Looking far from the disbanded team they were at the close of last season, Anthony Tan is seeing an Astana united: together, one that may be even stronger than in 2009.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

Four days before the close of
last year's Tour de France, the entire press corps at the TdF centre
de presse
in Annecy received an email.

The heading: "Lance
Armstrong Partners with RadioShack to Form New Cycling Team in 2010".


"RadioShack Corporation (NYSE:RSH) is proud to announce a partnership
with seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong to form a new
American ProTour cycling team," began the statement from RadioShack's PR
department.

"Beginning in 2010, Lance Armstrong will compete
for Team RadioShack as a cyclist, runner and triathlete in events around
the world, including the 2010 Tour de France."

Said Armstrong
in the release, "To be able to compete for an American team comprised of
the world's top cyclists, supported by the best coaches and staff – I
couldn't be happier to partner with RadioShack, a truly iconic American
brand."

Given that Paris was a few days away and there was still
three months' racing left on the European race calendar, no details
were disclosed on who apart from Armstrong would be joining Team
RadioShack.

At that stage, neither Alberto Contador – who was
wearing the maillot jaune, and who, in that final time trial,
outclassed all and sundry to further an already unassailable advantage –
nor Armstrong had confirmed rumours of what amounted to an
uncomfortable seven-month rift between them. It was two days after the
Tour ended before 'El Pistolero' told a packed news conference in
his hometown of Pinto outside Madrid: "My relationship with Lance
Armstrong is zero."

And so on and so on.

Still, it
didn't take a genius to figure Contador would not be joining 'The
Shack', and that then-Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel would.


Post the distribution of that press release, the questions were
essentially twofold: 1.) Who would be joining Armstrong and Bruyneel
(and by default, who would stay with Contador)? and 2.) Would Contador
stay with Astana, or either join a new team or form his own team?


As if the Black Plague had struck, it turned to be a complete exodus at
Astana. Armstrong took 10 of his Astana buddies with him and left
Contador with almost nothing.

Contador, managed by his brother
Francisco, looked like he was trying to get out of his contract that
still had a year left to run. Astana offered a lucrative four-year deal –
that was knocked back. Caisse d'Epargne, Quick Step, Garmin and
Liquigas were all interested.

Though by November 19, it was
announced AC would stay.

Said the release: "[Contador] has taken
the decision to complete his contract with Astana having confirmed that
both Yvon Sanquer, the new team manager, and sports director Giuseppe
Martinelli guarantee the seriousness and competitiveness of the new
Astana project.

"In a short space of time they have managed to
bring together a group of riders of great quality with which to tackle
the sporting challenges of the next season."

"The duration of
the contract will be only one year because, apart from being a new
project for Astana, Alberto Contador does not wish to renounce the
option of making a decision about his longer term future," added the
statement.

At the start of the season Astana looked shaky,
despite new management and a renewed, solid group of riders that
included the topical though controversial signing of Alexandre
Vinokourov. Meanwhile, over at RadioShack, ostensibly the Tour-winning
team of 2009, it appeared to be a case of business as usual.

In
recent months, however, things have begun to change.

Armstrong
rode just the one Spring Classic at the Tour of Flanders before becoming
ill and returning home to the United States. Apart from Chris Horner
who rode a superlative Tour of the Basque Country to beat Alejandro
Valverde, and the always consistent Andréas Klöden, RadioShack's leading
men have been unspectacular to date.

Conversely, Astana's Maxim
Iglinksy has experienced a breakthrough season, winning Italy's version
of Paris-Roubaix, the Montepaschi Strade Bianche, and finishing top-10
in Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders. He was
also instrumental in guiding Contador during last Wednesday's Fleche
Wallonne where the Spaniard finished third.

Leading by example,
Contador has won three out of the four stage races he entered including
his second Paris-Nice title – as auspicious a start as it was for him
last year.

Then in Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege, although not
as his best, he rode for his team-mate Alexandre Vinokourov, softening
the opposition before Vinokourov and another Alexander, Kolobnev of
Katusha, made their winning move 17 kilometres from the finish, on the
false flat after the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons.

From there,
Vinokourov's strength and experience made his second Liege victory a
formality, crossing the line with hands aloft in the typical 'V' salute,
though among a noticeably subdued crowd in Ans.

And who was the
first to congratulate Vino with an embrace that was far from
stage-managed, but an embrace one reserves for only the closest of
friends?

That's right – Contador.

And so with little
more than two months before the 2010 Tour de France, Astana is beginning
to resemble a team united. As strong, maybe even better, then they were
12 months ago.

On a perhaps related aside, has anyone noticed
how quiet Armstrong has been on the Twitterfront of late?

You
can follow Anthony on Twitter at twitter.com/anthony_tan