now. I will continue to ride my bike, but just to keep fit. I hope to find a new role at the Astana team.”

And with that Vino bid farewell to the peloton. (Maybe.)

Faced with the loss of their team leader just weeks before the Vuelta a España, Astana faced a difficult choice. With whom does one replace a blond, Kazakh former blood doper? That’s right: Andrey Kashechkin — who was quietly released by Lampre to play Dick Sargent to Vino’s Dick York.

But unlike Bewitched (which went on to air another three seasons), the Astana swap has produced nothing but trouble — beginning with last week’s announcement that Vinokourov intends resume training for the Giro di Lombardia. Though fans of the Kazakh cheered the news, the decision has exposed Astana to a collection of potential rules violations. Most prominent among them: If Vinokourov didn’t retire (he now insists he did not), how was the team able to sign Kashechkin in his place without exceeding the UCI’s 28-rider cap?

After much fumbling, the answer appears to have come at the expense of rider Roman Kireyev – who suddenly disappeared from the Astana roster just two weeks after finishing 40th in the Tour de l’Ain. Kireyev’s departure brings the team back into compliance in one area, but raises plenty of questions in another. (UCI rules define specific circumstances under which riders may be dismissed, none of which include “Vino changed his mind.”)
Did Astana dump Kireyev to cover its mistake? Why of course not. In a nod to Bewitched, the team now insists Kireyev has simply “retired” due to a debilitating back injury.

Meanwhile the return of Kashechkin has, itself, been nothing short of disastrous. After declaring his intent for a top-five finish, Kashechkin lost a whopping 18 minutes and 27 seconds during the Vuelta’s fourth stage Tuesday – dropping him to 86th place overall and necessitating still another change in the team’s leadership. (Astana is now riding on behalf of Sweden’s Fredrik Kessiakoff, who sits in 6th place overall. Kashechkin ended Thursday’s stage 6 in 92nd, 38:32 behind race leader Sylvain Chavanel.)

Despite having precipitated the awkward chain of events, Vinokourov emerges the clear winner here – with Astana’s commercial director suggesting he is free to return in 2012 as a rider, a team manager, or to a position within the Kazakh Cycling Federation. With the departure of key riders, including Allan Davis (rumored to be joining GreenEDGE) and Rémy Di Gregorio (Cofidis), Astana’s World Tour status will almost certainly hinge upon Vinokourov’s points (whether active or not).

So here’s my vote that Vino rides. The peloton’s far less interesting in his absence…and I always preferred Dick York anyway.

The Livestream Diaries is Dan Wuori’s semi-factual look at the world of professional cycling. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dwuori.

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