Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Financial Problems Plague Lance Armstrong's Astana Team

VERONA, Italy -- Lance Armstrong's Astana team is in the midst of a financial crisis on the eve of the American's first Giro d'Italia.

Astana spokesman Philippe Maertens confirmed reports out of Kazakhstan that the team has not been paying its riders lately.

"There are some financial problems," Maertens told The Associated Press on Wednesday, while adding that the team will still start the Giro on Saturday in Venice.

"Of course. Why not? I don't see any problem. The team is not going to default," Maertens said. "There is only a delay of payment."

Armstrong lashed out at Kazakh officials, suggesting to a select group of reporters Wednesday that his Livestrong cancer foundation could step in and bail out the team.

"I don't have any concrete answers, but I suspect we can find some funding that would get us from June to the end of the year," he said.

Pro Tour teams such as Astana must meet financial parameters to stay active, or risk losing their International Cycling Union (UCI) license.

Armstrong is unaffected by the problem because he agreed in September to ride for free for the first year of his comeback to professional cycling after 3½ years of retirement. The seven-time Tour de France winner is planning to support Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer in his bid to win the Giro.

Astana receives most of its financial support from Kazakh state holding company Samruk-Kazyna, but the Central Asian nation's economy has been badly hit by the ongoing global financial crisis.

The possibility of Astana folding would be a blow to the Kazakh government, which uses the team to raise the country's profile.

While Samruk-Kazyna has pledged to continue its support for Astana, which is named after the Kazakh capital, state carrier Air Astana has stopped sponsoring the team.

UCI president Pat McQuaid left open the possibility that the team could be expelled from the Giro if the problems worsen.

"I'm only going to say we're aware of the situation and we are in contact with the team and [the Kazakhstan] federation," he told the AP. "We're going to wait to see how this develops."

Armstrong acknowledged Astana's financial problems while in Rome on Tuesday to promote his campaign to fight cancer. He would like to form his own team but is having a trouble time finding a sponsor.

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