Offseason Capsule: Katusha's Direction Home

Sirotti

What exactly are Katusha? OK, that's easy: they're the national team of Russia, in the same way that Orica-GreenEdge are the team of Australia or Sky are the UK's representative in the top rankings of men's cycling. In essence, this team isn't just a vanity project, it's a national cycling effort in a country which has invested itself pretty heavily in kicking more Olympic ass. It's financed by Itera and Gazprom, one of which probably owns this website or the internet generally. With the capture of Egor Silin from Astana, Katusha are now the complete Russian team, with Itera-Katusha as its kid brother and RusVelo as a close cousin.

So why does Katusha feel like Spain's other World Tour team? Oh, right, that guy.

Aside: have Russia and Spain ever really collaborated on anything? Sure, in the interconnected world everyone is everywhere. But historically, is this a new high for Russia-Spain collaboration? Spain, like any large European country, has gotten into everyone else's business at some point: Spanish Netherlands... the Habsbergs... the various Catholic Church dynasties, etc. Russia, meanwhile, has exerted some level of control, either through marriage or force, of pracitcally every country east of France. But apart from sending some advisors and material to Franco the Republic during the Spanish Civil War (Uncle Joe wasn't gonna miss that party), there isn't much evidence of major Spanish-Russian collaboration. Not that there's any animosity either; maybe Russians get sunburned too easily in February. Maybe Spain meant to call Russia more, but got busy and it just slipped their mind, ya know?

Anyway, Katusha, Russia's sole major cycling project, has basically been Joaquim Rodriguez' base of operations, essentially rescuing Spain's best rider from having to share space at Movistar with Spain's other best rider. Rodriguez has always had a couple top lieutenants by his side, who occasionally pad Katusha's record of Spanish guys winning them UCI points, along with the utterly indispensable walking points-dump that is Purito. Rodriguez' UCI points are pretty much the entire reason Katusha remain in the World Tour. Well, his and Dani Moreno's. Subtract the two Spaniards and Katusha are down around Vacansoleil levels and having to resubmit their sporting criteria for next year's license. This past season and in 2012 Rodriguez bequeathed Katusha roughly half of their World Tour haul. In 2011 it was more like three-quarters.

Granted, you could say that about any team -- how's the Shack/Trek looking if you were to hypothetically remove Cancellara? -- and 98% of the time this discussion of nationality is pointless... except when they stamp "national team project" on the jersey. That's the other two percent. Which begs the question: how's that Russian Global Cycling Project working these days? Ehh... not so hot. At no particular level is there evidence of the Coming Russian Hegemony. The Motherland has produced its share of decent young talent, but this past season Maxim Belkov was their top scorer (FSA DS/Cafe World Rankings) at 173 points, or about ten days' worth of Peter Sagan. Second was their top-priced rider, Alexandr Kolobnev, at eight points, a generous price considering he skated by on a masking agent positive and was under investigation for taking Vinokourov money in Liege-Bastogne-Liege (because the UCI is shocked, shocked! that there is victory-buying going on in here).

Oh well. Katusha set out to change its country's fortunes in cycling, and suffice to say that hasn't happened yet. But that's not to say they are at fault. Personally, I blame soccer for siphoning off too many great athletes from an obviously superior sport like cycling. Or maybe speed-skating, what with the whole Sochi thing. And anyway, if Russia is going to contribute to World Tour cycling, it's gonna need Katusha all the way, as well as the developmental Katusha-Itera squad, as well as the two other teams for riders age 19-22, as well as the youth development programs in Russian schools. Seriously, I'd be interested to know whether even USA Cycling is this organized. [Suggested graduate thesis, anyone?] So if there aren't enough Russians around yet to make the top team competitive, well... también podríamos ganar!

What We Thought Coming In

[crickets]

Hey, this was a team that had hired Hans-Michael Holczer the previous year. Can you blame me for not covering them?

What We Got Instead

A hilariously awesome spring campaign, a reasonably redemptive summer, and the usual what-might-have-been with Purito.

