Ahead of the 2021 cycling season, KONM is previewing every men’s WorldTour team. We’ll do two per week until all are covered. Obviously, given the Covid-related uncertainty surrounding us all, it’s hard to be definitive but for now we’re taking it as if the “normal” schedule of races will go ahead approximately as would have occurred pre-2020.
At first glance, there isn’t much to shout about here. But at second glance… well, there still isn’t much to shout about here.
Aside from one or two old reliables and a few promising youngsters, Astana look a fairly middling team. Miguel Angel Lopez has sought pastures new and as a result Astana lack headline talent, so although the roster is well-balanced this isn’t a team about which KONM is getting excited.
The makeup of the group probably indicates that grand tours are big on the agenda, with the potential for a GC challenge but with the main focus likely to be stage-hunting. A large Spanish and Italian contingent suggests that races in those countries will be heavily targeted by the Astana sporting directors.
Into the void created by the departure of Lopez will step Aleksandr Vlasov. It has been clear for a while now that the Russian is becoming an excellent GC contender and he showed in 2020 that he can climb alongside the best. There isn’t really much doubt that he will be Astana’s premier grand tour GC hope in 2021. Sure, his nationality helps, but there’s far more than a flag in Vlasov’s armoury.
Last season, he won several hilly races (Giro dell’Emilia, Mont Ventoux Denivélé Challenge, stage 1 of Tour De Provence to La Ciotat) and showed up very strongly on several occasions in the Vuelta, holding his own on Alto de Moncalvillo, Alto de la Farrapona and La Laguna Negra de Vinuesa. Perhaps most impressively, though, he finished second on stage 12’s Angliru ascent, losing out to Hugh Carthy but coming home at the head of a three-man group with Enric Mas and Richard Carapaz. He won youth classifications as a matter of course.
Vlasov is a man with serious ability and it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that. Going forward with Astana as an outright leader, he’s likely to enjoy the full might of his team’s support in a way that may not have previously been the case. Would you bet against him featuring on the podium in a three-week tour? KONM wouldn’t.
If his development continues apace, Vlasov is a star of the future.
Away from Vlasov, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Jakob Fuglsang is still a force to be reckoned with. The 35-year-old Dane clung on for sixth at the Giro and was an impressive fifth on a hellish World Championships course, finishing in the first chasing group with Wout Van Aert, Marc Hirschi, Michal Kwiatkowski and Primoz Roglic. You don’t operate in that company unless you’re one of the world’s best. And lest we forget, there was the small matter of him winning another monument, Il Lombardia, in August, as well as the pre-Covid Ruta Del Sol.
Fuglsang came out of 2020 lockdown looking like he was at the top of his game. His autumn form was excellent, though he may have been disappointed to once again gradually slip out of contention in a grand tour. On the other hand, Fuglsang has said himself that fighting for the overall in 21-day races is not his speciality, and his superb results in one-dayers and week-long stage-races show where his true strengths lie.
“If it is up to me, I will not race for the GC in grand tours in the future,” Fuglsang said to Danish outlet TV2 recently. “Of course, it would be cool to be on a grand tour podium, but anything that is outside the podium isn’t so interesting to me anymore.”
From KONM’s vantage point, it would be nice to see Fuglsang released entirely from grand tour duty, including stage-hunting, and given free rein to attack the hillier classics throughout the year. But, similarly to our hopes for Bob Jungels, that may be an unrealistic expectation considering the importance placed by many on performances in the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. There’s also the glaringly obvious fact that Astana don’t have much depth when it comes to stage-racing leadership, so Fuglsang could easily find himself roped into another GC season.
If that transpires, he’ll do a great job as he always does. But it’d be nice to see him focused elsewhere.
Another prominent figure in Astana’s leadership group is the stolid Kazakh Alexey Lutsenko.
Even now, occidental stereotyping often leads to the description of ex-Soviet sportspeople as “robotic” or “machine-like”, a hangover from the Cold War era in which western powers typecast their counterparts in the mould of Ivan Drago: emotionless, cog-like, semi-artificial products of a frozen, scientific approach to sport. Back then, this was a method of dehumanising an “enemy” and, countless times, such shallow portrayals have been disproven and discredited.
And yet. And yet, there’s Lutsenko. He’s an intriguing character, one who on the surface lives up to these archaic depictions of athletes from countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain (and for which, hypocritically, KONM is now reaching). At times, he seems to be riding as if controlled by a motherboard, an impassive figure churning out watts, seeing the race only via the medium of ones and zeroes. Photographs and interviews rarely show him wearing anything other than a carefully blank expression.
Clearly, there is a human being behind this calculated look. Someone with emotions and feelings common to all riders in the peloton. It’s just that, generally, Lutsenko only lets us see them when he wins, and that’s completely fine. Even admirable, perhaps.
In fact, this composed demeanour has made him one of KONM’s favourite racers. He’s aggressive on the bike and as dogged an opponent as you could hope to never face. There’s great vengeance and furious anger behind the cold exterior, as well as the physical prowess to launch assault upon assault on the field. Lutsenko is one of the stockier World Tour riders, with a core you could chop wood on, and he knows how and when to use this dense build to his advantage.
