Well-rounded Astana is a squad to watch in the Ardennes classics

Backed by the addition of Vincenzo Nibali, Astana could be the team to beat in the upcoming classics races

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For Astana, this classics season is just getting started.

It’s true that Borut Bozic rode well at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem, placing second at both. But the hilly one-day races in the Ardennes are where to expect fireworks from the Kazak squad, which lines up with the entire podium from last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Maxim Iglinsky, Vincenzo Nibali, and Enrico Gasparotto) and last year’s Amstel Gold Race winner in Gasparotto.

Bozic crashed out of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix and will miss about six weeks with a broken wrist. Still, his absence won’t hurt the squad all that much.

The team’s addition of Ardennes danger man (and grand tour contender) Vincenzo Nibali makes it one of the deepest in the field as the cobble- and cold-weary peloton heads from the pavé of northern France to the sharp and steep climbs of the Ardennes. Expectations at Astana are high and they come at a nice time for the squad, as other juggernauts are looking to catch a bit of air after draining efforts up north.

RadioShack-Leopard’s Fabian Cancellara has already had his days on the top step this season, and classics powerhouse Omega Pharma-Quick Step finds itself banged up and depleted after a northern campaign that saw it lose ace Tom Boonen and had its riders Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar bumped out of contention by fans at Paris-Roubaix. BMC Racing’s ace in the Ardennes hole, Philippe Gilbert, hasn’t been fleet enough to win yet, coming up short to Peter Sagan (Cannondale) at Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl. It’s too soon to tell if Gilbert will come around in time for wins in the Ardennes, although he swept the week in 2011.

Astana enters the races with a heavy roster and the pressure that comes with it. The team took the field by surprise last year, but it won’t have that luxury this time around.

“Our team is even stronger with Nibali,” Astana director Jaan Kirsipuu told VeloNews. “If you look, we have an Amstel winner, the top three from Liège in the team. Expectations are really high.”

Nibali won Tirreno-Adriatico, an early-season validation of his form, and Kirsipuu expects the wins to continue for the Shark. “If he wins Tirreno, you can’t dream any better about the begging of the year for him,” Kirsipuu said. “In Tirreno, he showed what he was made of. He’s not only a good rider, but has really good racing character.”

Astana has tasted one-day success, but also will be looked upon in the grand tours, notably the Giro d’Italia, where Nibali will square off against last year’s champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) and 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins (Sky).

“The team has been under so many different managements, so it didn’t have, really … continuity,” Kirsipuu said. “We are best at classics, then grand tours, let’s say.”

For Nibali and Co. though, first things first. And it begins Sunday at Amstel Gold.

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