Saturday, May 30, 2009

When a nation's feeble economy goes belly-up, so does its cycling team. as is the case with the Kazakh-backed Astana squad. As the team races the final week of the Giro d'Italia and the Kazakh national coffers dwindle, the government has recently refused to fund their sponsorship, leaving everyone from riders to staff without pay.

The team isn't taking the situation lightly and are retaliating with action of their own. Their weapon of choice: graphics. Sporting a new racing kit halfway through the Giro, new jerseys and bibs feature a faded version of the Kazakh sponsors' logos, leaving the paying sponsors' logos at normal opacity. If only the Adobe opacity toggle always had this much leverage.

The full story, according to Velonews' Andrew Hood, goes like this:
As the Giro d’Italia winds down, the troubled Kazakh-backed Astana team still isn’t sure it will be racing the Tour de France in July. The financial woes that have left portions of riders’ salaries unpaid are closer to being resolved, but UCI president Pat McQuaid said team sponsors must meet a Sunday deadline or risk suspension.

“I think they’ll meet the deadline. The deadline we've given them is a bank-guarantee deadline and the payments are up to schedule,” UCI president Pat McQuaid told the Associated Press on Friday. “There’s still no guarantee that the team will ride the Tour de France.” McQuaid, visiting the Giro during the final weekend of racing, said he is hopeful the financial situation will be resolved in time to clear the way for the team’s participation in the Tour.

“There was a deadline for the bank guarantee and for the payments, but we've asked for other things since then,” McQuaid said. “We've also asked the Kazakhs for other guarantees about the team for the rest of the year.”

The Astana team has been rocked with money problems since the spring, when payments from Kazakh sponsors started to dry up. The Astana team features one of the most unusual financial arrangements in professional cycling. The team is owned by the Kazakh cycling federation, which has cobbled together several Kazakh-based businesses, such as national zinc and railway companies, to underwrite the team’s expenses. The cycling federation then funnels money for salaries and other costs to team manager Bruyneel, who signed on to manage the squad in the wake of the blood doping scandal involving team star Alexandre Vinokourov during the 2007 Tour de France.

In an interview with VeloNews earlier in the Giro, Bruyneel said the payments to his company slowed this spring following the financial woes that have rocked international markets, adding that his contact with the Kazakhs had dwindled.

“I don’t have a direct contact with the sponsors,” he said. “I have a contract with the federation. I have to rely on what the federation tells me. There’s the crisis over there.”

Things became so bad during the Giro that the team decided to race with the names of the Kazakh sponsors faded out on their team jerseys. That protest seemed to prod action from team sponsors. Meanwhile, McQuaid stepped in to act as a mediator and has been quietly talking with Kazakh officials to try to resolve the financial issues.

“They’ve paid sums of money in recent weeks,” McQuaid told journalists before the start of the 19th stage of the Giro. But McQuaid wants more guarantees that wages will be paid throughout the remainder of the 2009 season. Otherwise, he said, the team could lose its ProTour license.

“The license commission meets in mid-July and that's when any decision will be made,” McQuaid said.


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