In 2006, Kazakh cycling legends Alexander Vinokurov and Andrey Kashechkin broached the idea of a national cycling team to the most influential sports enthusiast in Kazakhstan -- President Nursultan Nazarbayev, says Allen Chaizhunussov, Team Astana's managing director.
Team Astana was born shortly thereafter, with a coalition of government agencies paying the bills. It was a striking departure from the normal cycling-club financing model of corporate sponsorship.
Because Kazakhstan's economy was booming, government-backed Team Astana had the money to attract some of the world's top cyclists. And that's exactly what happened.
Two Tour de France winners, America's Lance Armstrong and Spain's Alberto Contador, came aboard within three years, as did Grand Tour runners-up Levi Leipheimer of the United States and Andreas Klöden of Germany.
Riding alongside greats like Armstrong and Contador was inspiring, according to two of Team Astana's Kazakh cyclists, 30-year-old Assan Bazayev and 27-year-old Valentin Iglinskiy. "When you ride with the top riders, you have a responsibility" to do your very best, Iglinskiy said.
Iglinskiy finished a respectable 18th of 167 riders in this year's Tour de France which ended July 24. Team Astana's top finisher was rider Tomas Vaitkus who crossed the finish line eighth overall.
The intention from the start was to make Team Astana world-class – but neither Kazakhstan nor the world's cycling community expected it to happen so fast.
In fact, international devotees of the sport were asking two questions: What is Team Astana? And where is Astana?
Team Astana was the world's top cycling club in 2009, only three years after it was founded. And it was third in 2010.
"It really does matter whether you have a team with Contador or a team without Contador," noted Aidar Makhmetov, the Team Astana commercial director. "With Contador, you're guaranteed a win." Until this year, "he hadn't lost any Grand Tour events in four years," Makhmetov pointed out.
The team now spends most of its time training in the steep slopes in and around Monaco because hill climbing is an important component of international cycling competitions.
But the club's name has helped put Kazakhstan's capital Astana on the map.
The team's two early stars – Armstrong and Contador – have since moved on and the squad was ranked 11th in the world in mid-summer, but cycling experts say the team includes a slew of young up-and-coming riders that have yet to hit their peak.
Among the team's likely future stars are Roman Kreuziger of the Czech Republic, Robert Kiserlovski of Croatia and Andrey Zeits of Kazakhstan.
The team is also hopeful that the expected naming of Vinokurov as president of the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation at the organization's annual meeting in November will further boost the team's fortunes.
The 37-year-old, known affectively as Vino, has been part of competitive Kazakh cycling since he was 11 and has long been revered as the country's pre-eminent rider. Heading into the prestigious Tour de France in July of this year he was ranked the world's seventh best cyclist.
Vinokurov had announced that he would be retiring from competitive racing at the end of this season. Any doubts that he might change his mind, however, were erased in July when he suffered a terrible accident on the eighth stage of the 24-stage Tour de France.
Vinokurov swerved on a steep hill descent to avoid a biker who had crashed. He ended up in a ravine, fracturing his right thigh in several places. Doctors had to operate. His prognosis for recovery is good, but the injury is likely to eliminate any second thoughts he might have about giving up competitive racing.
Many cycling fans want to see Vinokurov in the federation president's position because he believes in developing local talent.
The federation is the owner of Team Astana, although its sponsor – and thus bill payer – is the Samruk Kazyna sovereign wealth fund.
Kairat Kelimbetov was elected president of the federation two years ago when he was head of Samruk Kazyna.
Kelimbetov plans to nominate Vinokurov as president – a move that cycling insiders say is tantamount to Vinokurov getting the job.
Vinokurov's appointment is also likely to dovetail nicely with a recent high-profile Team Astana initiative to develop local talent.
That initiative involves creating an auxiliary unit to train with the main squad. The unit will consist of four Kazakh riders with international-circuit potential, said Team Astana Commercial Director Aidar Makhmetov.
The idea is for the young riders to sharpen their skills by working out daily with cyclists who are already good enough to compete on the world scene.
"We should have good strong Kazakh guys" on any team that represents the country, Makhmetov said. He has firsthand experience doing that. He was the 65-kilogram world karate champ in 2002 and 2003.
In addition to creating the auxiliary unit, the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation is working with the Ministry of Tourism and Sports on a comprehensive strategy to develop more home-grown riding talent.
The Soviet Union had excellent success developing home-grown talent, Makhmetov noted. In the 20 years before the U.S.S.R. disintegrated, a number of Soviet riders were among the best in the world.
But the collapse of the Soviet system in the early 1990s led to the collapse of many of its institutions, including cycling.
Former cycling phenom Alexander Nadoenko is helping devise Kazakhstan's talent development strategy in his new role as adviser to the president of the cycling federation. "He knows young riders and how they progress," said Chaizhunussov, Team Astana's managing director.
Another promotion the federation has come up with is a national cycling championship to recognize the best amateur riders.
A headline-generating promotion this summer was a 2,200-kilometer Tour of Students. The race originated in the northeastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, ran south to Kazakhstan's commercial center of Almaty, then looped back north to the capital of Astana.
Another event that's sure to inspire Kazakh cyclists is Astana's hosting of the first leg of this year's International Cycling Union Trek World Cup between November 4 and 6. Riders from 45 countries will compete in the indoor event at Astana's new cycling stadium.
And a further bit of news certain to fire up Kazakh cyclists is the announcement that the International Cycling Union is opening a representative office in Astana.
These kinds of promotions, the team's solid Tour de France finishes and the comprehensive rider-development strategy the Kazakhstan Cycling Federation plans to unveil in November, should help mold a new generation of star-quality Kazakh cyclists, federation officials say, -- cyclists who will ensure that Team Astana continues to gain speed.