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Astana-Qazaqstan hit “rock bottom” this season, according to team boss Alexander Vinokourov.
The Kazakh team racked up just six victories in 2022, none of which were at WorldTour level, making it the top-tier squad with the fewest wins. The dearth of victories placed the team 18th from the 18 WorldTour teams in the UCI rankings.
Though it was able to avoid relegation by ranking 12th in the accumulated points over the last three years, it had to rely heavily on its haul from 2020. The team took three grand tour stage wins, a monument at Il Lombardia and a raft of other wins that year, but its returns have been quickly diminishing ever since.
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Vinokourov blamed illness and injury for much of the team’s struggles but said that they could not carry on as they have been in recent seasons. The team boss also faced a criminal investigation into its paying agent for the misuse of corporate assets and other crimes.
“It is true we had a bad season but I would say that the last two years have been difficult,” Vinokourov told the Italian website Bici.pro.
“We always had to rearrange everything. We have had many sick people, many crashes. They were the worst and hardest two years in our history, but things will have to change from next year, otherwise we too would have to ask ourselves questions. We have hit rock bottom, now we have to go back up. And rest assured that in December I will say it to all the boys.”
There were hopes that the return of Miguel Ángel López at the start of this year might put the team back on an upward trajectory. The Colombian had departed the squad at the end of 2020 to sign for Movistar, but he came back after his relationship with the team broke down following a dramatic incident at last year’s Vuelta a España.
While López racked up some solid performances, including a fourth overall at the Vuelta in September, and a stage win at the Tour of the Alps, he didn’t set the season alight despite being the team’s top performer. He was also briefly suspended by the team after he was linked to a drug smuggling investigation.
Though he was ultimately allowed to race again due to a lack of evidence, there are rumors that the relationship between Astana and López has broken down and he is searching for a new team. Vinokourov didn’t address those rumors in the Bici.pro interview but said that López needed to step up to avoid being left behind.
“We have already talked a lot with him during this year about his responsibilities. With each year that passes he is better. But the years pass, and he has to do something, otherwise there are young people who arrive,” he said.
“He has never won a grand tour and we need to focus as much as possible next time. Above all, he must do so from the beginning of the season, so as not to make the same mistakes as this year.”
There are only a few changes to the Astana-Qazaqstan team for 2023, the biggest of which is the departure of Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian retired from racing following Il Lombardia earlier this month and he will leave a big gap in the team’s roster.
Nibali came back to the team at the start of this year after five years away with Bahrain-Victorious and Trek-Segafredo. Vinokourov believed that he could have extended his career for an extra season.
“It is really difficult to restart after Nibali, very difficult. He is a rider who has won a lot in his career,” Vinokourov said. “This year he didn’t win, but he did an excellent Giro and was often in front in the other races. I think he could have done one more year, but that’s the way things are, and we should do our best.”
The only major addition to the team is Luis Leon Sánchez, who is another returnee to the squad after a short period away. He joins following a year with Bahrain-Victorious.
“Luis Leon is back because last year it was bad that he had gone away. Unfortunately, there was a difficult situation and we were unable to stop him,” Vinokourov said. “But now things have changed. He wanted to return. He did like Vincenzo. He felt the environment of this team was like a family. Not to mention that he has enormous experience, even in the grand tours, and he can do a great job for López or [Alexey] Lutsenko.”