Bruyneel says protests still planned
BRUSSELS -- The leader of Lance Armstrong's Astana team said Friday its financial crisis had not been solved and that protests against its Kazakh backers would go on during a preparation race for the Tour de France.
Early Friday, Kazakhstan's cycling federation said it had paid off its debts to Astana, clearing the way for it to take part in the Tour.
"The debt issue has not been solved," team leader Johan Bruyneel said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "The situation has not changed for us since the Giro," which ended last week.
Kazakh cycling federation deputy chief Nikolai Proskurin said a foreign-based sponsor with commercial operations in the central Asian nation had been found to resolve the team's cash-flow problems. Proskurin said the sponsor's identity could not be revealed until the deal had been completed.
"We have no knowledge of such a foreign sponsor," Bruyneel said.
Bruyneel's denials left the future of Astana still unclear only one month before the Tour and acerbated the standoff between its riders and the Kazakh backers.
Bruyneel said his team would continue to protest the situation Sunday at the start of the Dauphine Libere preparation race in France. The missed payments to the team forced Armstrong and seven other team members to protest by wearing jerseys with the sponsor names faded out in the Giro.
"We will continue with that sort of protest," Bruyneel said.
Proskurin said he was unable to give exact figures, but said Astana's annual budget amounts to around $21.3 million.
The International Cycling Union had threatened to withdraw Astana's racing license after riders went unpaid for two months, but earlier this week cleared the team to race after it guaranteed its immediate finances.
Even if the financial issue with the UCI has been cleared, Bruyneel insisted the problems with the team on payments were far from fully cleared up.
"I hope everything will be fixed in the coming days and weeks," he said.
Astana receives most of its financial support from Kazakh state holding company Samruk-Kazyna, but the country's economy has been badly hit by the global financial crisis.
Beyond the Dauphine Libere, Astana intends to ride in the Tour of Switzerland ahead of the start of the Tour de France, which begins July 4 in Monaco.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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