As former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once famously said, “a week is a long time in politics.” That’s nothing, however, compared to the Machiavellian machinations of the sport of professional cycling.
Just days after two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador confirmed he intended to honour his contract with Team Astana into 2010, his future is again in doubt after cycling’s governing body, the UCI, demanded that by tomorrow, the Kazakh outfit provides bank guarantees covering its annual budget before granting it a ProTour licence for next year.
And Johan Bruyneel, who recently left the role of sporting director at Astana to move to Lance Armstrong’s new Team RadioShack, has been dragged into the row, taking the unusual step of releasing a videotaped statement on YouTube (below) in which he denies claims by the Kazakh Cycling Federation that he is responsible for helping block the renewal of Astana’s licence.
Last week, with the Kazakh government committing $22 million to Astana and seemingly securing the team’s ProTour place for 2010, several pieces of this close season’s transfer jigsaw appeared to have fallen into place.
Contador, it seemed, was staying at Astana. Which gave Garmin-Slipstream, widely thought to have been one of the teams coveting his signature, added impetus to put a block on Bradley Wiggins’ long-rumoured move to Team Sky.
The Spanish rider’s extension to his contract was conditional on Astana renewing its ProTour licence for next year, something that must now be seriously in doubt given the UCI’s request for further guarantees.
And that may pave the way for him to join not Team Sky, but Spanish outfit Caisse d’Epargne, who are still unsure of the status of their team leader Alejandro Valverde, winner of this year’s Vuelta but banned from competing in Italy due to his alleged connection with Operacion Puerto. Valverde is seeking to have that ban overturned by the Court for Arbitration for Sport, but should he fail, the UCI is expected impose a two-year worldwide ban on him.
Should the Kazakh outfit fail to renew its licence, it’s difficult to see how it will survive. Tarnished by the 2007 Tour de France doping scandal that led to Alexandre Vinokourov’s two-year ban from the sport – he began racing again in this year’s Vuelta in Astana colours – concerns over the team’s viability were raised earlier this year when it transpired that it had failed to pay riders’ salaries.
Despite fractures in the squad that saw a total breakdown in the relationship between its star riders Lance Armstrong and Contador, Astana dominated this year’s Tour de France, including a majestic performance in the Team Time Trial.
Since then, however, the team has been broken up, with several riders going to Armstrong’s new project, Team RadioShack, as well as former sporting director Johan Bruyneel.
The latter has now come under fire from Kazakh Cycling Federation deputy president Nikolai Proskurin, who Associated Press quoted as saying: "Bruyneel told us that he would do everything possible to ensure that they withdrew our license."
The Belgian swiftly hit back in a short piece to camera on YouTube, however, in which he stated: "I don't know what kind of problems they have for the moment in the (ProTour’s) administrative process. I know the rules are very strict but I just want to deny the fact that I would like or want to see Team Astana go away."
Bruyneel added: "On the contrary, it’s good for everyone that there are top teams as much as possible. Astana is definitely one of them. So once again I absolutely deny the fact that I'm the manipulator as some people over there say and I would definitely like to see them in the ProTour."
Whether Astana will be competing in the ProTour next year will presumably be decided in the coming days. As we said at the outset, a week is a long time in politics – especially the cycling version.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.