Astana opens the cycling season in New Mexico working on image

Updated: January 29, 2008, 8:53 PM ET
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Johan Bruyneel has a message for the cycling community: Forget last year's troubled Astana team.

Bruyneel, the architect of Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France victories, raised eyebrows a few months ago when he took over a team that was shamefully dismissed from last year's Tour amid a doping scandal.

"A lot of people told me, 'What are you thinking?" Bruyneel said Tuesday as Astana cyclists continued high-altitude training in New Mexico.

"But I didn't think it was difficult. People make it a lot more complicated than it really is. To break it down and look at the simple things, then do them right, it's not that complicated," he said.

Last year's Tour de France champion, Alberto Contador, and other Astana riders are in Albuquerque, which rests at mile-high elevation. Training at altitude provides an endurance advantage for riders after they return to sea level.

Yet as Bruyneel's riders negotiate high desert roads and attack a winding highway to the Sandia Peak Ski Area, he agrees there's another huge challenge facing Astana: reforming the team's image.

"Above all, it's a problem with perception," he said. "And perception, I don't think you can change it from today to tomorrow. It's up to us to prove that things have changed. We will prove things have changed."

The Kazakh-based Astana team endured a Tour de France doping scandal in which top rider Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for a banned blood transfusion. Astana also wasn't invited to the Spanish Vuelta.

Team organizers at Kazakhstan's national cycling federation could have turned away. Instead, they asked former Russian cyclist and Astana team director Viatcheslav Ekimov, a longtime support rider for Armstrong, to approach Bruyneel.

The pitch: Become the team's general manager, not just the coach, and restore Astana's name.

"I went over there more out of curiosity than anything else," Bruyneel said. "They convinced me. I was really surprised by the passion and determination to keep the team going."

Bruyneel was impressed by the importance of cycling in Kazakhstan, pointing to a $150 million velodrome under construction as an example of how much the nation supports the sport.

He also felt an urge to satisfy his appetite for hard work.

"In nine years, winning eight Tours de France and a Giro and a Vuelta, there's nothing else I can do on the sport side," Bruyneel said. "But I'm somebody who likes difficult challenges."

Not long after Bruyneel agreed, Contador joined Astana, along with top American rider Levi Leipheimer. Both had raced for Bruyneel with the Discovery team, and both were eager to join simply because Bruyneel was in charge.

"I was very happy I could go on in a similar environment," Contador said in Spanish through a translator. "It's a great project. I'm very happy to be part of it."

Said Leipheimer: "When Johan said he had this project in the works, there was no second thought. I immediately knew that's what I wanted to do. It's a chance to create something from ground up."

Bruyneel also said he agreed to join Astana because of the team's new anti-doping efforts, which employ measures developed by Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard.

"I know the program we're following is not a public relations program," he said.

Bruyneel calls the Damsgaard program "the best available" and said each Astana rider already has been tested at least twice since December, with more regular tests coming during the season.

But most important, he said, is the top-to-bottom overhaul -- including the team's new uniforms and bicycles.

"This is a completely new team," Bruyneel said. "The name of the sponsor remains the same but everything else has changed. The management has changed. The structure and the riders have changed. Above all, the philosophy has changed."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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