By Charles Pelkey
The managers of the Astana team said Friday that they will work tirelessly to keep Alberto Contador on the Kazakh-financed team, despite missing a UCI deadline that might give the defending Tour de France champion the right to terminate his contract.
The Kazakh Cycling Federation, which manages the professional team, issued a statement restating its commitment to the sport and its desire to keep the four-time grand tour winner on its roster.
Contador, meanwhile, is taking a go-slow approach to the issue, waiting for his lawyers to determine whether or not the UCI rule in question would apply to contracts that were already in force at the time of its passage in July of 2009.
“After all these months of waiting, I am very calm at last,” said Contador in a release issued Friday. “My lawyers are the ones that dictate whether it is possible to break my contract or not … I keep working as before, focused exclusively on my training. My brother is in charge of these other issues.”
Contador’s brother, Fran, said the question is being reviewed by the rider’s legal team.
“Our lawyers are studying the details of the UCI regulations to make the right decision in coming days,” said Fran Contador.
“The lawyers should clarify whether it is possible to apply the new regulations, introduced last July, in the model contract proposed by the UCI for riders to sign with a UCI ProTour team. According to experts, the interpretation of the law can be confusing and we want to be sure before making any decisions.”
Problems of time and distance
The Kazakh federation acknowledged problems in meeting the UCI’s October 20 deadline, attributing the delay to “geographical conditions, distance and time difference.”
Friday’s statement from Astana appears to acknowledge that the team has opened the door to Contador’s departure, but also suggests the team is willing to spend money and other resources in an effort to keep him.
The team only recently put a new management team in place, following the departure of former manager Johan Bruyneel, who resigned to join the new RadioShack team. Astana has hired former Festina team manager Yvon Sanquer as Bruyneel’s replacement and the late Marco Pantani’s sport director Giuseppe Martinelli as lead director.
In Friday’s statement, the federation said that the team’s new managers are working to retain Contador and to ensure that he has the support required to compete at the highest levels.
“We continue to work closely with Alberto Contador, Mr. Sanquer our future general manager, and Mr. Martinelli,” the federation noted. “With (Contador), we look forward to a successful 2010 season and will provide a competitive team with which he can face new challenges in Astana colors.”
According to the statement, the team will supply the necessary paperwork to the UCI’s Licensing Commission well in advance of the next deadline on November 20. The federation noted that the team’s sponsors – a consortium of Kazakh government and privately run businesses – have committed to supporting the team for at least the next four years.
The team was created on the heels of the collapse of the old Liberty Seguros team and served as a vehicle to support and promote Kazakhstan’s top riders, including Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin. The team’s efforts were derailed, however, in 2007 when both of its star riders were suspended for blood doping.
Despite a 2008 reorganization, which saw Bruyneel bring major elements of his former Discovery team – including Contador, winner of the 2007 Tour – to Astana, the team was barred from that year’s Tour de France, due to Kashechkin’s and Vinokourov’s transgressions. Instead, the team entered the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, both of which Contador won.
Contador won the Tour again in 2009, but the team was plagued by problems of competing loyalties between Contador and teammate Lance Armstrong. The team was also under apparent pressure from sponsors, triggered by Vinokourov’s imminent return from his two-year suspension. Despite a two-year ban from the sport, Vinokourov said he wanted to resume an active role in the management of the team, an announcement that was greeted with little enthusiasm by Armstrong, Bruyneel and Contador.
By Tour’s end, Armstrong announced he had new sponsors for 2010 and said he was leaving the team at year’s end. He has since recruited Bruyneel and a host of Astana’s top riders. Contador, too, said he would like to leave – although not with Armstrong – despite the year remaining on his Astana contract.
If Wednesday’s missed deadline, however, means that Contador may now be able to terminate his contract and begin negotiations with other teams, he’ll have plenty of takers. Topping the list of potential bidders are the U.S.-based Garmin-Slipstream team, Spain’s Caisse d’Epargne squad and the Belgian-sponsored Quick Step team.