ASTANA – The Astana Qazaqstan Team, a professional road cycling racing team based in Kazakhstan, aims to enter the world’s top 18 teams, said Alexander Vinokurov, former professional road cyclist and the team’s general manager, in an exclusive interview with The Astana Times.
Astana Qazaqstan Team was founded in 2006 and has since then competed in many major cycling events around the world, including Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a España.
The team has had several notable victories in these races. Some of the most successful cyclists to have competed for the Astana Qazaqstan Team include Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, Alexey Lutsenko, and Jakob Fuglsang.
Vinokurov, who retired from professional cycling after winning gold at the London Olympics in 2012 and has led the team since 2013, said it struggles to reach the results of 2014-2015 because of multiple challenges.
“Look at our stats from 2014-2015 when we were top level, and riders were trying to join the Astana [team] to win a grand tour. After 2018, we just stayed at the same level while other competitors kept growing, investing in the team, having big budgets, and signing good cyclists,” said Vinokurov.
He recalled 2018, when the team had 40 wins in the season and was fourth in the Union Cycliste Internationale team rankings. Now the team has dropped to the 25th position.
The past two years were pivotal for the team, from the change of staff to the dismissal of Vinokurov as a team leader in June 2021. He returned to his post later in August of the same year.
“The team was feeling it,” he explained.
At the beginning of the year, the team’s management discusses the schedule with each rider and member of staff. This is when it is decided in which race the team members will participate in.
Mark Cavendish, Cees Bol, Dmitriy Gruzdev, Yevgeniy Fedorov, Martin Laas, Igor Chzhan, and Gleb Syritsa participated in the Scheldeprijs race in Belgium on April 5. Cavendish finished third, leading at first, but at the end, falling behind the eventual winner Jasper Philipsen and second-placed Sam Welsford.
The team also took part in the Paris-Roubaix on April 9 in France, the third of the five Monument one-day races.
Astana Qazaqstan Team also participated in the UCI World Tour stage race Itzulia Basque Country from April 3 to April 8.
Vinokurov said it is tough for the team to compete in several locations at once.
“This year, we got off to a good start in February. In March, it was difficult. There was not a day when someone was not sick. Sometimes we have to change the program for riders at the very last moment. We have to adapt. We are not shining with results so far,” he said.
The goal is to survive
“Now we need to adjust. But it takes time. It is easy to break, we have been building [the team] for at least ten years. In 2019, we dropped to sixth place in the overall rankings and in 2020 to 11th place,” he said.
The top teams are now British Ineos Grenadiers and the UAE Team Emirates, which has Tadej Pogačar, a Slovenian cyclist, on its team. Pogačar is the world’s No. 1 in the UCI individual rankings, breaking for the first time in history the 6,000-point barrier.
“It is hard to compete when teams have very big budgets that are two to three times larger than yours,” said Vinokurov.
The team is seeking a co-sponsor, something it has tried to accomplish since 2020 following criticism from Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on the inexpediency of maintaining professional sports clubs entirely at the expense of the state.
Back then, Samruk Kazyna, the general partner of the cycling team, set a goal to cut half of the funding and introduce a co-sponsor to share the financial expenditure with Kazakhstan.
“But this is a difficult period not only for Kazakhstan but also for the world, given what is happening. We hope we will attract a second sponsor who will raise the budget to $25-$30 million, then we will be able to compete. Today, $25 million is the average budget of a world cycling team. We do not even come close to this average,” Vinokurov said.
He added Kazakhstan is still number one in Asia.
Strength and weaknesses
When asked about the team’s biggest strength, Vinokurov said the staff.
“Riders come and go, but the personnel remain. You work together with them every day, sometimes for one and a half months, you live in one room, they become like a second family,” said Vinokurov.
The team lacks a leader, he added, yet finding one requires a budget.
“The team clearly lacks a leader. It used to be Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador. But Nibali has already retired. When you have an obvious leader, it is easier to build a team around him. The team’s wings spread, the guys can do the impossible. But to find a leader, you need a budget,” said Vinokurov.
Among the near-term goals for the national team is preparing for the Asian Road Cycling Championship on June 7 in Thailand.
Raising hopes for juniors
Looking to the future, Vinokurov expressed great hope for juniors. There are currently two youth teams in Kazakhstan – the Vino SKO team based in the North Kazakhstan Region, where Vinokurov is from, and the Apple City team of Almaty, funded by the city akimat (administration) and Astana Group holding.
Vinokurov said they found the right person in Spain, a cycling fan, who is ready to train the junior cyclists. The first group will depart for Granada in May.
“Young riders are from 19 to 23 years old, and if they show results, they are then promoted to the youth Astana team [referring to a UCI Continental team for under-23 riders, named Astana Qazaqstan Development Team]. If we see talent, we will sign them into the professional team, so we do not have to look for riders outside [Kazakhstan] or hire them,” said Vinokurov.
He also emphasized the importance of involving women in the sport. Globally, women still face challenges in terms of representation and gender equity compared to men’s cycling.
“Women are more represented [in cycling] now. I have always said that you have to give women in Kazakhstan a chance. There used to be disagreement just ten years ago about why we need girls and women [in this sport], but I always knew that [it is necessary],” he added.
Dream big and work hard
Vinokurov said dreaming big and working hard are key to success. Young riders, however, should not aim to get into a team but rather show results, he said.
“Dream and work hard. If you have the desire, you can achieve more,” he stressed. “I tell the guys to not think about contracts. You have to think about the result – if you manage to achieve it, the contract and the money will follow.”
Vinokurov himself is a demonstration of how strong will and perseverance can bring accomplishments. The Kazakh rider has overcome numerous obstacles and setbacks in his career to become one of the most prominent cyclists of his generation.
Born on Sept. 16, 1973, in Bishkul, Vinokurov began cycling at a young age, honing his skills on the rugged terrain of his homeland. It was in February 1984 when a 23-year-old novice coach Sergey Kruchina walked into a class in a secondary school in the village of Bishkul in the North Kazakhstan Region and announced the opening of a cycling section at a local sports school. Many kids agreed to visit the section. Fourth grader Alexander Vinokurov was one of them.
“When I first started [cycling], there was no professional sport. We did it because we just liked it. We never dreamed of getting into professional sports. Today the kids have all the steps and stages [laid out for them],” he said.
Vinokurov won more than 60 high-profile races, including overall classification and three stages of the Vuelta a España grand tour, four stages and podium (third place) of the overall classification of the Tour de France grand tour, overall classification of the Paris-Nice stage race two times, Criterium Dauphine and Giro del Trentino stage races, Liege – Bastogne – Liege classical race two times, Amstel Gold Race classical race, silver medal at 2000 Olympic Games and the 2012 Olympic Games, just a year after he suffered a serious injury.
“The hardest moment was in 2011, when I broke my femoral neck and became an Olympic champion a year later. I felt like something wasn’t finished,” he said.
Meeting with President Tokayev last year
Vinokurov noted that the support he received from President Tokayev during their meeting in April 2022 meant a lot to him.
Preparing to meet Tokayev, there was only one question in his mind – what is the future of the team.
“He told me, ‘Alexander Nikolaevich, we are not going to end this. Astana is a recognizable brand in the world. We have invested money for 17 years. We should continue to move forward.’ I was happy to hear this and I’m ready to work to raise another Olympic champion for my country,” said Vinokurov, recalling his meeting with Tokayev.
For him, it was a sign that “things are getting better.”
“Astana [team] is indeed the calling card of our country. In any country that we visit, everyone knows Astana. Our project lives on and our riders are showing results,” concluded Vinokurov.