Alexandre Vinokourov's public utterances over the years have typically been limited to a few, carefully-chosen words, and it can be assumed that every syllable of his comments on the delayed delivery of government funding to Astana Pro Team was given considerable forethought.
In an otherwise anodyne interview with the Kazakhstani publication Vesti.kz, Vinokourov took the opportunity to complain that the Astana team had not yet received funding from its government sponsors in 2018, adding that the situation was "critical" and that the team’s future was under threat.
The comments, published on Friday evening in Kazakhstan, made headlines across Europe by Saturday morning, not least because of the alarming suggestion that riders and staff were not being paid their salaries. Within the Astana camp, however, Vinokourov’s declarations did not appear to have given cause for immediate alarm.
Speaking at the Abu Dhabi Tour, Dario Cataldo confirmed that he and his fellow riders had all been paid their salaries thus far in 2018. The Italian, now in his fourth year at Astana, added that he had full confidence that Vinokourov would eventually succeed in securing all of the promised funding from the team's Kazakhstani backers.
"We’ve been paid as normal this year, like always," Cataldo told Cyclingnews. "We don't know a lot about this matter either, but there's a lot of faith in Vinokourov. We know that he's working 100 per cent on this. In the past, he’s succeeded every time he's needed to get funding for the team, so we’re very confident that he'll do the same again.
"If Vino has served this notice to seek more funding, then it's something that he is doing as a precaution. He's not someone who will work at the last minute when funds have already expired, he is definitely working ahead of time to ensure we have the budget to continue. He knows what he’s doing and he’s definitely doing everything he can for the team before any difficulty arises."
Astana directeur sportif Alexandre Shefer was a contemporary of Vinokourov in the professional peloton and has been on the staff of the team since 2007. He suggested that his fellow Kazakhstani's statement was a means of trying to loosen the purse strings at a governmental level.
Astana Pro Team is named for Kazakhstan’s capital city, and the team’s sponsorship is provided by Samruk-Kazyna, Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, which owns a coalition of state-owned companies.
"We’re all tranquilli. I think it will be resolved as soon as possible," Shefer said in Abu Dhabi. "We’ve been through this situation in other years, where the money has been a little bit late. Vino has assured me that they will resolve the problem."
During Lance Armstrong's brief stint at Astana in 2009 - which coincided with the final part of Vinokourov's two-year doping ban - riders protested at unpaid salaries by wearing jerseys at the Giro d'Italia that had the names of the team's Kazakhstani sponsors faded out. After the UCI threatened to withdraw Astana’s ProTour licence, the issue was resolved in time for that year’s Tour de France. "That was a different thing, it's got nothing to do with this situation," Shefer insisted.
In 2014, Astana's WorldTour licence was again under threat, following a spate of positive doping tests, which led to the disbandment of the associated Continental team. The state backing from Kazakhstan remained in place, however, and the team won Grand Tours through the since-departed Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali in the two seasons that followed.
The reaction from Opening Weekend
Over in Belgium, the team's Classics squad arrived in Gent on Saturday morning for the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The riders, wrapping up against the freezing conditions, confirmed that they’d been informed of the situation on Friday via an email from the team’s management. The universal message, however, was that the focus was squarely on the race at hand.
"I don’t have much news, I'm just trying to focus on the race. Honestly, I don't know what's going on but I'm not worried – it will be fine, I'm sure," Michael Valgren, who would eventually go on to win the race, told Cyclingnews.
"Yesterday we had an email, it's like no worries about it, everything is good, so I'm just trying to focus on the race and do what's best."
Directeur sportif Lars Michaelsen added: "I'm here for the race, it's out of my reach. We're focusing on the race and whatever is going on behind the scenes, we leave aside."
Astana’s press officer at the race, Sven Jonker, confirmed most details in the Vesti story, but insisted that all riders and staff have been, and continue to be, paid. Valgren and Michaelsen confirmed that, too.
"Everyone has been paid in the last months. They are paying the salaries with the savings but the savings aren't going to last the whole year," said Jonker.
"There is some delay in the funds. I don't know the exact details of what's really going on behind the scenes, only that there is a delay and the management is confident it’ll be sorted out as soon as possible."
On Saturday afternoon, Astana Pro Team issued a short and carefully-worded statement of its own, confirming the substance of what its general manager Vinokourov had said the previous evening.
"The team is aware of the temporary problems, which results in some delay of payments from the team's main sponsor," read the Astana statement. “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."
Indeed, while Vinokourov navigates the corridors of power in Kazakhstan in a bid to secure the team’s future, Astana have enjoyed a strikingly successful start to the 2018 season on the road, despite losing Fabio Aru to UAE Team Emirates.
Alexey Lutsenko won the overall standings at the Tour of Oman after placing second to teammate Miguel Angel Lopez on Green Mountain, while Magnus Cort also scored a stage win earlier in the race. Moreno Moser won the Trofeo Laigueglia, while Luis Leon Sanchez claimed the Vuelta a Murcia and Valgren won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Cataldo insisted, however, that the team’s blistering start to 2018 was not a reaction to any difficulties in securing sponsorship from Kazakhstan.
"There’s no link between the two things," Cataldo said. "In other years we were very concentrated on the Grand Tours and prepared very specifically for them, which meant that we started out in a slower way. This time, we've started the season differently and approached the first races of the season very aggressively."
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