Giro call has Astana anxious

Tour winner's team champing at the bit

Spaniard Alberto Contador and his Astana team have admitted to being in a race against time as they prepare for the first three-week race of the cycling season.

Giro d'Italia organisers performed a dramatic u-turn on Sunday and invited the on-form Kazakh-backed outfit to this year's May 10-June 1 race.

Contador, the reigning Tour de France champion, and his team were left on the sidelines for both the Giro and the Tour de France earlier this year.

For the race which awards the world famous yellow jersey, it was due to their role in the numerous scandals of last year's race. Astana were thrown out when Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for blood doping.

For the race whose main prize is the pink jersey, Astana were initially left on the sidelines for 2008 because Giro organisers believed they would devalue the race by using it as a simple warm-up for the Tour.

At the time Giro organisers said: "If our race is not in their plans we shan't invite them."

But after a string of positive results on the road this season, including Andreas Kloeden's overall win at the Tour de Romandie, Giro organiser Angelo Zomegnan appears to have realised the team's fan-pulling power.

"Yes, I have invited Contador," he confirmed Sunday.

Tour de France officials are not expected to follow suit - organisers of the world's biggest, and most influential bike race are known to be particularly stubborn, especially when it comes to making a point.

Astana, to their credit, have been revamped in the wake of the doping scandal which led to their unceremonious exit from last year's Tour de France, the number one reason they were sidelined for the 2008 edition.

And although they are not about to pass up the opportunity to show they are worthy of shot at the pink jersey, Contador admits it will be a challenge just to get to the Giro start line in racing form.

"I would have preferred to know beforehand that I was riding the Giro so that I could prepare in the best possible way for such a prestigious race," said Contador, who beat Australian Cadel Evans by 23 secs to win the Tour's yellow jersey last year.

"When the team told me we were going to the Giro I was on holiday in a hotel on the south of Spain. The Giro was not part of my schedule, so I'm not in the best possible shape - but I'll do as best as I can."

Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel, who took over from Marc Biver after he was sacked, echoed Contador's thoughts.

"Preparation for a Grand Tour involves intensive planning, both for our staff and riders," said Bruyneel, the former team manager of Lance Armstrong.

"Many people may not realise that riders schedule their season-long training programs around these three-week races. The one-week notice is certainly an extra challenge, but I'm confident that our Team will show up motivated."

Contador, whose mountain climbing displays played a huge role in his yellow jersey victory last July, admits he doesn't know any of the big mountain stages of the Giro.

It now seems possible that Contador could end up working for either Kloeden or Leipheimer in the race for the pink jersey - all three riders figured on Astana's team list handed in to Giro organisers Sunday.

It will be the first Giro for Kloeden, a former two-time runner-up at the Tour de France, and has also jolted Leipheimer into action.

"It was a big surprise to get the call from Johan. I was planning on training in the US for a couple of weeks, but now I need to fly to Italy and prepare for a tough three-week race," said the Californian.

The biggest losers of this decision are small Swiss outfit NGC, who it appears have been told that their initial invite had come prematurely.

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