Friday Feature: Astana service course

I’ve had an open invitation to visit Astana’s service course for some time but, with the Tour de France looming, I thought it might be interesting to visit and see how the team organises itself ahead of such a mammoth undertaking. It might be fair to say that I was a bit like a kid in a candy shop and was guided round the pick-and-mix by the man in charge. Maxim Gourov, a former professional rider with Astana and 2010 Kazakh national road race champion.

Maxim Gourov (left) with Oscar Pereiro (image: Astana)

Maxim Gourov (left) with Oscar Pereiro (Image: Astana)

Astana’s service course is tucked away on an anonymous industrial estate and unsurprisingly, given the value of its contents, is protected like Fort Knox. I had fondly imagined that prior to the biggest of the grand tours I might find a master checklist on the wall listing everything they’d be taking with them, but there wasn’t. Sponsors ship in enough goods at the start of each season to last all year, the only exception being goods with a sell or consume by date such as dietary supplements, which are ordered as and when required. Instead, it’s up to their large staff of experienced soigneurs and mechanics to ensure that the drawers and hatches in the lorries are neatly filled with everything the team might require and more during a four-week trip.

Ready to be loaded for the Tour (image: Sheree)

Ready to be loaded for the Tour (Image: Sheree)

The mechanics’ area takes up three-quarters of the lorry. Bike frames and wheels hang from the ceiling while drawers and hatches neatly contain the myriad parts which are visibly stored in the second half of the building.

Spot Nibali's with the dark blue forks (image: Sheree)

Spot Nibali’s bike with the dark blue forks (Image: Sheree)

Some riders’ bikes are more easily identifiable. The gold one (see below) belongs to the Olympic champion and Astana team manager, Alexandre Vinokourov, while the bike with dark blue forks (see above) illustrated with a shark is Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali‘s. Each season, bike sponsor Specialized provides 180 road bike and 40 time trial frames. At the end of the season, half are returned to the sponsor and the other half are passed onto Astana’s Continental feeder team, based in Italy, or the Astana track team.

Just checking they've got the correct bikes for the Italian championship (image: Sheree)

Just checking they’ve got the correct bikes for the Italian championship – note the distinctive gold frame (Image: Sheree)

Boxes of bidons take up a large part of the storage space. Both Astana teams use around 35,000 bidons per annum, including around 1,500 for the Tour. A couple of days’ supply are stored loose in a hatch in the soigneurs’ part of the team lorry. Again, everything is neatly packed away in drawers alongside the sink and preparation area. Also in the service course there’s what seems like acres of soft drinks. The team consumes around 26,000 litres of Kazakh water and a similar amount of soft (but not fizzy) drinks. I also saw a large number of champagne boxes. Stocks no doubt much depleted after Nibali’s magnificent Giro victory. There was no vodka or beer to be seen!

A winning team! (image: Astana)

A winning team! (Image: Astana)

During my visit Astana team manager Giuseppe Martinelli was sorting out what the Italians on the team would need for their participation in that forthcoming weekend’s national championships. The entire team is largely an interesting Kazakh-Italian mix with Italian and English forming the main languages of the team. That said the team has a liberal sprinkling of other nationalities and this melting pot clearly engenders a lively and friendly atmosphere, helped no doubt by most of the riders and staff living in close proximity. I was amused to find that a lot of their pre-printed stationery is in English.

Go faster helmets (image: Astana)

Go-faster helmets (Image: Astana)

The team was awaiting delivery of its new kit bearing the Astana Expo 2017 logo, which its riders will wear during the Tour and for the rest of the season. These would only be delivered once the identities of the national champions were known, as these have to be factored into the kit orders, plus the list of the final nine riders. A recent crash while training in Tenerife had raised a couple of question marks as to exactly who would be participating. Of course, sponsors also supply some of the distinctive kit that may be required during the Tour – just in case. Teams wearing light-coloured kit such as Astana tend to get through rather more than those wearing darker colours as it’s often impossible to clean the road grease from the high-performance materials. Both the buses and lorries are equipped with washers and dryers to deal with the enormous piles of laundry generated daily.

Gotta keep those baby blue kits clean (image: Astana)

Gotta keep those baby blue kits clean (Image: Astana)

Each of the riders has his own large plastic box in the storage area bearing his name and containing his kit allocation, tailored to his requirements. Also stored in the service course are the riders’ named rain bags containing their wet-weather gear. During the race, they’re kept in the directeur sportif’s car for ease of access.

Like many, the team has its own chef, an Italian, who’s responsible for selecting the menus, in conjunction with the team doctor and taking account of the riders’ own preferences. He’s also responsible for ordering in the stores which are stored and cooked, when necessary, in the team camper van. Sadly, while France is regarded as one of the culinary greats this doesn’t extend to the hotels in which the teams are generally housed during the Tour. They’re more likely to get overcooked pasta and a meal that’s been prepared off-site and warmed through in a microwave. As a consequence, much of what they consume is prepared by either the chef or the soigneurs.

Very swish compartments to keep everything in order (image: Sheree)

Very swish compartments to keep everything in order (Image: Sheree)

The number of support staff for a grand tour depends on who’s riding because riders such as Vincenzo Nibali have their own soigneur and mechanic but typically it’s 6-10 soigneurs/physios, 6-10 mechanics, two directeur sportifs and the team manager, the doctor, the chef and the osteopath. There’s no bus driver as such, it’s a role performed by one of the mechanics or soigneurs who will also ensure that it’s kept in apple-pie order.

The team is also one of the sporting faces of its homeland and the public face of its sponsors. This is not a role the team takes lightly. Maxim will sometimes chauffeur around the press from Kazakhstan while another ex-Astana rider, Sergei Yakovlev, looks after sponsors and VIPs. With the Tour finishing in Paris, the Kazakh Ambassador to France typically throws a post-Tour dinner and party for the team.

Ready to Tour (image: Astana)

Ready to Tour (Image: Astana)

With plenty of four-wheeled firepower, one half of  the service course resembles a car showroom. The team has two buses, two mini-buses, two lorries, 13 cars, two camping cars and two vans all ready for the forthcoming Tour. Astana only has one service course but at certain times of the year, such as during the Belgian Classics, a large part of the fleet will remain up north for the duration.

With the Tour starting in Corsica and then visiting Nice, Astana has split up its supplies, taking only what’s needed over to Corsica and collecting the remainder during the stage in Nice. Maybe I need to pop by after the Tour to find out how much stuff they actually consumed during the race!

Finally, a list! (image: Astana)

Finally, a list! (Image: Astana)

Many thanks to Maxim Gourov for a very interesting guided tour and a couple of absorbing hours. If I need any spare parts, I now know where to find them …

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