Of course, there is hardly a top factor to single out. It started with a series of good signings to create a balanced line-up. Then we held a series of quality training camps, which created a very solid basis in the period between December and January. But it’s not all physical, the atmosphere also played a key role. The team spirit soars thanks to these 20 plus wins, given the fact that ten different athletes took them in different corners of the World. Now to be a part of this important project of Kazakhstan is a matter of pride for every rider, and everyone wants to keep up with those who sets pace in terms of victories. Simple as it sounds, we did a very good job, all of us, as a single whole: the riders, the stuff, the sponsors and the technical partners. Here we are, at the top of the World Tour list, we were off to an incredible start.
Could you say that the new signings brought about fundamental changes?
No, fundamental is not quite the word for it. Fundamentally we are the same team with the same strategy and ambitions. We chose and signed nine new riders, it’s true, and four of them have already had seven wins to their credit. They just found themselves at home in the existing structure of Astana team. We consolidated what we had had. Yet, we also put in some changes in the strategy of training. There were different groups which held their training camps in different places: one of them in Calpe, another one at high altitude in Tenerife, and yet another one raced and trained in Colombia. Every group had highly professional coaches who did their best to individualize their approach to the process, for every rider to progress as smoothly as possible. Now it works as a fully reliable mechanism, and this makes us hope the winning streak will extend to the whole season.
Was there any technical breakthrough that made a notable impact on the results?
Here I won’t cite any revolutionary changes either. A new shoes manufacturer came in, a few riders actively test the bikes equipped with disc brakes, and that’s it. On the other hand, the sports Director Dmitri Sedoun teamed up with the coach Ivan Velasco on the track, and they did a huge amount of technical work with riders, testing wheels, tyres and helmets, tweaking and polishing each rider’s position etc. The role of this period is hard to overestimate. To sum it up, we are happy with the technical partnership, the suppliers do their utmost to give us the best they can produce, they keep improving their top-level product and, last but not least, they are all ears, they catch the riders’ wishes on the fly.
It looks like the overall volume of high-altitude work has somewhat decreased this year?
Probably it looks like that from the outside, because of the abovementioned different groups strategy. No, training in the mountains is the crucial part of the strategy for a team focused on stage races and Grand Tours, it’s here to stay.
It is still very much alive in everyone’s mind how it all went in the opening part of the season in 2017. Just two years ago you were on the verge of a lengthy crisis but managed to step back from the gully…
It was obviously one of, if not the hardest year in the history of the team. It started with pretty routine things: having changed most of our technical partners we were going through an expected period of adaptation. But when we lost Michele Scarponi… Words can hardly describe the shock. And then somehow that loss brought us all closer together. It made us stronger. As though Michele himself, a real warrior with a big heart, gave us this extra power. The wins taken by the guys in memory of Scarponi are unforgettable.
The role of luck, or destiny for that matter, is undeniable in the elite sport. I came across the view that basically Astana was on a very competitive level before that nightmare season start, but with every coming day the situation became worse with all the injuries, riders falling ill and, finally, that tragedy…
When you have everything against you, it’s an ultimate survival test to go through. You are to focus on rebuilding the necessary atmosphere almost from the scratch. It’s no good pitting riders under extra stress when things get out of hand, just the reverse will work. We tried and helped them to calm down, to live and ride in a comfortable ambience. You can hear it in every second interview that Astana riders call the team a family, it’s more than just a metaphor, I give it a very high value. And, just like in any family, when your brother wins, you don’t want to stay behind. It’s almost like a chain reaction.
Did it feel like a painful blow for Astana’s ambitions in the classics when the team lost several Danish one-day specialists?
Well, we are always looking for a balanced composition of the team. As of today, we have good riders who can assume the leadership in stage races and in classics as well. After all, Grand Tours remain our absolute priority. Of course, you can’t talk about Michael Valgren as yet another rider, he won some beautiful one-day races for the team. They made him a better offer in terms of money, I see his point and respect his choice. We parted as friends, and, as you see, the team doesn’t stop winning on the budget we have at our disposal. Efficiency is the key. Magnus Cort is our leader in the Northern Classics, Alexey Lutsenko will come forward in the Ardennes, but they are not the only ones.
Speaking of Alexey Lutsenko, he is normally considered a young rider by the standards of the longest of one-day races. In your opinion, at what age he is likely to reach his peak performance? Can we expect him to step on the podium in one of the Monuments rather sooner than later? Which of the Monuments suit his characteristics better?
Alexey grows fast, cycling analytics look at his immediate prospects optimistically. He is nurtured as a professional rider in Astana, it is, quite naturally, a very special fact for Kazakhstan. This year we built his training and racing calendar around Amstel Gold and Liege- Bastogne- Liege. Why not –if he keeps his form and avoids the moments of bad luck, he can be one of the favorites already this year. At the same time, we want him to continue his development as an all-rounder. He can be a leader in week-long races, he has proven himself in the Tour of Oman twice. A stage victory in the Tour is within his scope, too, and that could be a dream come true for the fans in Kazakhstan and a great achievement for cycling in his home country in general. There is a global goal though, the Olympics. You can say that he is riding towards Tokyo already.
For most teams in today's cycling twenty wins is a good result at the end of the season; you’ve reaped this much with 70% of the races still to be contested. What is the next big goal you’re chasing now?
To win races regularly is our goal which is always here. We want our young riders to show their talents. Being a stage races and Grand Tours oriented team, we still appreciate every win our riders take. I want to thank our fans for their support and our general sponsor, Samruk Kazyna, for making it possible to ride and win at the very top of World cycling.
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