Astana's leadership clear ahead of Tour

As attention swings to next month's Tour de France following the conclusion of the Giro d'Italia, the apparent questions over who will be Astana's captain seem to be answered.

There's been constant speculation since the return of Lance Armstrong surrounding who will be the team's number one in France during July. While it hasn't caused tension within the team, Astana manager Johan Bruyneel has had to address regular questioning about the matter. It appears that the outcome of the Giro d'Italia has helped shape his latest response.

Bruyneel told French sports daily L'Equipe that Contador is the best Grand Tour rider, "which leaves no doubt about his leadership during the next Tour de France. The goal is to win. There is talk of a duel between [Lance] Armstrong and Contador, but what there is is a duel between ourselves and others," said Bruyneel, who also confirmed, "Armstrong is not the team's second rider. With what we saw in the Giro, that [role] is for Levi [Leipheimer]."

The Astana director added that Contador's main rivals for the Tour de France - including teammates Leipheimer, Armstrong and Andreas Klöden, plus Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans - were "a step below" the level of the Spaniard.

Bruyneel also spoke of the possibility that Contador had been approached by Caisse d'Epargne about a move to the Spanish squad next season. "I spoke with Alberto during the Giro and [he] told me there was nothing about the rumour that he met with the Caisse d'Epargne [team]. Trust us," said Bruyneel.

He did add that the current situation surrounding sponsorship of the the Astana squad, which is tenuous, meant that, "anything is possible". Although he said that Armstrong's presence on the team was a guarantee of sorts when it came to attracting sponsors because the American attracts so many fans.

Bank guarantees needed to continue

Meanwhile, Bruyneel is confident in continuing with the current structure of the outfit, although the UCI will require more Kazakh government bank guarantees to cover the payments to Astana team employees.

For several months the Kazakh government hasn't fulfilled its obligations to pay brokers and assistants of the squad, which led the UCI to examine the grounds for possible suspension of Astana's ProTour licence.

As a sign of its discontent, Astana's riders decided to wear a jersey minus advertising logos - namely the Astana label and major corporate sponsors of the team. The team's manager remains optimistic and hopes that the matter can be resolved soon.

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