Contador and Leipheimer may follow
By Andrew Hood
Johan Bruyneel is poised to take over the reins at the troubled Astana team and will bring heavy hitters Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador with him for the 2008 season.
Sources close to Bruyneel told VeloNews that the Belgian director is finalizing negotiations with the Kazakh government and will assume control of the ProTour team.
A formal announcement is expected in the coming weeks. Bruyneel could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Last month, the Belgian sport director confirmed reports that Kazakh officials approached him to take over the squad in the wake of devastating doping scandals involving team stars Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin. Both tested positive for homologous blood doping and sent the team’s future spinning into doubt.
Team sponsors – a consortium of major Kazakhstan industries – have vowed to continue to underwrite the team’s estimated $15 million-a-year sponsorship, despite the high-profile scandals.
Bruyneel also said last month that if he accepts the Astana offer, he would not want to be the team’s primary sport directo. Instead, he would assume a managerial role involving less travel.
Experienced and trusted sport director Dirk Demol as well as Russian Viatcheslav Ekimov, who joined as a director after retiring in 2006, told VeloNews they would also prefer to stay with Bruyneel. Many of the team’s mechanics, soigneurs and support staff would likely follow the move.
Many riders are waiting with bated breath to see what Bruyneel does, as only a handful of Discovery Channel racers have secured contracts for the 2008 season in what is an increasingly tight market.
Contador told VeloNews last month he was would prefer to stay with Bruyneel if the Belgian moves to Astana, and would bring teammates Sergio Paulinho and Benjamin Noval with him.
The Belgian website Sporza reported Monday that Leipheimer has already signed a letter of intent to join the team. Others linked to a Bruyneel move are Tomas Vaitkus and Janez Brajkovic.
If Bruyneel comes on board, that will likely mean the departure of current team manager Marc Biver and some members of the management staff. If the past is any indication, upper-management shakeups typically see a complete changeover of directors and managers to help restore a team’s image and reputation.
The future of the team’s ProTour status would also remain a question mark. Cycling’s grand tours never officially recognized Astana’s ProTour status in 2007, but invited the team to race all three major stage races anyway. The team’s invitation to the Vuelta a España, however, was withdrawn on the heels of the Vinokourov/Kashechkin positives.
The 43-year-old Bruyneel, considered one of modern cycling’s most successful tacticians, led Lance Armstrong to a record seven consecutive Tour de France titles during 1999-05. He won an eighth Tour crown from behind the wheel this year with Contador taking the yellow jersey and Leipheimer finishing third.
In August, Bruyneel made the surprising announcement that he would retire from cycling after team officials couldn’t secure a title sponsor to take over the Discovery Channel team beyond the 2007 season.
Sources said the challenge of rebuilding the Astana program as well as assuring employment for dozens of staff and riders might tip Bruyneel toward accepting a deal.