The shock news that came out on Thursday evening surrounding Premier Tech’s departure from Astana after just one season as a co-sponsor sent shockwaves through both the team and the WorldTour. The official statement announcing Premier Tech’s withdrawal as a 50-50 partner broke just after their CEO Jean Belanger had gathered the staff to break the news, and Cyclingnews has learned that the split centered around a disagreement over the future of Alexandre Vinokourov.
The former team principal had been removed from his job just a few days ahead of the Tour de France but rumblings of legal reprisals and an eventual U-turn from the Kazakh side of the management eventually saw Premier Tech head for the exit door.
While the Canadian brand's withdrawal came as a shock, rumours of disquiet and unrest within the team have been brewing for months, and even last year there were signs of a power struggle after directeurs sportif Alexandr Shefer and Dimitri Sedun were both let go. In June of this year, Sedun claimed that Vinokourov had already been ousted once before, only for the team to step back and allow him to continue, but talk of marginalizing the Kazakh element of the management had been rife almost since Premier Tech arrived last year.
Astana – a team not known for making things simple or shying away from controversy – has been one of the major talking points of the summer with agents and rival managers all wondering what the future had in store for the team. Agents had repeatedly been told to wait when it came to re-signing and hiring riders and it was clear that after Vinokourov was dismissed just prior to the Tour that there were major rifts within the camp.
Cyclingnews can reveal that ultimately the split with Premier Tech reached a boiling point this week with the Kazakh shareholders willing to give Vinokourov a second chance and bring him back after the former team boss spent most of July lobbying for support and building his base. When Premier Tech were unwilling to budge on their stance of wanting Vinokourov to remain outside of the team, the founding stakeholders at Astana dug their heels in and quickly informed Premier Tech that they were being forced out.
Premier Tech of course had a joint stake and financial ties to the team, along with contracts but Cyclingnews understands that the management was unwilling to fight a protracted legal battle that would have ultimately ended in financial costs and the team’s demise, and that after they were told that Vinokourov would be returning they instead decided to cut their loses.
It’s understood that the Canadian company is in negotiations with another top-level team about a new partnership for 2022.
“Towards the end of the Tour, everything looked good,” a source close to the team told Cyclingnews.
“There had been productive meetings between the shareholders, and the team were more or less good to go with staff having received proposals for 2022. Then in the last two weeks, there were a lot of discussions and it became clear that it wasn’t going to work. What’s surprising is that the Kazakhs agreed to remove Vinokourov from the role at the beginning of the summer but have now turned around and were willing to lose a major sponsor. Basically, Kazakhstan turned around to Premier Tech and said ‘we don’t want you involved anymore, we don’t want you in the team’.”
Vinkourov had held the position of team principal since retiring as a rider on the Astana team in 2012. He is seen as a huge hero in his native country but his methods and management have caused friction this year as Premier Tech stepped up their involvement from a mid-level backer to a co-sponsor.
At the time of Vinokourov's removal, Yana Seel, the team’s managing director, told the media that veteran directeur sportifs Giuseppe Martinelli and Steve Bauer, who joined the team with the introduction of Premier Tech, would take over Vinokourov's responsibilities but there were rumours even at that point that Vinokourov would launch a legal battle to be reinstated. It’s not clear at this point whether those legal challenges were the reason for the Kazakh shareholders to backtrack on their decision from June.
Cyclingnews spoke to other sources close to the team, with one stating: “At the end of the day, the thing that they wouldn’t agree on was Vinokourov. Premier Tech wanted him gone and his involvement in the team was the overriding point that the two sides couldn’t agree on. Astana have chosen to lose a major financial backer to save him, and while it hasn’t been announced that he’s coming back yet but it’s a no-brainer.”
Both Belanger and Seel declined to comment when approached via the team.
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