With Russia about to be engulfed by an epic athletics doping scandal, a cycling team owned and run by the government of Kazakhstan is creeping out of its own muddle.
Cycling world governing body UCI has decided to extend the World Tour license to the Astana team following a four-month monitoring process, the Cyclingnews website reported on November 9.
The leaves the team open to compete in all the sport’s major competitions in 2016, like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana.
Astana’s latest round of troubles began after the brothers Valentin and Maxim Iglinsky, both citizens of Kazakhstan, returned positive results for performance-enhancing substance EPO in August-September 2014.
UCI went ahead and gave Astana a license to compete the following December, but the team was made to understand it was on a final warning.
Extension of the license was contingent on a thorough audit of the team by the Institute of Sports Sciences in Lausanne, or ISSUL.
With that probationary period over, the UCI License Commission has now decided that earlier proceedings to withdraw the license are now no longer valid.
Cyclingnews said the aim of the ISSUL audit was to vet Astana’s organization, “culture and communications” and avoid a repetition of doping cases seen in 2014.
Two reports from ISSUL to the License Commission, in June and September, reported that communication, race management and medical matters were being handled in an improved fashion.
Astana wasn’t about to wait around for the definitive confirmation of its World Tour license extension, however.
Vesti newspaper has reported that the team is presenting its latest lineup on December 12 at Astana’s Saryarka velodrome.
“At the presentation, we want to show Kazakhstan’s cycling sport off to the world. The line-ups for Vino4rever, 7river, Astana women’s team, Astana track team and Astana Pro Team will be presented,” said Kazakhstan cycling federation president Darkhan Kaletayev.
Kaletayev said the event would also include an anti-doping seminar.
There should be some eminent authorities on that front. Vino4rever, for instance, is associated with Alexander Vinokourov, who forced the entire Astana team out of the 2007 Tour de France after being caught blood doping during the race.
Not everybody is convinced that Astana has entirely turned over a new leaf.
Reuters news agency reported in September that the Movement for Credible Cycling was expelling the team for failure to comply with its rules, which are considered stricter than those imposed by UCI or even the World Anti-Doping Agency, which played a decisive role in the definitive fall of Lance Armstrong.
That exclusion was linked to Astana rider Lars Boom showing low levels of cortisol in a test conduced ahead of the 2015 Tour de France. Although Boom was not found to have violated any doping rules, the low cortisol levels can be interpreted as evidence of use of cortisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid that is banned during competition.
Cyclenews said Astana will continue to face more strict scrutiny.
The UCI’s operational requirements for the 2017 will mandate more stringent critera for receipt of the World Tour license.
“Though ISSUL were satisfied with Astana’s early progress, it is clear that there is some way to go before the steps that have been made are incorporated as part of a stabilised operation,” Cyclenews wrote.
As a public relations exercise for Kazakhstan, Astana cycling team has proven a pretty miserable investment.