Armstrong -- who all season had appeared in Astana team kit only when strictly necessary according to racing rules (preferring LiveStrong jerseys when he was training, or those from his Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny's) -- remarked that he knew Kazakhstan mostly from Borat and said, pointedly, "It's not my team; it's not my sponsor."
In February, Astana's eight corporate backers quietly stopped paying the bills to the Kazakh cycling federation, which then shut off payment to Bruyneel's management company and, by extension, riders and staff. By mid-May, the team was in danger of folding, and the team and its owners began to fight openly. At the prestigious Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), the riders broke out uniforms with sponsor logos all but faded from legibility as a way to shame the owners into paying.
The "Team Faded-Jersey" gambit worked and under pressure from the sport's governing body, the sponsors (including, now, the federal government) ponied up the cash to keep the team going until the end of the year.
Two competing theories explain Astana's payment issues. The simple answer is that amid the commodities collapse that accompanied last fall's economic crisis, the natural resource companies that constitute a major part of Astana's sponsor roster simply had a cash squeeze. But in the world of big business, the $15 million it takes to fund the team is a rounding error.
A more salacious rumor holds that the nonpayment was sporting politics: Vinokourov's suspension ends July 24, and the sponsors want him back on the team. Bruyneel, however, doesn't. Although unsupported by hard fact, that theory got a bump when Vinokourov -- with Nikolai Proskurin, deputy head of the Kazakh cycling federation, at his side -- held a press conference in Monaco before the Tour's start to announce his return. "It's my team," he said of Astana. "If Johan [Bruyneel] has a problem with me, it is up to him to leave the team, not me."
That kind of breakup, honestly, may be what everyone wants. During the height of Astana's financial difficulties in May, Armstrong announced that he was interested in forming his own team in 2010 as a rider and owner. And, had Astana defaulted on its payment deadline and lost the team sponsorship in June, Armstrong was ready to step in with LiveStrong and Nike as replacement sponsors (now the deal appears likely for 2010). Bruyneel will likely go too, and hence, Vinokourov can return to Astana.
Whether you believe that Armstrong's return is primarily about raising cancer awareness or is also, as has been floated in various forums, a springboard to a political career, racing the sport's highest-profile event for Livestrong-Nike would sure beat a scrum of unpronounceable natural resource companies from an obscure Central Asian republic with a president for life and a spotty human rights record.
But until July 26, when the race finishes in Paris, Armstrong will not be riding for Livestrong, Nike, or even his bike shop. He's on board for state holding company Samruk-Kazyna, natural gas producer KazMunaiGas, and mining concern Kazakhmys. Lance may yet break away from his competitors on the race course, but he can't quite drop his sponsors just yet.