Astana facing money trouble

VENICE, Italy -- Lance Armstrong lashed out Wednesday at Kazakh officials who let his Astana team fall into a financial crisis on the eve of his first Giro d'Italia.

"I don't know them, I don't have a personal relationship with them, but I get frustrated," said the seven-time Tour de France champion who's riding for free this season. "These Kazakhs, they don't return phone calls, and there's not a lot of clarity about what is going to happen.

The American cyclist even suggested his Livestrong cancer foundation might be able step in and bail out the team, but that seemed to be a long shot.

"While as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, the Lance Armstrong Foundation would not be able to fund the day-to-day operational expenses of a for-profit endeavor," Katherine McLane, communications director for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, said in a statement Wednesday evening. "We would certainly look for ways to develop a dynamic partnership to support the cancer mission and cancer survivors."

Upon his arrival in Venice for the Giro, which begins Saturday, Armstrong had told a small group of reporters that he hoped to find some funding to get the team through the end of the year.

"It could be a combination of people that have a shared interest in Livestrong and want to see Livestrong promoted around the world and believe in what we're doing," he said.

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 team has not paid its employees lately.

"Maybe the situation gets resolved, and the guys start getting their dough," Armstrong said. "Otherwise, I think the license ought to be transferred to [team director] Johan [Bruyneel], and we try and start a team in the middle of the season."

That would require a significant cash infusion.

"If someone commits to fund a team for half a year, that's $7 or $8 million," Armstrong said. "For a full season it's $14 to $20 million. That's a serious decision and can't be made it 20 to 30 days."

The possibility of Astana folding would be a blow to the Kazakh government, which uses the team to raise the country's sporting profile.

Although Samruk-Kazyna has pledged to continue its support for Astana, which is named after the Kazakh capital city, state carrier Air Astana has stopped sponsoring the team.

"I've spent every day of the year with my soigneur [massage assistant] Richard, a Polish guy. He's got a wife and two young kids at home and doesn't get a pay check," Armstrong said. "I can pay his check, which will probably happen, but there's 30 other staff in the same position and is that frustrating? Yeah. Very. This is not fair."

Pro Tour teams such as Astana must meet certain financial parameters to stay active, or risk losing their International Cycling Union (UCI) license.

"I'm only going to say we're aware of the situation and we are in contact with the team and [the Kazakhstan] federation," UCI president Pat McQuaid told the AP. "We're going to wait to see how this develops."

McQuaid left open the possibility that the team could be expelled from the Giro if the problems worsen.

"I don't want to talk about possibilities," McQuaid said.