Armstrong, Astana riders protest

INNSBRUCK, Austria -- Lance Armstrong and other riders of the Astana team protested the Kazakhstan squad's lack of salary payments by fading out the sponsors on their jerseys in the Giro d'Italia on Friday.

"I explained the situation of the team to the federation of Kazkhstan before the Giro and I asked certain questions and asked for certain solutions. And those solutions didn't come," Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel said. "We're an important factor in the race and we don't want to pretend as if everything is OK. It's not OK."

While Armstrong is no longer in the hunt for overall victory, Astana's Levi Leipheimer is in fourth place, 43 seconds behind leader Danilo Di Luca.

Eight of the nine riders on the team committed to the protest for the seventh stage, which began in Austria.

"I've talked about it with the riders since the beginning of the Giro and they are not happy," Bruyneel said. "I'm trying to keep them motivated in the race, but at the same time if you're doing your job you want to be respected. This is a decision we made together. I didn't force anyone to wear this jersey."

The only Kazakh rider for Astana at the Giro, Andrey Zeits, rode without altering his jersey.

"I left him the decision and he doesn't want to take that responsibility and I think that's correct," Bruyneel said.

Riders did not comment on the protest.

The International Cycling Union has given Astana a May 31 deadline to straighten out its financial situation or risk suspension.

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 riders have only received two months of salary," Bruyneel said. "They are here riding a very good race and we cannot pretend nothing is happening. I hope this has an effect and a solution will be found."

Armstrong indicated last week that he was talking to U.S.-based sponsors about taking over the team himself. That may be his only solution if he wants to go for an eighth Tour de France title in July.

"We're definitely looking into all our options," said Bruyneel, who would likely partner with Armstrong in such a venture.

Bruyneel directed Armstrong for each of his seven Tour de France wins, previously with the U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel teams. Armstrong is riding for free this season after three and a half years of retirement.

The only logos visible on the faded jerseys were those for KazMunayGas, as well as Trek bicycles, SRAM components and Armstrong's cancer foundation, Livestrong.

"[KazMunayGas] have paid. All the other sponsors from Kazakhstan have not paid," Bruyneel said, adding that the protest would go on until the payments are made. "It needs to be fixed -- completely.

"At the end, I have to give explanations to the riders and the staff of what's going on. I've told them the truth: I didn't get the answers I needed to get before the Giro. Now of course I got reactions since last night. But that's still words. Until I see something happen that's still a long way."