The riders in the Astana team started Friday’s seventh stage of the Giro d’Italia in a modified kit to protest the fact they have only been paid for two months of the season so far.
For the past two days there have been rumours that the Astana team of Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong would unveil a new jersey, but most people assumed it would be some kind of variation on the Team Livestrong, Mellow Johnny’s, Trek-branded design paving the way for Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel to take over the team from the Kazakh consortium.
Eight of Astana’s riders are wearing the jersey with faded logos. Only Kazakh Andrey Zeits is wearing the official team jersey.
Only KazMunaiGaz, a petroleum company, Nike and Trek logos remain full strength. The logos of non-paying companies Temir Zholy, KEGOC, Eurasian Bank, Kazakhymys and Kaztsink have been faded.
A Kazakh holding company called Sumruk-Kazyna funded the team from money provided by individual sponsors, including Air Astana and the Kazakh railways, as well as oil and gas companies. Air Astana recently pulled out and, it appears, the other companies have stopped paying.
But the economic crisis has hit Kazakhstan hard. And the political will for a professional cycling team has waned since the suspension of Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin.
It has been claimed that the riders and staff have been paid for two months of 2009. The UCI has set a deadline of May 31 for the wages to be paid up to date, or else the team’s ProTour licence will be withdrawn.
Bruyneel says the team’s riders and staff have not been paid because the money has not come from the sponsors, so it is likely he and Armstrong will apply to take over the licence. Armstrong says work has been done to get new sponsors in place.
This morning the riders arrived at the start in Innsbruck, Austria, wearing a modified version of the familiar Astana jersey. The colours remain the same, but the company logos have been faded almost to the point of invisibility in protest at the non-payment of wages. One logo – that of a company which has met its financial commitments – remains.
Johan Bruyneel said: “This was a decision we made after a long consideration. I explained the situation to the Kazakhstan cycling federation before the Giro and I asked certain questions and asked for certain solutions but those solutions didn’t come.
“We’re an important factor in the race and we don’t want to pretend as if everything is okay. It’s not okay. The riders have only received two months of salary [this year]. We’re here riding a very good race and we cannot pretend nothing is happening. I hope this has an effect and that a solution is found. It’s a way of saying we are professionals and that we’re doing a good job. But I expect commitment from both sides.
“I talked about it with the riders since the beginning of the Giro and they’re not happy. I didn’t get the answers [from the Kazakhs] I needed before the Giro. Last night [when he explained what the team was going to do] suddenly I got a response. But they’re still only words. Until I see something happen there’s still a long way to go. One sponsor has paid, but the others have not.”
Armstrong is relatively unaffected in as much as he is riding for Astana without drawing a salary. However, the squad’s contender for the overall in the Giro d’Italia, Levi Leipheimer, is very much affected. Leipheimer is currently fourth overall in the general classification.
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