Cycling's governing body, the UCI, has asked its Licence Commission to withdraw Astana's WorldTour licence following a review of the audit carried out by the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne.
The UCI said in a statement that the audit "revealed a big difference between the policies and structures that the team presented to the Licence Commission in December and the reality on the ground."
The audit was one of the conditions set down by the UCI when its Licence Commission granted the Kazakh team, which features Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali, a spot on the WorldTour, despite five of its riders returning positive drugs tests in 2014.
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But the UCI's decision today was not solely based on the audit, with the governing body also reflecting on evidence provided by the Italian authorities investigating the Padova files, which features a number of Astana riders.
The statement continues: "The Italian authorities have provided the UCI with the sections of the Padova investigation which it has been authorized to share. As some evidence concerns Astana Pro Team members, the file has been passed to the Licence Commission as part of this referral.
"For the sake of due process, the UCI is not in a position to comment further on the content of the audit report, nor the Padova investigation, until the Licence Commission has assessed the situation and rendered its decision. But this decision to refer the matter to the Licence Commission was reached taking all circumstances and potential consequences into consideration."
In January, UCI president Brian Cookson told Cycling Weekly that the Licence Commission had no choice but to grant Astana a licence, because any other decision would not be "legally defensible".
But the governing body has strengthened its legal standing with a change to the rules in which teams with riders who fail drugs test can be suspended or even stripped of their licence.
In January, Team Sky boss Sir Dave Brailsford called on UCI boss Brian Cookson to withdraw Astana'a licence.
He said: “The UCI governs this sport, so they need to deliver. Great leaders don’t find excuses why they can’t do something. Sometimes you’ve got to get over obstacles and find ways of doing things to get to a new place.”
The UCI's recommendation will come as a blow to Nibali, who is looking to defend his Tour de France crown against the likes of Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana this year, as well as Italian prodigy Fabio Aru, who proved his Grand Tour potential with top-five places at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana in 2014.
Dame Sarah Storey, who will attempt the women's Hour Record on Saturday, told BBC Radio 5 live this morning: "The UCI said at the time, when they were criticised for giving the licence, that it was a probationary period and ultimately they're sticking to their word.
"It may prove difficult to withdraw it but they are taking a firm stance on doping.
"They've obviously found things in their investigation that they don't like and that sends out a very strong message to the rest of the professional teams."
Astana will fight the decision
On Friday evening, Astana issued a short statement saying that it would take any withdrawal of its WorldTour licence to the Court of Arbitration for Sport:
"Astana Pro Team has received confirmation from the Union Cycliste International of their receipt of results from the recent audit by the Institute of Sport and Science at the University of Lausanne, and the subsequent transfer of those results to the Independent License Commission.
"Astana Pro Team will consult with its attorneys to prepare documents and testimony before the Independent License Commission.
"Astana Pro Team will reserve its rights pending due process at the Independent License Commission to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport following the scheduled procedure."
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Stuart Clarke is a News Associates trained journalist who has worked for the likes of the British Olympic Associate, British Rowing and the England and Wales Cricket Board, and of course Cycling Weekly. His work at Cycling Weekly has focused upon professional racing, following the World Tour races and its characters.
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