How is it that Alexandre Vinokourov, the winner of the 2006 Vuelta a Espagne, finds himself in a situation where his team, Astana, may not be selected as a Pro Tour Team in 2007?
CN reports that Astana, Barloworld and Unibet are all vying for the final available Pro Tour license. All have submitted the required financial information, and on November 28, each team will learn preliminarily of their fate. But wait, wasn't Astana a Pro Tour team in 2006? And if so, shouldn't it be a simple matter of renewing their existing Pro Tour license?
Come to find out, Activebay.com and Manolo Saiz actually hold that license. Saiz was initially implicated in the Operacion Puerto affair, and his team, Liberty Seguros Würth, disbanded when lead sponsor Liberty Seguros pulled the plug when widespread doping practices were reported among the team. Alexandre Vinokourov scrambled to pull together a new sponsor in advance of the Tour de France with five Kazakh companies rising to the challenge. The newly formed team was named Astana Würth and then simply Astana when Würth pulled out after four of the 9 starters for the Tour were implicated just before the Grand Boucle began, and the team was disqualified.
All of Vino's efforts appeared not to be in vain as Astana triumphed in the last grand tour of the year. The team garnered a total of five stage wins and two podium positions in the Vuelta with Vinokourov in first and Kashechkin in third. Earlier this fall, Astana added to its cache as a Pro Tour Team when T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden and Matthias Kessler signed for the team, and Il Falco, Paolo Savoldelli was rumored to have signed.
In an ironic twist of fate, Saiz has been "cleared" of wrongdoing in the Operacion Puerto affair, and Activebay's Pro Tour license has been renewed. That cruel turn of events means that Astana is left to battle it out with Barloworld and Unibet for the final Pro Tour slot. Rumor has it that Unibet will obtain the final license, and Astana will be forced to obtain a Continental license. Most likely, Astana will still be invited to participate in all the Grand Tours as a wild-card team, but this seems woefully inappropriate given the status and prestige of Astana and its individual team members. Hopefully, good sense will prevail, and Astana will receive the remaining Pro Tour license. It's the right thing to do.