By Andrew Hood
The sun hasn’t set on Astana yet, but the glow of the team’s sponsors has certainly dimmed.
Following a long-running row over the non-payment of the team’s wages, eight of nine riders on the Kazakhstan-sponsored squad started the Giro d’Italia’s seventh stage Friday wearing race jerseys and shorts Friday with the names of the team’s major sponsors virtually faded out.
Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said the protest is the team’s way of demonstrating its frustration that Kazakh sponsors are not fulfilling its contract obligations to the team.
“We don’t want to pretend everything is OK, because it’s not OK, so that’s why we want to show everybody, because the riders have only received two months salary this year,” Bruyneel told reports in Innsbruk. “We cannot pretend that nothing has happened. That is the idea behind it and we hope it will have its effect and a solution will be found.”
The team’s distinctive yellow sun at the center of the kit and the names of the major sponsors has been faded to the point where they’re almost invisible. There were no changes to decals to the team bus or cars.
According to Bruyneel, of the team’s seven sponsors, only one – KazMunayGas – has paid in full and the other Kazakh sponsors have turned off the spigot. The team’s secondary sponsors, such as SRAM and Trek, are not involved in the spat.
“This is our way of saying we don’t want to forget about this. It’s still a problem,” he said. “I explained the situation of the team to the Kazakh federation and I asked certain questions and I asked for certain solutions, and those solutions didn’t come.”
Eight riders are wearing the new jerseys, except Andrey Zeits, a young rider from Kazakhstan who opted to don the former jersey.
The news of the team’s financial problems was leaked in the days ahead of the start of the 2009 Giro. Bruyneel said last-minute efforts to resolve the problems were unsuccessful.
As first reported on VeloNews.com, the impasse over unpaid wages reached a boiling point and the team wanted to publicly protest its dissatisfaction.
“I talked about it with the riders since the beginning of the Giro. They are not happy. I am trying to keep them in the race, but at the same time, this is your job and you want to be represented,” he said. “This is a decision we made together. I didn’t force anyone to wear the jersey.”
The UCI has issued a deadline by May 31 to enforce the team’s obligations to be paid in full. UCI president Pat McQuaid is said to be traveling to Kazakhstan to try to resolve the situation.
Riders such as Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer stepped off the team bus Friday morning in Innsbruk, Austria, but Bruyneel said that only he would make comments on the protest.
“I didn’t get the answers I needed to get before the Giro and now there’s been reactions since last night. They are still words,” Bruyneel said. “Until I see something happen, it’s still a long way.”
Bruyneel operates the team under a unique contract with the Kazakhstan cycling federation. The team’s major sponsors pay the federation before the money allotted to pay team salaries and operational costs is funneled to Bruyneel’s management company.
Bruyneel said he did not know why the sponsors have not fulfilled their obligations to the team
Tongues are wagging that the imminent return of Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov is at the center of the intrigue.
Bruyneel took over the troubled Astana team in the wake of Vinokourov’s expulsion from the 2007 Tour de France for banned homologous blood transfusions.
Astana was originally built around Vinokourov, a national hero in his native Kazakhstan, and the sponsors decided to continue with the team during his two-year racing ban.
Vinokourov, whose ban ends July 23, recently revealed he plans to return to competition this year, but Bruyneel has been vague in public statements on whether or not Vinokourov will be guaranteed a place on the team.
Just days before the Giro, Armstrong also indicated that new sponsors might be stepping up to replace the Kazakhs in time for the 2009 Tour.
“We are looking into all of our options,” Bruyneel said.
Alain Rumpf, manager of the ProTour, said he hoped for a swift and satisfactory outcome.
“The objective of the UCI is to protect cycling’s image,” said Rumpf.
“That the best stage race team in the world should not be paying its riders is an anomaly which must come to an end.”
UCI president Pat McQuaid is due to meet with Astana team leaders next week.
“If the situation is not corrected that could lead to a suspension and/or the withdrawal of (the team’s) UCI ProTour licence,” Rumpf warned, while adding that the team would not be affected as regards continuing in the Giro.
However, he indicated that if a solution is not forthcoming then “the UCI will act” once the Giro is over.
No decision on Klöden
Bruyneel also fielded a question on the fate Astana rider Andreas Klöden, who is under the spotlight following a new report from Germany that allegedly details organized blood doping within the former T-Mobile team during the 2006 Tour, when Klöden rode to second overall.
“I’ve been a little bit busy. I’ve been reading Web sites. I haven’t seen the report yet,” Bruyneel said. “I would need to read the official report and then see what’s in there, what’s not in there, what the situation is. I haven’t talked to Andreas, either, so I will do that over the weekend. I don’t want make a decision now, or make any comment, I would like to have all of the information available first.”
Agence France Presse contributed to this report