Team Focus 2019: Astana

Nationality: Kazakh

2018 WT Ranking: 6th

2018 WT major wins: Amstel Gold Race, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Michael Valgren; Stage 14 TDF, Omar Fraile; Stage 15 TDF, Magnus Cort

Riders to watch in 2019: Superman López, the Izagirre brothers, Alexey Lutsenko, Magnus Cort

Notable for: Vino’s consistent ability to make himself the centre of attention; Supermaaaaaaannnn

VALGREN-LESS FOR 2019, WILL ASTANA STRUGGLE FOR VICTORIES? OR WILL SUPERMAN, LUTSENKO AND CO STEP UP?

Currently, the best thing about Astana is Miguel Ángel ‘Superman’ López, a Microscopic Colombian Climber™ who’s about as punchy as that breed comes.

In 2018, Astana’s biggest success story was blond bombshell Michael Valgren, who powered his way to victory in the Amstel and the Omloop (HN), but he’s off to take the South African rand with Team Cavendish Dimension Data. Which leaves López as, probably, Astana’s only true headliner.

This is absolutely fine with KONM, who is, you’ll notice over the coming months, pretty much Superman’s number one fan. López made the podium of the Giro and the Vuelta in 2018, having previously overshadowed Fabio Aru in the former in 2017, so it’s clear there’s yellow/pink/red jersey pedigree in this chap.

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Nothing pleases KONM more than watching a Colombian mountain goat in full-on Hah-You-Call-This-Thin-Air Mode, and it would be wonderful if López dug deep into the third week of a GT in 2019. More robust than the skeletal Nairo Quintana, who is nevertheless the MCC™ darling of the blog in perpetuity, you’d have to think López has the minerals to go all the way.

The only obstacle being: Team Sky. Oh, and all the other big GC contenders. Perhaps with a better support team – hello, Izagirres – López will be pushing for first rather than a podium, but as it is, KONM will be happy to see him there or thereabouts this coming season. Maybe think more about one or two of the monuments as well, though, Miguel Ángel?

Elsewhere, Valgren leaves a gap to fill in terms of winning races, into which you’d imagine Magnus Cort will attempt to step. Jakob Fuglsang has taken victory in stage races, but he’s 33 and never likely to be fighting for honours in the really big ones. He may be left to pick up the scraps from López’s table, or even turned full-time dom.

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The arrival of the Izagirres is intriguing. Maybe they can be the super-domestiques that Superman needs in order to compete for grand tours. Or maybe they have greater ambitions? Both are capable of winning things.

Then there’s Alexey Lutsenko, of whom Podium Cafe remarked in 2017: “he has been Astana’s golden child for so long and at some point he could well live up to the promise.” Well, in 2018 Lutsenko won the GC at the Tour of Oman and was 2nd in the Tour of Turkey, so it’s obvious why the team have so much time for him. He may not have the class of López in the mountains, but it’s still not the moment to write him off as a major World Tour player.

Honestly, though, KONM can’t profess to have too much enthusiasm for Astana. They’re a fairly middle-of-the-road outfit capable of occasionally becoming relevant in the odd GC shakeup. Still, there’s always Superman.

Featured photo: Julia Engel/Commons, edited by KONM

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Writer featured in/on FourFourTwo, Guardian, The Set Pieces, Sports Illustrated, R&K, TFT, Nightwatchman, World Soccer, Pickles, Cricketworld and more. Twitter: @HeavyFirstTouch

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