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Kazakhs pledge $22 million for Astana cycling team

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ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP)

Kazakhstan's state sovereign fund pledged $22 million in financial backing to the Astana cycling team Friday, ensuring the squad stays alive and Tour de France champion Alberto Contador remains in its ranks.

Astana's current racing license is due to expire at the end of next year, but recurring delays in paying salaries to riders have prompted the International Cycling Union to demand guarantees on the team's financial viability by this week.

"Samruk-Kazyna (state holding) has provided UCI with a guarantee of financial backing worth ?15 million ($22 million) for this season," Kazakh Cycling Federation deputy president Nikolai Proskurin said.

About $3.7 million has been transferred this week to the paying agency that handles team salaries, Proskurin added.

In a further symbolic gesture of state support for Astana, Samruk-Kazyna chairman Kairat Kelimbetov has been named as head of the country's cycling federation.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has taken a personal interest in the fate of the team, which is seen as a prestige project for the Central Asian nation.

Astana is also in talks with an Italian telecommunications company over an additional sponsorship deal, Proskurin said.

The Kazakh-backed team says it has submitted all the necessary documentation to ensure it retains its license. A final decision by the UCI on the team's fate is imminent and is expected by early next week.

"If they deny us a license, they would put around 60 people out of work for absolutely no reason at all," Proskurin said.

Proskurin also denied media reports that Astana has offered to double Contador's contract to $12 million per year.

According to Proskurin, rumors about the Spanish rider's future with Astana have been orchestrated by former team manager Johan Bruyneel as an attempt to sow discord. Bruyneel parted ways with Astana in July amid an acrimonious dispute over the planned return of Kazakh rider Alexander Vinokourov.

Vinokourov was given a two-year ban for blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France, forcing Astana out of the competition.

Proskurin said Astana has been approached by a number of high-profile riders with offers to compete for the team beginning in 2011. He declined to provide any names, but expressed an interest in signing Italian rider Ivan Basso, currently with Liquigas, and expressed admiration for British rider Bradley Wiggins, who placed fourth at this year's Tour.

"I would have put all my money on him not coming in among the top 10," Proskurin said. "But he worked hard, and what he managed to achieve was amazing."

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