Where Astana Qazaqstan goes, intrigue is never far behind. This year, the team has generated more column inches for its behind-the-scenes moves than anything it’s done in competition.
On the roster front, Astana Qazaqstan was at the centre of months of Mark Cavendish-related speculation (spoiler: he went there); the team also reportedly expressed interest in taking literal cat killer Antonio Tiberi off Trek-Segafredo’s hands.
On the equipment front, the team has spent most of the season flouting UCI rules about the display of Russian and Belarusian flags (as of Paris-Roubaix, this has been rectified). The team’s ethics were also called into question by sunglass sponsor Scicon – which was miffed that Cavendish brought his Oakleys with him – leading Scicon to terminate its connection with the team. In an impressive feat of mental gymnastics Astana maintained it didn’t do anything wrong, while simultaneously paying compensation to Scicon.
Oakley has since come on board in a more formal capacity:
In the last couple of weeks, there have been signs that more drama is afoot. Despite listing French wheel manufacturer Corima as a sponsor – as opposed to just a supplier – the team has quietly started transitioning many of its riders over to HED wheels. I say ‘quietly’, but this is a fact that is not particularly easy to miss, seeing as there are enormous blue decals all over the wheels.
Adding further intrigue to the mix: a series of cryptic Instagram posts from HED. One recent post was captioned ‘@astanaqazaqstanteam x @hedwheels’, showing a video featuring some riders on Corima-equipped bikes but more with HED. Another, on April 1, showed a picture of an Astana team bike with a simple emoji:
Spidey senses tingling, Escape Collective sought comment. In response, HED provided a glimpse behind the curtain – and it all begins with tubeless tyres. Or does it?
The company was contacted by Astana near the end of 2022, HED told Escape, to explore the possibility of the American company providing time trial wheels. At the time, Corima’s TT wheels were tubular and HED’s clincher systems offered an aerodynamic edge. “The team had run wheels from several manufacturers in a velodrome test, both road and TT setups, and based on that they came to us in December to see if we could supply wheels for the season,” HED says. As a small company the commitment of “several hundred wheels” was an ask, so “after some back and forth we settled on some unlabeled wheels for the TT bikes.”
Unbranded products are not uncommon in the pro peloton – anything from saddles to shoes to TT cockpits are often subject to change to better suit rider fit requirements. The wheel is a considerably bigger billboard than a saddle, though – and the Astana wheel shuffle became more intriguing around April, when HED was approached again, this time about providing road wheels.
Now, in addition to the Vanquish 8/Vanquish disc wheels provided for time trial use, HED has supplied Astana with “a limited number” of Vanquish 6 road wheels, with a further request coming through for Vanquish 4 wheelsets as a lighter option.
From HED’s perspective, the opportunity to provide equipment for a WorldTour team is doubtless invaluable. The company notes that it has not been an official WorldTeam wheel sponsor previously, but has “often supplied wheels at this level”; Israel Start-Up Nation used HED wheels for time trials in 2022, to choose one recent example. The American wheel manufacturer has history with Astana, too – Alberto Contador was supplied by HED during his 2008 Giro d’Italia win, as well as at the 2009 Tour de France.
There’s a bigger question mark over Corima’s reception to the team’s apparent shift in loyalties. The French wheel brand has been on board with Astana since 2010, and in a 2019 article on its website spoke of a desire to “build every year relation of trust and expertise for more performance; both for the team and our products.”
In 2021, the love was still apparent – Astana’s sports director Dmitry Fofonov raved that “Seriously, we have the best wheels in the peloton,” and Alexey Lutsenko said that he was “super happy with them. They’re super comfortable, dynamic, powerful … I have no words.”
Two years later, Lutsenko seems less super happy with Corima’s offering – he won the GC and final stage of the Giro di Sicilia on HED wheels. Non-sponsor-correct wheels were also prominent throughout Astana’s run at the Ardennes Classics, and a scroll through the team’s social media profiles shows a majority – and growing – of the team’s riders on HED wheels, with Corima now an apparent minority within the team’s fleet. Those social media posts also reveal many, many fans questioning what’s going on with the team’s wheel choices (here, for one example).
But while it’s clear that something is up, there’s no clarity around the extent to which Astana Qazaqstan plans to supplant its wheel sponsor. Corima did not respond to multiple requests for comment, so it’s not clear whether the company is begrudgingly accepting of the fact that half the team it sponsors is riding something else, or whether they’re furiously exploring a contract severance, or anything in between. In a sport that tends to adhere rigidly to sponsor arrangements, though, it seems unlikely it’s going down too well – especially given the now-extreme visibility of HED at Astana Qazaqstan.
Astana Qazaqstan also chose not to respond to requests for comment, but told Cyclingnews that “HED is a supplier but not a complete replacement for Corima” – something at odds with the clear trend toward HED wheels in recent times. Cyclingnews also speculated that the team was shifting to HED “for a confirmed tubeless option” – which doesn’t tally with Escape Collective’s sighting of Corima tubeless wheels at the Spring Classics.
Regardless, the wheel shuffle is an extremely public show of Astana Qazaqstan’s willingness to pursue alternative supplier arrangements, and push the boundaries with existing ones. Perhaps the outcome justifies the journey there – but after the Scicon spat and the Corima coup, the team’s loyalties to its partners appear far from clear-cut.
Update 12 May: Corima has just provided a response for this story, stating that “The team and the athletes are also free to use other wheel brands … We are proud to continue to supply Astana Qazaqstan Team with a complete range of our wheels for the 2023 season, but our relationship will no longer be exclusive. The team at CORIMA will continue to work closely with Astana Qazaqstan Team and we look forward to further success together this year.”