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Giro d'Italia

McQuaid optimistic as Astana deadline looms

As the Giro d’Italia winds down, the troubled Kazakh-backed Astana team still isn’t sure it will be racing the Tour de France in July. The financial woes that have left portions of riders’ salaries unpaid are closer to being resolved, but UCI president Pat McQuaid said team sponsors must meet a Sunday deadline or risk suspension.

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By Andrew Hood

As the Giro d’Italia winds down, the troubled Kazakh-backed Astana team still isn’t sure it will be racing the Tour de France in July.

The financial woes that have left portions of riders’ salaries unpaid are closer to being resolved, but UCI president Pat McQuaid said team sponsors must meet a Sunday deadline or risk suspension.

“I think they’ll meet the deadline. The deadline we’ve given them is a bank-guarantee deadline and the payments are up to schedule,” UCI president Pat McQuaid told the Associated Press on Friday. “There’s still no guarantee that the team will ride the Tour de France.”

McQuaid, visiting the Giro during the final weekend of racing, said he is hopeful the financial situation will be resolved in time to clear the way for the team’s participation in the Tour.

“There was a deadline for the bank guarantee and for the payments, but we’ve asked for other things since then,” McQuaid said. “We’ve also asked the Kazakhs for other guarantees about the team for the rest of the year.”

Money problems
The Astana team has been rocked with money problems since the spring, when payments from Kazakh sponsors started to dry up.

The Astana team features one of the most unusual financial arrangements in professional cycling. The team is owned by the Kazakh cycling federation, which has cobbled together several Kazakh-based businesses, such as national zinc and railway companies, to underwrite the team’s expenses.

The cycling federation then funnels money for salaries and other costs to team manager Bruyneel, who signed on to manage the squad in the wake of the blood doping scandal involving team star Alexandre Vinokourov during the 2007 Tour de France.

In an interview with VeloNews earlier in the Giro, Bruyneel said the payments to his company slowed this spring following the financial woes that have rocked international markets, adding that his contact with the Kazakhs had dwindled.

“I don’t have a direct contact with the sponsors,” he said. “I have a contract with the federation. I have to rely on what the federation tells me. There’s the crisis over there.”

Things became so bad during the Giro that the team decided to race with the names of the Kazakh sponsors faded out on their team jerseys. That protest seemed to prod action from team sponsors.

Meanwhile, McQuaid stepped in to act as a mediator and has been quietly talking with Kazakh officials to try to resolve the financial issues.

“They’ve paid sums of money in recent weeks,” McQuaid told journalists before the start of the 19th stage of the Giro.

But McQuaid wants more guarantees that wages will be paid throughout the remainder of the 2009 season. Otherwise, he said, the team could lose its ProTour license.

“The license commission meets in mid-July and that’s when any decision will be made,” McQuaid said.

Vino factor?
Others believe that Vinokourov’s uncertain future with the team is the center of the financial stranglehold. Vinokourov — who turns 36 in September — wants to return to competition later this year and has suggested he’d like to race in the Vuelta a España and the world championships.

Astana was created to support Vinokourov — a national hero in his native Kazakhstan — from the wreckage of the Liberty Seguros team following the exit of the team’s title sponsor on the heels of the Operación Puerto blood-doping scandal that engulfed the team in 2006.

The Kazakh wasn’t linked to the Puerto scandal, but he later tested positive for homologous blood doping during the 2007 Tour, resulting in a two-year racing ban set to expire in July.

Despite yet another blood doping case in 2007 involving rising star Andrey Kashechkin, Kazakh officials vowed to continue with the team.

The Kazakh cycling federation fired then-manager Marc Biver of Switzerland and hired Bruyneel, who stepped in after the Discovery Channel team collapsed when a new title sponsor couldn’t be found after the 2007 season.

Bruyneel quickly brought in many former Discovery Channel riders and staff, including several mechanics, soigneurs, directors and riders. But he has been publicly ambivalent about whether Vinokourov will be welcomed back to the team.

Asked whether Vinokourov was at the root of Astana’s financial problems, Bruyneel replied: “I don’t think so. I think it’s definitely an economic problem there. Everybody is having difficulties,” Bruyneel said. “I believe that’s the truth, but now at the end, you can understand, certain things need to happen. You cannot sit and wait.”

New sponsor? And Contador?
The marriage between Bruyneel and the Kazakhs has been further complicated by the arrival of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.

Despite rumors that a new sponsor would be part of his unexpected return to competition last fall, Armstrong instead decided to rejoin his former director at Astana.

Armstrong is not receiving a salary from the Kazakh-backed team and told La Gazzetta dello Sport in May that he is searching for a sponsor to become a team owner in time for the 2010 season.

The Astana financial woes since this spring could accelerate those efforts.

Bruyneel insisted that bringing on a new sponsor before the Tour would be a “backup solution,” but said the phone started ringing when the financial woes started making headlines in April.

“You have to look at all the options. I didn’t receive enough acceptable answers for a possible solution, so you have to start looking for something else,” Bruyneel told VeloNews.

“Actually, when the news came out that there were financial problems, the information came from Kazakhstan that the team was in danger. The federation said the Giro could be the team’s last race. All of a sudden, it rang a bell to certain people and we got people asking what’s going on, is the team available? We’re working on that. That would be a backup solution.”

Amid the backdrop of financial uncertainty, the rumor mill also clicked into overdrive considering the possible departure of star rider Alberto Contador to a Spanish team.

A winner of all three grand tours by the age 25, the charismatic Contador was set to be the team’s outright leader until Armstrong’s return threw a kink into those plans.

Contador publicly grated about Armstrong’s arrival, but has since cooled his rhetoric and insists he’s looking forward to racing alongside Armstrong at the upcoming Tour.

Despite talk of Contador’s early exit, Bruyneel said the Spanish climber is staying put, telling reporters Friday that he spoke with Contador on Thursday and that “there’s not a single thought in his mind (to leave).”

Contador — currently training in the French Alps to prepare for the Dauphiné Libéré and Tour — said Saturday he’s also quietly optimistic he will be in an Astana jersey come July.

“The situation of Astana is delicate, but I have people who work around those matters. Now I want to continue working and to prepare as best as possible the Tour,” Contador said. “It is necessary to wait and see what happens at the end of the Giro, but I am very calm and trust that the problem will be solved.”