By Shane Stokes in Kuala Lumpur
Although they were best Asian team overall and finished second best in the Asian rider category, Japan only made the decision this morning to line out for the final stage of the Tour de Langkawi. The night before, the team had spoken to the media about the non-payment of prize money for three of its riders from the 2005 race, and vowed not to start stage ten of the 2.HC ranked event.
"We have been waiting for the prize money for a long, long time and while we don't want to withdraw from the race, something has to be done," said team leader and spokesman, Shinichi Fukushima. He, his brother Koji and Takashi Miyazawa rode the Malaysian tour last year as part of the Bridgestone Anchor team and claim that despite repeated assurances, they have not been paid.
These assurances included a signed note by First Cartel managing director Imran Abdullah (a.k.a. Simon Donnellan), dated February 2 and shown to Cyclingnews, stating that "the above amount [RM 47,725 (approx. 10,750 euro), minus 5% and 2% UCI tax] will be transferred by TT on or before 8th February."
When that deadline came and went without payment, the team decided that they had to make a stand. "We have received many promises but nothing has happened," said Fukushima. "We are withdrawing as a protest as we fear that if we continue to race and then return to Japan without receiving what we are due for last year, we will never get it."
Abdullah spoke to Cyclingnews later Saturday evening, who guaranteed that the riders would receive the payment on Monday. "I regret what has happened," he said. "At the beginning of this race I was informed by Japan that the riders hadn't received what was owed to them. I was a little bit surprised, to be perfectly honest with you, because I had thought that they had all been paid."
"I can say for sure that they are the only team not to be paid [for last year]," he said. "What I then said to them [Japan] was that I would try to resolve it this week. Look, if you examine it logically, I wouldn't invite a team that I thought I owed money to. That is why I was surprised when they told us that. Anyway, I said that we would resolve it, but that they have to give me until next week to get it sorted. I was waiting for payment this week, it hasn't arrived, but I have assured them that it will come on Monday."
Abdullah also stated categorically that other parties owed money from 2005 would also be recompensed. Those who claim they are still waiting include the timing and photo finish technicians, the official race photographer and others. "We had a tough time last year due to several reasons," he stated.
"We took a massive hit. It was our first year after the previous era, which was led by huge budgets. We were let down by a couple of partners. I won't say who they were as we are still trying to resolve that, but it made things very tough for us. Anyway, we have agreements with all of those who are working on the race this year and will make sure that everything is settled and everybody is comfortable. We will continue to rebuild this event, because that is what we have had to do. We have made a lot of progress in getting on top of things and making sure that the race has a long-term future."
As a result of the assurances by Abdullah to Cyclingnews of a Monday payment, the Japan team decided to reverse their decision and ride the final stage criterium in Kuala Lumpur, which ironically was cancelled due to a rainstorm.
"We want to race today," said Koji Fukushima before the start. "We didn't want to pull out of the race but felt that we had no choice. We just hope now that it is all resolved as promised."