By Andrew Hood
Spanish head-banger Davide de la Fuente is close to penning a deal that will put him in an Astana jersey in 2010.
According to the Spanish daily MARCA, all that’s missing is the signature to close the deal that will add some needed firepower to the depleted Astana roster for next season.
The arrival of de la Fuente, a hard-nosed rider capable of winning one-day races and sneaking into breakaways, would be good news for Alberto Contador.
It’s looking more and more likely that the Kazakhs are holding the two-time Tour de France champion to the final year of his three-year contract.
Contador – who won a criterium in Cancun, Mexico, over the weekend – said at last week’s Tour de France presentation that he’d still like to leave Astana, but if he’s staying, he wants to have the best team possible.
Right now, Astana is a shell of the juggernaut that swept through the 2009 Tour. Joining Lance Armstrong out the door are up to 13 riders, including such marquee names as Levi Leipheimer, Yaroslav Popovych, Chris Horner, Sergio Paulihno, José Luis Rubiera, Janez Brajkovic and likely Andreas Klöden.
Basque all-rounder Haimar Zubeldia is said to be on the fence, with some efforts to keep him at Astana, especially if Contador will be sticking around.
Contador’s right-hand man, Benjamin Noval, will be riding with Contador, but the Spanish climber is obviously worried that he will not have a strong team with Astana to defend his Tour title next year.
The only confirmed arrival at Astana for next year is the ever-controversial Alexander Vinokourov.
Banned for two years for blood doping, Vinokourov could be poison in Astana’s effort to keep its ProTour license and earn a ticket back to the Tour. Race officials have a steady track ready of vetoing tainted riders, and Astana was kept out of the 2008 Tour due to its troubled legacy, something that still worries Contador.
Vinokourov’s return, though troublesome, could be Contador’s ticket out of Astana. All eyes are on the UCI and whether or not they will extend the team’s ProTour license. UCI president Pat McQuaid is on record as saying that the team’s license is in doubt.
After budgetary problems in 2009 that nearly sank the team, the UCI wants bank guarantees in place before giving the team the green light to stay in the ProTour.
If Astana loses its ProTour status, that should be enough for Contador to break his contract with the Kazakhs.