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Kazakhs pour money into Astana in three-year sponsorship deal

Astana's future may be clearer but can they still hold on to Alberto Contador?...

Tour de France winning team Astana looks to have secured its future with a three-year sponsorship deal with Kazakhstan's vast state holding company, the Kazakh Cycling Federation's deputy president, Nikolai Proskurin, told agency Associated Press.

Samruk-Kazyna, a state holding that encompasses some of the energy-rich country's largest companies, including the oil and gas company Kazmunaigas and national airline Air Astana, will be the team's exclusive backer up to and including 2012, Proskurin said.

"They will be the general sponsor and will take all the expenditures upon themselves," he said.

The financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but Proskurin said the contract would solve the financial difficulties that had threatened the team's existence.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) had warned that the team's cash troubles could endanger its chances of securing a new four-year license. Astana's current license is due to expire at the end of next year, but recurring delays in paying salaries to riders prompted the UCI to demand guarantees on the team's financial stability by mid-October.

Over the past season Astana's riders held protests over debts owed by the KCF. During the Giro d'Italia, the then Astana rider Lance Armstrong led team-mates in a protest in which they wore jerseys with the sponsor's name faded out.

Astana’s top rider, Alberto Contador, who won the Tour de France for the second time in July, has a contract that runs into 2010. The new sponsorship deal will make it difficult for Contador to terminate his role in Astana before his contract expires, unless of course someone pays a large amount of money in compensation - and Astana are willing to accept it. 

One task the team now faces however is to rebuild its squad after the defection of most of its non-Kazakh riders to the new Team RadioShack, where Armstrong will be joined by ten of his former Astana colleagues, including Levi Leipheimer, as well as directeur sportive Johan Bruyneel. Two other riders have chosen to join Team BMC, leaving Astana with only four of the 17 foreigners on its 2009 roster.

Meanwhile, Alexandre Vinokourov returned to Astana's colours in last month's Vuelta, although his two-year suspension for doping has clearly had an impact on his fitness levels.

The uncertainty around Astana's future had lead to speculation that should Astana have its licence revoked Contador could end up at Team Sky - something which was ruled out by Sky's performance director, Dave Brailsford over the weekend.  

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