Play word association and many would link “Astana” to “positive test” rather than the capital of Kazakhstan or the Tour de France triumph. The Iglinskiy brothers and two riders few had heard of, Ilya Davidenok and Victor Okishev, riding for the Astana Continental team, a separate development, team have been caught recently.
It’s bad for the World Tour team and its reputation. The UCI has said the team’s licence application for 2015 is going to be looked at more closely. But what of the riders on the team? I’ve seen several saying Vincenzo Nibali should leave the team and readers have asked about this by email too. If only it was so easy.
Saying a rider should move because someone else on the team has tested positive appears to be new. It’s certainly one way to distance himself from the problem.
When Ag2r’s Steve Houanard and Sylvain Georges were given doping bans – EPO for Houanard – and the team self-suspended under MPCC rules I don’t recall anyone saying Romain Bardet and Jean-Christophe Péraud had to move teams to save their image. Nor should Joaquim Rodriguez move when Katusha’s sister team Rusvelo also stopped itself from racing after damaging doping dossiers. What’s different now? Well Nibali is more visible as a Tour winner but presumably because people trust Ag2r in a way they won’t with Astana and Rusvelo isn’t so obviously linked to Katusha given the different names. Astana’s stock of trust has never been too high. Witness how it needs the MPCC today given the team’s past, whether Vinokourov’s past, the roster of ex-Ferrari clients, the previous employment of Johan Bruyneel and José “Pepe” Martì et cetera ad nauseam. When people say they’d like Nibali to move I wonder whether they’re thinking of the rider and the realities of a move or assuaging their personal sensibilities instead. It’s as if it would be easier to compartmentalise “Tour winner” somewhere far away from recent scandals and suggestions that Nibali should move don’t extend to Fabio Aru moving or, say, Lars Boom shredding his new contract.
First let’s think of the legality. Nibali has a contract with Astana until the end of
2015 2016 so to walk out is to break this contract. He’d leave himself exposed to court cases. It’s unlikely there’s a clause in his contract which allows him to walk in the event of a teammate testing positive. Such a break clause is likely to exist in the event Astana loses its licence, whether entirely or merely gets a ride at Pro Continental level, the second tier. It’s normal for the star riders, liberating them if their team cannot be sure of riding the prime races.
The Jobs Market
Even if there were a break clause to leave then where would he go? It’s not like other teams have spaces available now yet alone a spare €2-3 million needed to afford him. Most other teams have their leaders and rosters fixed. Nibali’s sudden emergence on the market would be a contractual fire sale for the Sicilian. He’d stand to lose millions because whoever hires him surely doesn’t have the money sitting around and if they did, they could negotiate from a strong position.
Tinkoff-Saxo could afford him given the team’s billionaire owner but why would they want to hire Nibali with Alberto Contador, Peter Sagan and Rafał Majka to name three. Sky were said to be interested in the past but will back Chris Froome while BMC Racing, the other wealthy team, has invested considerably in Tejay van Garderen. Plus if you think Nibali should leave for reputational grounds, other teams have their issues. Bjarne Riis is assembling a cadre of managers that should be called the “50 plus club”, not for their age but their haematocrit when racing.
This might be about Nibali but he doesn’t ride alone. He joined Astana with a cell of trusted allies. Riders like Valerio Agnoli and Alessandro Vanotti but also coach Paolo Slongo and soigneur Michele Pallini. If Nibali moves anywhere, or stays put, then contracts for these people follow. In fact Nibali’s said he didn’t want Maxim Iglinskiy on the Tour de France team either, preferring Agnoli.
So far, so practical. Having discussed the legal and financial aspects, the more fundamental issue is whether he’d want to move or even should go. Nibali’s departure would cost him plenty and all because of the mistakes of others, he’d pay the price for something that wasn’t his fault. The Astana name ensures U23 riders you haven’t heard of hit the headlines but if the team was called “Almaty” and rode in red kit perhaps the pressure would be reduced? The Continental team has its problems but it’s got little to do with the Italian.
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change“
That’s quoting another Sicilian, Tancredi in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s “Gattopardo”. But what if Nibali stayed and things changed within the team? Perhaps the solution to reassure many would be for Nibali to stay but insist on a clear out around him? Easier said than done. Nibali was fielding questions last summer about trust given Astana’s a team managed by Alexandr Vinokourov and Guiseppe Martinelli, two people with a certain history in the sport. The recruitment of a new team doctor – of all the medics in Italy – who was linked to Marco Pantani doesn’t help either. But if Nibali is a significant figure he could not impose the signing of his brother Antonio on the team, they said no to this demand. If he can’t get his brother on board he can hardly call for Vino to step back.
I can see how Nibali’s presence on the team is awkward, as if his continued presence with Astana signals approval. In theory moving would put some distance between the Tour de France winner and the bad image of the team. But look more closely and Davidenok and Okishev share little or nothing with the Sicilian. The development team has links to the World Tour team but for now there’s nothing to say the steroid abuse of two U23 riders is connected to the main team.
Nibali’s exit might comfort some onlookers it wouldn’t fix the worries about rider development in Kazakhstan which have associated the Astana name with scandal again. Nibali is tied by contracts, money and more to Astana, it can’t be unpicked in one go. A rider, especially a leader, cannot be moved like a computer file, copied from a corrupted folder and pasted to a new location. In summary Nibali probably can’t move and if he did, it would cost him plenty and solve little.