The 28-year-old doesn’t always make a big splash in the anglophone media but he has been stacking up win after win for several years now and took a Tour de France stage in 2020. He has several GC victories in lesser stage-races like Oman and the Arctic Race of Norway, but KONM likes to think Lutsenko is at his best as a one-day puncher or a grand tour stage-hunter. Astana appear to think differently and usually aim him at minor tours. How nice would it be to see him really target the spring classics instead?
Maybe the cobbled stuff would be outside his capabilities (or, then again, maybe not), but it’s surely not a wild supposition to say that he could be a real force in the Ardennes and beyond. Although he has frequently shown up on startlines in the low countries and northern France, we’ve yet to see Lutsenko put the classics at the top of his priority list. Hopefully, 2021 is the year we see him do just that, though it’s admittedly difficult to see his team releasing him his normal duties.
Besides this triumvirate, the Izagirre brothers Gorka and Ion, Basque kings of the rain, are firm favourites of KONM. They’re an underrated pair, particularly the younger Ion, who in 2020 became one of the few to win a stage of each grand tour, no mean feat for a non-sprinter. Gorka, meanwhile, pulled off a big win in August with victory in the hybrid Gran Trittico Lombardia, distancing a serious leading group in a tough puncher’s race that took place, of course, in the pissing rain.
Between the two, they make for a powerful and occasionally underestimated dual leadership combination. Neither brother is ever going to win a grand tour or a monument, but they’re always worth keeping track of. They both race with reliability, but also with élan and attacking intent, making them valuable assets to this Astana outfit, which often appears to excel at mopping up some of the second- or third-tier races. There’s little doubt the Izagirres will hold their own again in 2021.
Another contender from northern Spain is Óscar Rodríguez, who arrived from Euskadi-Murias in 2020 on the back of some impressive performances the previous season. Rodríguez was mostly on helper duty in the Giro for Astana but he showed a lot of promise with a top 10 finish on stage 17 to Madonna di Campiglio. It was a stage given to the breakaway and not marshalled by the GC group, but to be able to hang on in the latter reaches of a grand tour indicates that there may be a future GC leader in Rodríguez. It’s unlikely we’ll see him to the forefront in 2021, but he’s one to keep in mind.
In Samuele Battistella, Astana have the 2019 U23 world road race champion, albeit one with an asterisk next to his name after the disqualification of first-past-the-line Nils Eekhoff in that race. It’s hard to know what to make of the Italian rider after a year of relative anonymity with NTT. He was busy post-lockdown, ending up racing almost constantly from Strade Bianche on August 1 to De Panne on October 21st, with no meaningful results to speak of.
But there simply has to be talent there, as to which his rainbow bands will attest. There is a worrying amount of DNS and DNF among Battistella’s results in 2019 and 2020 but this is probably not unusual for a young rider with a hectic schedule and he was hard enough to win that fateful U23 race on the grimmest of Yorkshire days in Harrogate. It’ll be interesting to see what we get from him in 2021.
Colombian climber Harold Tejada could be one to watch with future years in mind, but with the departure of Superman he may also find himself with opportunities this season. He caught the eye with a sixth-place in the Mont Ventoux Denivélé Challenge, finishing ahead of Lopez and the likes of Nairo Quintana, Valentin Madouas and Jesús Herrada. There’s talent there and we might just get a proper glimpse of it over the coming months.
And that, pretty much, is all she wrote for Astana. Fabio Felline is always a fun rider to watch, with a real chance of popping up with occasional victories, and you could say the same for Luis León Sánchez and Omar Fraile, while Alex Aranburu is a very decent puncher-sprinter. Another Spanish prospect is there in the form of 21-year-old national U23 road race champ, Javier Romo. There’s also 19-year-old Andrea Piccolo, who has had some fearsome results in the junior ranks, particularly on the TT bike, and could be a big-name in the making.
But for the most part, KONM is finding it tough to get excited about Astana, as was the case in 2020. Their transfer activity was only really notable for the exit of Lopez and they’ve been left with an odd mix of riders and a jack-of-all-trades look to the squad. The benefit of that, of course, is that they’re likely to be able to compete to a relatively good level on multiple fronts.
All things considered, a lot of eggs will be in Vlasov’s basket and there’s reason to think he will hatch some big results in 2021. Aside from that, it’s a bit as-you-were chez Vino.
2021 team hotness rating: 5/10
Transfer business rating: 5/10
Likely 2021 leaders: Aleksandr Vlasov, Jakob Fuglsang, Alexey Lutsenko, Gorka Izagirre, Ion Izagirre
Potential breakout riders: Samuele Battistella, Harold Tejada, Javier Romo, Andrea Piccolo
2021 kit rating: 5/10 – we’ve only had a few glimpses from promo shots, but it looks to be same-old same-old
Featured image: Nicola/Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence, edited by KONM