The Astana cycling team may be getting its Giro d'Italia campaign underway, but its future in the sport appears to be under question. According to the website Sports.kz, the team is under real threat of financial collapse and has a week to sort things out before the International Cycling Union (UCI) withdraws the professional licence.
In April it was reported that riders had endured a period of time without payment of salaries, but that the Kazakh cycling federation would cover the overdue amount while it was waiting for the team backers to pay up. However the financial problems have lingered and it is now understood that the team must receive $2 million in the days ahead in order to replenish the UCI bank guarantee. That guarantee has been depleted, presumably to pay overdue salaries.
According to Sports.kz, many of the backers have either been vague about fulfilling their commitments, or have refused outright to do so. "Only the Kaz Munai Gas company has completely fulfilled its obligations to the team, and for that we would like to thank it," the website quoted Kazakh cycling federation executive director Alexander Antyshev as saying.
"The companies KEGOC, Eurasian Bank and Kazakhmys haven't stated their positions clearly, but Kaztsink and Kazakhstan Temir Zholy have made it clear that they are not going to repay the debt owed to Astana. We are considering an option of raising funds from [state holding and investment company] FNB Samruk-Kazyna."
On May third, the newspaper's website quoted Kazakhstan's cycling federation vice president Nikolai Proskurin as saying that even if the team takes part in the Giro as planned, it is likely to be the final Grand Tour in the history of the Astana project. The only way to save the current incarnation of the squad appears to be for one or more Kazakh backers to move in and commit to supporting it. Alternatively Johan Bruyneel, the team's manager, will have to find funds to enable the team to continue and take over the ProTour licence from the Kazakh cycling federation.
"A week ago, even the reserve account of the Astana team, which the UCI law states must contain an untouched sum of two million dollars, was emptied," Proskurin stated. "These funds are a guarantee of participation for any professional team in the ProTour racing series. In order to prevent the seizure of the license of the Astana team, we have to replace this amount within a month [of it being emptied]. That means that we still have about three weeks."
He said that the cycling federation president [and country's defence minister] Daniyal Akhmetov was negotiating at the highest governmental level to try to save the team. However he admitted that he was pessimistic. "Personally I am almost sure that it won't be possible to rescue the team," he said.
"Even if the team will be at the start of Giro d'Italia under its own name, in the future Astana will still be disbanded," he added. "Because the debt will only snowball, and there's nowhere to get the money."
According to Tuesday's edition of the paper, the UCI has sent notice that it will withdraw the professional licence from the team if the matter is not quickly resolved. It also said that the leadership of the Kazakhstan cycling federation has sent a letter to the country's Prime Minster Karim Masimov, stating that the federation would no longer participate in the project if the government did not take measures to preserve it.
Cyclingnews contacted the UCI earlier this week in order to ascertain if the situation was as serious as it appeared. ProTour manager Alain Rumpf did not comment in detail, but implied that there were ongoing discussions taking place.
"We are following this situation closely and hope for a quick and satisfactory resolution," he said. "We will make an announcement if necessary and in due time. We want to ensure that the situation can be solved in the best possible manner."
Which way forward?
Cyclingnews contacted the Astana team on Tuesday afternoon in order to get its reaction to the Sports.kz story, but was told by its spokesman that no comment would be made at this time. Attempts to reach Johan Bruyneel were unsuccessful.
The team was originally set up in mid-2006 when the nation's star rider Alexandre Vinokourov was left without a backer prior to the Tour de France. Previous team sponsor Liberty Seguros withdrew in the wake of Operación Puerto, putting Vinokourov's participation in the Tour in doubt.
The then Kazakh Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov swiftly negotiated a deal whereby several large Kazakh companies would back a new-look squad, which would be titled simply Astana, the name of the country's capital city.