The cycling team of Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali doesn’t come from one of Europe’s traditional powerhouses, such as Spain, France or Italy.
In fact, its origins lay in the mountainous, land-locked central Asian country of Kazakhstan – a former Soviet republic where boxing’s heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers were born, but which these days is seeking to spread its sporting influence.
The state-funded Astana Pro Team (APT) is led by 30-year-old Italian Nibali, one of only six riders to have won all three of cycling’s grand tours.
The team’s general manager, homegrown Alexandre Vinokourov, won gold at the 2012 Olympics and claimed multiple stage wins in Le Tour and Italy’s Giro d’Italia.
But in a sport riddled with controversy, APT – named after the Kazakh capital – has been affected by its fair share of doping scandals.
Vinokourov, now 41, tested positive for blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France, leading to a brief early retirement spell. Last year, five riders from APT’s first team and its developmental squad tested positive for banned substances, resulting in an International Cycling Union review of the team’s license.
Fresh off the decision to uphold APT’s status, the two faces of Kazakhstan’s cycling team opened up to CNN’s Amanda Davies on what the sport means to the country, its ambitions to host the 2022 Winter Olympics and 2026 FIFA World Cup, and why those recent doping controversies will not hold them back.
CNN: How have the people of Kazakhstan reacted to you, now that you’re a Tour de France champion riding in Kazakh colors?
Vincenzo Nibali: The Kazakh people welcomed us soon after the Tour de France victory and we got a lot of gratitude from the citizens, but also from the president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Being recognized even in Kazakhstan is a very cool thing that makes me proud. It’s nice to see that because it means that cycling is becoming more and more international.
How much extra motivation is there after the frustration of last year, with so much of your achievement overshadowed by the drugs cases and the negative headlines?
VN: I don’t stop for something I am not responsible for. (The doping scandal) was several months ago and not my responsibility. My mind goes into one direction only, and that’s what’s important. I really have to avoid thinking about anything that doesn’t belong to me or stops me from getting closer to my goal.
How confident are you that Astana is doing all it can to be a clean cycling team?
VN: Each of us is responsible for their own actions. No doubt that Astana does all it can to try to be fair, especially with its racers. However, nobody can guarantee that a rider who is motivated to disrupt the system doesn’t do it. I can’t guarantee this doesn’t happen, as Vinokourov can’t guarantee it, as no sport director can.
So, when something like this happens – and unfortunately it can happen in any team – we need strict and clear rules. When It happens, it’s not the whole team (who should) pay for it, but only the individual who cheated … and he should pay a lot.
You are the defending champion. Your worth is probably higher than it’s ever been this year. Did you at any point ever think you should move to another team to avoid all the controversy?
VN: I am tied to the team for another year, until 2016. I am not free to move to another team, and I never thought of it anyway. The only reason why this (would) happen is if we (didn’t) get the license and the team was to shut down. In that case yes, I would have thought about another solution.
So what will it mean to line up on day one of this year’s Tour in Utrecht on July 4 as the defending champion?
VN: It isn’t easy, every year is different. No doubt that the Tour de France this year has a different map from last year and so it needs to be tackled differently. Last year we had some very nervy stages, but racing in the UK (where the 2014 edition started) is very different from riding in Belgium.
They say the hardest bit once you’ve made it to the top is staying at the top.
VN: It’s harder to try to get on top. Once I’m on top level, I can hold my form and it’s much easier to try to make it last as long as possible.
What does the Astana team mean to people of Kazakhstan?
Alexandre Vinokourov: For the 10 years that the team has been in existence, it’s now about more than just fans. These are people who live and die for the team, and in Kazakhstan it means a lot to them.
How much is APT a sporting team, and how much is it a symbol of national pride?
AV: Each time you put on the jersey, it gives you a special energy and national pride when you feel your country’s support. The riders from Kazakhstan, as well as the riders from foreign countries, feel equally patriotic and responsible.
Why do you think the president of Kazakhstan places so much importance in sport?
AV: I think professional sport is one of the strategies to promote an image of the country. Not only does it help to raise Kazakhstan’s profile, it also helps to develop youth sport. The president has placed equal emphasis on both these aspects, and one leads into the other.
How damaging do you think the recent doping controversies have been to the image of Kazakhstan?
AV: The country’s image wasn’t damaged. Having said that, it gave us extra motivation to try to come back and do double the work possible this year, showing that whilst these things still happen in cycling, for our team they are now in the past. We work with every rider personally to prevent such mistakes from happening in the future.
I understand that this year our team’s reputation has been at risk, but we’ve done everything we can to show that the team works correctly and that all of the precautions are in place to prevent cases of doping from happening again.
This year’s goal is to come back, double the effort of last year, go back to the Tour de France and regain our image as one of the strongest teams.
How worried were you that Astana would lose its license? How close did you get to that point?
AV: We were worried. We thought it could have gone either way, but when we looked at the facts, we had faith that we had done everything we could within the team to prevent these things from happening again.
How do you react to those who say Astana will always be associated with drugs, and with yourself – somebody who served a drug suspension at the top?
AV: What happened in the past happened in the past. Unfortunately there are people who will always have something negative to say. Luckily, our fans and the people who know the world of cycling understand that cycling as a whole has changed immensely since those times.
I served my two-year suspension. I came back to the sport and I showed that I can win clean at the highest level by winning the Olympics in 2012 in London. We work transparently and openly and we constantly work on our image.
How do you convince the doubters?
AV: Come take a look at us. See how we work.
With a Winter Olympics bid and also talk of a 2026 World Cup bid in the pipeline, how important is it that the perception of Astana changes?
AV: The 2022 Winter Olympics is now down to two cities. Almaty (Kazakhstan’s largest city) and Beijing. It is going to be stiff competition, but I think we’ve got the elements in place to have a good bid in June, and we are looking forward to showing off our city in the Olympic bidding process.
The perception of our image is important. The team is working to make sure they have the best image possible.
For football it’s a different thing. We don’t really have a national team that itself can participate at that level, so it’s probably not as clear-cut as it is for the Winter Olympics.
Why is cycling so popular in Kazakhstan?
AV: It goes back to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I got my first medal (a silver in the men’s road race) there. When I came back people wanted to meet me; people at the top of the government wanted to shake hands with the Olympic medalist.
Since then, investment has come into the sport and we have this professional team, and we’ve gone around and we’ve won these races, and we’ve had this great success.
Where once it was popular to give a watch as a gift, now it’s popular to give a bicycle.