As Lance Armstrong enters the second week of the Tour de France, questions abound. Why did he come back from retirement? Will his much-discussed rivalry with teammate Alberto Contador cost both of them the race? And even in such a commercialized sport, why is an iconic American athlete -- a Texan, no less! -- racing for ... Kazakhstan?
When Armstrong announced last September that he was coming back to try for an eighth Tour win, one of the more prosaic questions -- after those about his motives and abilities -- was what team he'd ride for.
Most observers saw only one option: Armstrong would rejoin the team of his friend and former manager Johan Bruyneel. An ex-pro himself, Bruyneel took control of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 and was among the first people to think the Texan could be a Tour de France winner.
But Armstrong was hardly returning to the situation he left when he retired in 2005. The Postal Service's replacement, the Discovery Channel, ended its sponsorship after the 2007 season. Bruyneel still had a solid team, including that year's Tour winner, Contador. But after doping scandals plagued the Tour in 2006 and 2007, even cycling's equivalent of the New York Yankees couldn't find a corporate backer.
Yet as luck would have it, one of those very scandals eventually brought Armstrong and the Kazakhs together. In 2006, a pair of Kazakh racers -- Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin -- was collateral damage in a doping scandal. The manager of their Spanish-based Liberty Seguros team was found to be part of a massive doping ring called Operación Puerto. Although neither racer was personally involved, the criminal investigation -- which took place just weeks before the Tour -- cost the team its sponsor and jeopardized its Tour entry. Vinokourov, a national hero in his home country, appealed to the chairman of the Kazakh national cycling federation for help.
The man in charge of Kazakh racing was not just anyone; he just happened to be Danial Akhmetov, whose day job was prime minister (and, later, defense minister). Akhmetov swiftly put together a consortium of eight Kazakh companies to sponsor the team under the nationalist name Astana (Kazakhstan's capital and second-largest city), but the team failed to field the necessary number of starters and was not allowed to race. In 2007, Vinokourov raced the Tour on Astana, but tested positive for blood doping and was sacked. Kashechkin was busted a month later, and both were banned for two years.
Shorn of its stars and without confidence in the team's Swiss management, Kazakh authorities turned to Bruyneel, who effectively blended the remnants of Astana and Discovery Channel into a new team under the Astana banner. As a historical irony, one of the riders who joined was Contador, himself a former member of the doomed 2006 Liberty Seguros team.
Everyone had their motivations for making Astana work. Bruyneel's primary love is winning, and in the 26-year-old Contador he had the sport's best stage racer and a likely champion for years to come. For Akhmetov and the Kazakhs, the team was a high-profile PR set piece -- a means to gain respectability and burnish Kazakhstan's image. As a further point of national pride, the team would mentor and develop promising young Kazakh cyclists.
It was into this complicated arranged marriage that Armstrong entered, and the relationship was rocky from the start. Contador felt his rightful place as team leader was being usurped, a dynamic that is currently animating the Tour. But separately, there appeared to be little affinity between Armstrong and the sponsors.