American Lance Armstrong's Astana team admitted Friday they have been forced into desperate measures in a bid to publicise a never-ending financial dispute with their key sponsors.
Seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong and his Astana teammates started the Tour of Italy's seventh stage Friday with new shirts and the name of key sponsor, Astana, virtually blocked out.
Currently one of the most successful cycling teams in the peloton, Astana face an uncertain future following reports their Kazakh sponsors have failed to pay team wages several times this year.
The International Cycling Union (UCI) have since sent a letter to Kazakhstan's cycling federation (KCF), notifying it of a possible suspension if wages are not paid by May 31.
Alain Rumpf, manager of the ProTour, told AFP he hoped for a swift and satisfactory outcome.
"The objective of the UCI is to protect cycling's image," said Rumpf. "That the best stage race team in the world should not be paying its riders is an anomaly which must come to an end."
UCI president Pat McQuaid is due to meet with Astana team leaders next week.
"If the situation is not corrected that could lead to a suspension and/or the withdrawal of (the team's) UCI ProTour licence," Rumpf warned, while adding that the team would not be affected at least as regards continuing in the Giro.
However, he indicated that if a solution is not readily forthcoming then "the UCI will act" once the Giro is over.
Adding spice to the situation is the fact that in recent weeks Alexandre Vinokourov, who helped form the team before his ban for doping in the wake of the 2007 Tour de France, has announced his intention to return to Astana. Whether that possibility has riled Armstrong and co. is unknown.
But Armstrong and his team-mates raced Friday, and could continue to race, in a new shirt with the sponsor's name, 'Astana', virtually unreadable.
Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel, who helped Armstrong win a record seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, has spoken with team chiefs in Kazakhstan but he remains unconvinced with their promises. He explained that the team's decision was borne out of a desperate situation.
"We made this decision after a long consideration. Just before the Giro I asked the Kazakh Cycling Federation certain questions and asked for solutions and the solutions didn't come," Bruyneel said in a team statement Friday.
"We are now in the Giro, which is an important race and we are an important factor in the race. We don't want to pretend that everything is okay. It's not okay, that's why we want to show this to everybody.
"The riders only received two months of salary in 2009. I hope the shirt change will provoke an effect. It is a way of saying that we are professionals, doing a good job and we are representing professionally certain companies and we expect that the commitments are coming from both sides."
He added: "Until we see something happen, it's still a long way. We will race with these shirts until everything, emphasis on everything, is fixed.
"All the sponsors who paid us until now, including Kazmunaigaz, are still very visible on the shirt.
"May 31st is the UCI deadline for the KCF to make sure everything is in order. I hope they can do that. If not, it will be up to the UCI to see what will happen."
© 2009 AFP