After months of tense delays and bureacratic problems, the Swiss-based Astana team has finally been granted its ProTour licence. In a tersely-worded communique, the UCI announced that a twentieth team had been added to cycling?s top league, with effect from January 1st 2007 and running until the end of 2010.

?I am surprised that it took so long, but the key thing is we?ve got it now.? a relieved Astana team directeur sportif Mario Kummer told Cycling Weekly.

Astana had twice had their application rejected in the last four months because of bureacratic errors, documents allegedly going missing in the post and the UCI ProTour licence commission?s refusal to let the Kazakh squad use the country?s cycling federation as one of their financial backers. These problems have meant that the team has only been granted a licence less than two weeks before the New Year.

Matters were complicated yet further by the fact that  two Astana teams have existed this autumn - one based in Switzerland and set up by riders agent Marc Bivert, the other based in Spain and run by disgraced Spanish cycling supremo Manolo Saiz. Saiz had insisted that Astana were in fact continuing to back his Spanish-based squad. However, his company, Active Bay, lost their ProTour licence on Friday, finally clearing the way for the Swiss version of Astana to go ahead.

Astana will be led in 2007 by Kazakhs Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin,  Italian Paolo Savoldelli and German Andreas Klöden. Having won the Vuelta this autumn, Vinokourov has already said that he will be making a last bid for the Tour de France next July.

Following the major tour organisers officialising their decision to pull their races out of the ProTour in 2007 last week, Bivert?s Astana had already been told that they would get an wildcard invitation to the Giro, Tour and Vuelta next season  - regardless of whether they were part of cycling?s top league or not. But their ProTour licence represents an extra guarantee that they will take part cycling?s top races - something which Vinokourov, who missed out on last year?s tour de France, will be relieved to hear.

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