Kazakhstan has found a novel way to combine two of its passions du jour, green energy and cycling. Astana is hosting a group of intrepid cyclists who have spent the last seven weeks or so racing from France to Central Asia on vehicles fueled by pedal power, with a little help from the sun.
The race, known as “The Sun Trip,” is the brainchild of Florian Bailly. The pioneer of solar-assisted cycling made his own way from France to Japan in 2010, a 10,000-kilometer trip relying solely on pedal and solar power. For Astana, the Sun Trip is a way of publicizing EXPO 2017, which it promises will focus on renewable energy.
Solar bikes, which use a combination of a pedal-powered machine with a solar-fueled battery, allow riders to travel long distances at greater speeds than on conventional bicycles.
Thirty-three competitors set off from Savoy on June 15 on a variety of machines – including conventional bicycles with trailers transporting the solar gear, along with a tandem or two and a tricycle.
On July 23, Raf van Hulle wheeled into Kazakhstan's capital first, 37 days after leaving Savoy, France. The Belgian’s grueling 7,500-kilometer journey took him through Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
It looks like cyclist Alexandre Vinokourov's long career may have come to an abrupt end. Kazakhstan’s star 37-year-old Tour de France competitor crashed out of the race on July 10 in spectacular fashion, while having one last try at cycling's most coveted prize. With him, Kazakhstan’s dreams of a win were firmly dashed, for this year.
Vinokourov spoke of his disappointment in a statement on the Team Astana's website: "I never expected such a dramatic end on the Tour de France. This is a terrible disappointment to me, I am so sad tonight. But I want to reassure me by telling me that it could have been much worse. The injury will stop me for quite a long time, and I will follow the Tour on television to support the entire Astana team. I know my friends of the team won’t forget me and they will do everything to win at least one stage."
The Team Astana leader was at the head of the pack when he was driven into a ravine during a steep mountain descent. He ended up with a fractured right thighbone after he was forced off course by another rider's crash as they were rounding a slippery corner.
Contador, whose controversial July win was a tarnished blessing for Astana, was tested on July 21, and the sample revealed traces of the banned steroid clenbuterol. At a press conference in his Spanish hometown on September 30, the three-time Tour winner proclaimed his innocence and said that the positive result was due to his having eaten contaminated meat from Spain. The International Cycling Union has provisionally suspended Contador from the sport while the case is investigated.
Kazakhstan's state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna supports Team Astana, a PR vehicle for the country on the world stage. But cycling -- with its regular doping scandals -- is a dangerous sport for promoting Kazakhstan's image abroad. In 2007, Kazakhstan's top rider Alexandre Vinokourov was kicked out of the Tour de France along with the whole Astana team after he tested positive for doping.
In the space of a week, Tour de France winner Alberto Contador has gone from being a hero to villain in Kazakhstan. The star cyclist has left Team Astana for the rival Saxo Bank cycling team only a week after bringing the Tour title to Kazakhstan for the second year running. His new team officially unveiled Contador on August 3.
The move is a blow for Astana, which is sponsored by Kazakhstan’s state asset holding company Samruk-Kazyna. The team believed it had met Contador's conditions to continue negotiations, only to receive a surprise rebuke from his press service on July 28.
The Kazakhstan Cycling Federation general secretary, Valentin Rekhert, said Astana was a “little angry” with Contador's handling of the affair, especially after the team had offered him a greatly improved contract over several seasons.
Astana may be down surprisingly soon after triumphing in cycling's biggest event. But the team is moving quickly to bolster its roster for the 2011 season and has opened talks with Denis Menchov, who finished third in this year's Tour de France.
It is also pursuing David Arroyo, who was runner-up in this year’s Giro d'Italia, and the team has already signed promising young rider Robert Kiserlovski, who placed 10th in the same race.
Team Astana fans can put their spandex shorts away for another year. On July 25, their very own Alberto Contador successfully retained the Tour de France title in Paris. It was Contador's third victory in cycling's most prestigious race, scoring another positive PR boost for Kazakhstan's fledgling capital. He rode home 39 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck.
But Contador’s victory was not without controversy. He snatched the lead from Schleck in stage 16 of 20 when his rival's chain slipped off. Schleck, who was leading Contador by 31 seconds, dismounted to refasten his chain. According to unwritten Tour de France etiquette, when the race leader suffers a mishap the other riders wait for him to recover before continuing. Contador flouted this convention and seized the opportunity to pedal eight seconds ahead of the stricken race leader.
"I wouldn't want to take the jersey like that," Schleck said after the race. "My stomach is full of anger and I want to take my revenge in the next days."
In his defense, Contador said, "I was attacking and I was past him before I knew what had happened."
Later Contador apologized for the manner in which he snatched the lead: "Today I managed to get on the podium, which makes me happy. The problem with that was the circumstances. Right when I attacked Andy had a mechanical on the last climb. The race was in full gear and, well, maybe I made a mistake. I'm sorry."