Welcome to the VeloNews 2017 WorldTour fan guide. It’s tough to be a cycling fan. Riders jump around more than a loose cassette. Teams change kits like Sven Nys swaps bikes in a muddy ‘cross race. So, here’s a guide to your new favorite team. Don’t like these guys? Stay tuned for more previews.
Your team: Astana
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Your team’s fan base: Have you ever met a real-life Astana fan? We haven’t either. We can only assume that this team’s fan base is comprised primarily of mankini owners; the bad guys from the movie “Air Force One;” people who accidentally bought an old Astana team kit at VeloSwap; guys who purposely bought the kickass Vino4Eva jersey for ironic reasons (see below); Alexander Vinokourov and his extended family; bears.
Your team’s star: The departure of Vincenzo Nibali to Bahrain – Merida thrusts Fabio Aru squarely into the limelight at Astana. Even though Aru won the 2015 Vuelta, the jury is still kind of out on him as a reliable grand tour threat. He always felt like Nibali’s little brother. The question now is whether Aru is a Michael Corleone type or Fredo. Either way, Aru is undeniably entertaining to watch due to his comically over-the-top faces of pain. We love watching Aru grimace on those long climbs. Peak suffer-mode Aru looks like some forgotten Jim Henson creation from “Fraggle Rock” or “The Dark Crystal.”
The team has two lesser stars worth cheering for as well. Jakob Fuglsang will finally get his chance for GC leadership at the Tour de France. We like Fuglsang because he was a kick-ass mountain biker, but much like Tejay van Garderen, he always has the one bad day during grand tours. Astana also has Michele Scarponi, who is relevant again because of his preternatural friendship with a parrot.
Best-case scenario: This year Astana has wisely steered Aru away from the Tour and toward the Giro, where he’ll try to recapture some of that mojo from 2015. In a perfect scenario, Aru accomplishes what Fredo never did: he puts a bullet in Michael (for the sake of this analogy, that’s Nibali) and wins the Giro. It’s another boon for Astana in Italy, and Vino dyes his hair pink, Tinkov-style. I think asking Aru to win the Giro and Vuelta is a bit too much, so in a perfect Astana universe, Aru lands on the podium in Madrid.
Fuglsang shakes his bad-day-itis and finishes fifth at the Tour. Miguel Angel Lopez wins several lesser stage races and lands in the top-five at a grand tour, probably the Vuelta. Moreno Moser wins a grand tour stage. Oscar Gatto is top-10 at Roubaix. Luis Leon Sanchez does what Luis Leon Sanchez used to do and attacks from breakaways to win major races. At every race, mankini-clad Borats jog alongside the peloton, resplendent in teal.
Worst-case scenario: As he did at the 2016 Tour, Aru lays an egg at the Giro, and gets dropped repeatedly by his old mentor, Nibali. This scenario seems altogether likely, especially since the Giro lineup gets stronger with every passing week. To win the Italian tour, Aru will have to drop Nibali, Mikel Landa, Tejay van Garderen, Steven Kruijswijk, Bauke Mollema, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s a tough ask.
Aru’s stink bomb forces Vinokourov to try and motivate his marquee rider the only way he knows how: by disparaging him to the foreign press. It doesn’t work, and Aru finishes the race both physically and emotionally empty. After the race, Vinokourov sends Aru out fishing on a Lake Tahoe with his trusty bodyguard, and he’s a no-show for the rest of the season. Looks like he really was Fredo.
At the Tour, Fuglsang’s bad day strikes on the worst possible day, and he resorts to a fruitless stage-hunting campaign that ends in a 13th place overall and zero stage wins. The team’s classics squad is hopeless at Flanders and Roubaix. Lopez crashes again and breaks more bones. Luis Leon Sanchez attacks like crazy, and is caught every time.
Likability rating: 5/10 Astana actually has some fun riders on its roster, which salvages some likability points for the squad. Fuglsang is a big diesel. Lopez is young and explosive. Aru makes funny faces. The Borat fans are great. But Vino’s shadow will always cloud Astana in a dark shade of shady, and that’s why we’ve docked major points in this department. Astana is like Cobra Kai, the Syracuse Bulldogs, and Ivan Drago rolled into one. And yeah, Vino never did learn how to keep his helmet from riding way up on his forehead like a Cat 5.