One of the more familiar sights at this year’s Giro d’Italia was a phalanx of Astana-Premier Tech’s turquoise-and-dark-blue jerseys pulling the peloton on days the team felt that its leader Aleksandr Vlasov had a chance to move up on GC; and when not riding at the front, the team nearly always put a rider or two in the breakaway groups—often with veteran Luis León Sanchez in his Spanish champion’s jersey. The team’s prominence was not a surprise given the experience of its highly experienced Italian sports director Giuseppe Martinelli, who’s renowned for his aggressive tactics in a managerial career that includes Giro victories for Vincenzo Nibali (2016 and 2013), Damiano Cunego (2004), Gilbert Simoni (2003), Stefano Garzelli (2000) and Marco Pantani (1998).
By John Wilcockson | Images by Chris Auld
With title sponsors from Kazakhstan and Canada, Astana-Premier Tech is one of the more eclectic teams in today’s peloton. Martinelli melded his eight-man Giro team—with riders from Colombia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Russia and Spain—into a formidable fighting unit. It was one of the few teams that kept all eight of its riders until the final road stage—when Fabio Felline went home to be with his wife and just-born son. And though no one on the team won a stage, the constant presence of Vlasov among the GC leaders kept their jerseys in the spotlight throughout the three weeks.
A good example of Astana–Premier Tech’s 2021 Giro was its show of strength on stage 14 to the formidable Monte Zoncolan when the whole team led the chase behind the day’s breakaway for most of the 70 kilometers preceding the finishing climb. Their effort was so strong that on the technical descent of the Forcella di Monte Rest, Vlasov and three teammates split from the peloton, accompanied by race leader Egan Bernal and two others. That move caused some headaches for the other GC teams, but the stage didn’t turn out well for Astana–Premier Tech—Vlasov couldn’t follow the late attack by Simon Yates and Bernal, and he dropped from second to fourth overall. Despite that stage ending in relative failure, Martinelli said: “You never get anything if you don’t try. Sometimes you can achieve really big, sometimes you lose—as happened today.”
Perhaps that day’s performance wasn’t a total coincidence; the stage started close to the team’s apparel sponsor Giordana’s Italian factory in Montecchio Maggiore. Founded in 1981 by Giorgio Andretta, the company has always been close to the sport, first sponsoring the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that earned gold medals with Alexi Grewal and Connie Carpenter and continuing to support pro teams over the past four decades. Giordana has been sponsoring the Astana–Premier Tech team in its various forms since 2016.
Team leader Vlasov is known almost exclusively as a climber—he was first in the under-23’s Giro two years ago, and last year he won the Mont Ventoux Challenge and Giro dell’Emilia before placing 11th at the 2020 Vuelta a España (including second place to Hugh Carthy on the fearsome Angliru stage). His climbing strength marked him as a dark horse for this year’s Giro even though this was essentially just his second grand tour—he had to abandon last year’s Giro on the opening road stage because of stomach problems. That’s why he surprised all the experts by placing 11th in the opening time trial in Turin, a performance that set the stage for the 25-year-old Russian’s bid for a top-five finish.
Vlasov first moved into a podium-challenging position after his 10th place on stage 6’s summit finish at San Giacomo in rainy, chilly conditions. “It was a very hard day, especially with the cold weather,” Vlasov said. “I really couldn’t feel my arms or legs, so I suffered a lot. On the final climb I gave everything I had, and I had great support from Harold Tejada. I was able to answer the first attack, but the second time Bernal went I wasn’t able to stay on his wheel.”
Vlasov did better on the gravel summit finish at Campo Felice on stage 9, where his late attack was countered by stage winner Bernal; the Russian held on take third place seven seconds back and moved up to third overall. “I think it was a good move,” Vlasov said, “but it was a bit difficult for me to hold the bike stable on this surface.” Two stages later he adapted even better to the white roads of Tuscany, when his acceleration on the final climb again triggered a counterattack by Bernal. That performance showed how Vlasov was able to grind it out on a long, difficult stage after being distanced on the first sector of strade bianche and needing his teammates to pace him back to the Bernal group.
The dangers in grand tours sometimes come from unexpected sources. That was the case with Vlasov on the major mountain stage in the Dolomites, stage 12, finishing in Cortina d’Ampezzo after climbing to the 2021 Giro’s highest point, the Passo Giau at 2,233 meters (7,326 feet). Right at the foot of the 10-kilometer, 9.3-percent climb, when Vlasov was taking off his rain jacket, a sleeve fell into his back wheel, blocking it; he had to wait for a spare bike to continue. “With support from my teammates I tried to come back to the group, but it did not work out because I was quite far behind,” he said.
Martinelli explained, “Matteo Sobrero gave his all to bring Aleksandr back to the group and they missed just a little to bridge before the decisive attack of Egan Bernal.” Basque teammate Gorka Izaguirre even dropped back from the break to help Vlasov on the climb, but to no avail.
With such strong teammates as Izaguirre, Sanchez, Tejada, Felline and Sobrero (who would place fourth in the final-stage time trial), Vlasov held on to his fourth place overall. “It was my first grand tour where I came fully focused as a 100-percent leader of the team,” he said. “With the experience I’ve got here I know I can move further ahead.” That was confirmed by the so-knowledgeable Martinelli, who concluded, “We were up there in front fighting for the GC with quite a young roster and a young leader. The fourth place…is a very nice and promising result.”
In their Giordana kits, the Astana-Premier Tech riders fully lived up to their new motto: “United We Race.”
Learn more about Giordana at giordanacycling.com