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Lance, Astana riders protest over failed payments

LANCE Armstrong and other riders of the Astana team protested the Kazakhstan squad's lack of salary payments by fading out the sponsors on their jerseys in the Giro d'Italia yesterday.

"I explained the situation of the team to the federation of Kazkhstan before the Giro and I asked certain questions and asked for certain solutions. And those solutions didn't come," Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel said. "We're an important factor in the race and we don't want to pretend as if everything is OK. It's not OK."

While Armstrong is no longer in the hunt for overall victory, Astana's Levi Leipheimer is in fourth place, 43 seconds behind leader Danilo Di Luca.

Eight of the nine riders on the team committed to the protest for the seventh stage, which began in Austria.

"I've talked about it with the riders since the beginning of the Giro and they are not happy," Bruyneel said.

"I'm trying to keep them motivated in the race, but at the same time if you're doing your job you want to be respected. This is a decision we made together. I didn't force anyone to wear this jersey."

The only Kazakh rider for Astana at the Giro, Andrey Zeits, rode with a normal jersey.

"I left him the decision and he doesn't want to take that responsibility and I think that's correct," Bruyneel said.

The International Cycling Union has given Astana a May 31 deadline to straighten out its financial situation or risk suspension.

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 riders have only received two months of salary," Bruyneel said. "They are here riding a very good race and we cannot pretend nothing is happening. I hope this has an effect and a solution will be found."

Armstrong indicated last week that he was talking to US-based sponsors about taking over the team himself. That may be his only solution if he wants to go for an eighth Tour de France title in July.

"We're definitely looking into all our options," said Bruyneel, who would likely partner with Armstrong in such a venture. Bruyneel directed Armstrong for each of his seven Tour de France wins.


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