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Astana wins big as Vinokourov hints team is on the ropes

Astana is off to its best start in years just as troubles behind the scenes could endanger its future.

Astana is off to its best start in years just as troubles behind the scenes could endanger its future.

Team manager Alexander Vinokourov raised the alarm bells overnight, telling a Kazakh media outlet that the team’s financial situation is “critical” and that it’s tapping into private funds to keep on the lights.

“We’re going to races with our own savings, and riders haven’t received their salaries,” Vinokourov told Vesti.kz. “The situation is critical … all this could lead to the closure of the team after 13 years.”

It was unclear if existing sponsors have yet to pay their obligations or if new sponsors failed to materialize. UCI rules require teams to have sufficient bank holdings to carry over expenses and salaries for several months in case a sponsor balks.

Astana officials posted this message Saturday on their official website: “The team is aware of the temporary problems, which results in some delay of payments from the team’s main sponsor. We are hoping for a solution in the near future, so the team can continue in the way it started this 2018 season. We are calm, confident, and continue to work towards our goals.”

Riders, meanwhile, are keeping their noses rubber down as the drama plays out with sponsors.

Astana delivered a big classics victory Saturday with Michael Valgren winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad after attacking late out of the day’s winning move.

“We had an e-mail yesterday. We don’t know much about it,” Valgren said. “I am focused on my racing. The riders got their salaries. I am not worried about if the team will continue. I am sure it will.”

Riders competing in Abu Dhabi confirmed to reporters there that they have been receiving their salaries.

Astana has been one of the peloton’s best-funded and controversial teams since it was created in the wake of the Operación Puerto scandal in 2006. Then-sponsors Liberty Seguros and Würth both jettisoned following the salacious Puerto scandal, only to have Astana step in mid-season to save the team. Vinokourov then went on to win the 2006 Vuelta a España only to later serve a blood-doping ban in 2007. Vinokourov later returned, won an Olympic medal, retired and took over management of the team in 2012.

The team’s tumult continued as Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong fought for leadership during the 2009 season. Vinokourov’s return to the team in 2010 as an active rider saw former manager Johan Bruyneel leave. After taking over management in 2012, Vinokourov dodged a few landmines and landed GC victories at the Giro d’Italia in 2013 and Tour de France in 2014 during the Vincenzo Nibali era.

Astana has one of the larger budgets in the peloton, with Team Sky at the top of the list.

This year, following the exit of Fabio Aru, the team is hitting its stride early. Jakob Fuglsang said Aru’s exit is giving more riders opportunities as the team broadens its focus beyond the grand tours. That was confirmed by the surprising performance of Astana on Saturday.

So far this season, the team has earned 23 podium spots with eight different riders. Six of those are wins, including the Vuelta a Murcia, Trofeo Laigueglia, two stages and the overall at the Tour of Oman, and Omloop to open the Belgian calendar Saturday.

As Vinokourov works behind the scenes to square the accounts, the team is racing across three events this weekend, in France, Abu Dhabi and Belgium, where Astana had three riders in the winning move Saturday at Omloop.

Valgren said the nervousness that Vinokourov alluded to has yet to affect results.

“Success makes more success,” Valgren said of the team’s hot start to 2018. “When you are going on a good way, you keep thinking positive, it’s easier. We cannot complain how this season has started for us.”