Katusha were in the headlines all winter after the UCI, citing "ethical concerns," denied them a World Tour license heading into 2013, despite the presence of the World #1 rider in Rodriguez. It's hard to take sides in a battle between the UCI and a team whose liabilities were the presence of known dopers (Galimzyanov), potential dopers (Gusev, Menchov, Kolobnev), and (just to drive the point home) links or alleged links to the ridiculous Holczer and toxic doping doc Michele Ferrari. Katusha, of course, won out, because the UCI is so awesome at everything, and then proceeded to drop a big, vengeful spring campaign on the sport. Wins came quickly at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Le Samyn, GP Miguel Indurain and La Fleche Wallonne, as well as stages of Oman, Tirreno and Driedaagse de Panne. From there they settled into a more respectable pattern, launching Alexander Kristoff and Rodriguez as their main threats across the continent.

And threaten they did. Rodriguez was rock-solid at the Tour de France, delivering his best-ever grand tour performance with a third place (sorry but that's better than second in the Giro), which featured an excellent semi-hilly time trial and the usual climbing brilliance. Not that anyone noticed, since Froome rode two excellent time trials and Quintana was by far the shiniest object in the mountains, but credit where credit is due.

Kristoff, meanwhile, was arguably the breakout performer of the spring (non-CX-world-champion edition), finishing fourth in Flanders and ninth in Roubaix, along with second in De Panne, eighth in Milano-Sanremo (arctic edition), and a smattering of sprint stage wins across Europe, notably back in Norway. In his Tour de France debut, he did not immediately ascend to Peter Sagan's rival in the points competition, but mark my words -- that's coming.

In the end, disappointment and consolation were again the rule, but frankly Rodriguez deserves credit for a solid Vuelta (post-Tour), a whaddayagonnado loss in the Worlds, and a determined win at Lombardia. We toss around the word "tragic" a lot about the guy but most people would kill for that set of results.

Top Three Highlights

  1. Paolini wins Omloop. Everyone loves a good fuck-you to the UCI. And I mean everyone. Plus Paolini seems like a good guy (early 2000s pedigree asterisk required) and had been knocking on the door of Cobbled Glory for years.
  2. Rodriguez wins Lombardia. This ranking has more to do with negative potential: can you imagine the conversation all winter if the last thing on his resume was the worlds? Still, great racer gets great win, so shut up about the near-misses.
  3. Tsatevich wins Le Samyn. Yeah, Kristoff. I know. But some wins carry a bit more interest to them, and Tsatevich is poised to be their next sprinter. Moreover, winning on the cobbles says a bit about his qualities, i.e. more than just a mere bunch galloper. I'm not going to go crazy over this, but the kid could be quality.

Bottom Three Lowlights

  1. OK, OK... Rodriguez losing the Worlds. What might have been... the world #1 in rainbow, something he would almost certainly have defended better than Rui Costa will. I guess there's an argument that this isn't Katusha's problem, but it certainly is their missed opportunity.
  2. Kristoff pipped in first Tour stage. Another might-have-been. He probably wasn't going to change his performance based on a crash-winnowed bunch gallop, but that's another missed chance that hurt a bit.
  3. Menchov's sad exit. Again, not Katusha's problem per se (really, there were very few flies on this team in 2013). But a knee injury derailed, once and for all, the final days of the guy who would be Russia's greatest grand tour cyclist, if we lived in simpler times where there either weren't any doping scandals or at least talking about them was considered rude. Alas, Menchov is squarely of the generation straddling the anything-goes and truth-or-consequences eras of the new millennium, and the whispers were growing ever louder as he left the sport.

What Happens Next?

I want to say that Katusha have ironed out their credibility issues, but it's more accurate to say that their credibility issues have partially ironed out themselves. Holczer was excised long ago, and Menchov's exit gave Katusha an easy out, sparing them the "it's Rabobank's fault!" dance. Ignatiev, Kolobnev and Gusev are still around, despite their alleged Ferrari connections. I don't hate this team and I don't think they're a bunch of cheats, but it would be nice if they were a bit clearer about the examples they want to set for all those kids.

Other than that (Mrs. Lincoln), things are solid. Rodriguez remains one of the safest bets in cycling. Kristoff is in the category of "young guys that might win Flanders" category, which is about as exciting as it gets. Dani Moreno and Simon Spilak form an excellent nucleus for the mountainous stage races. Paolini and maybe Tsatevich can give the team options in the spring. Almost nothing is changing for 2014, apart from Egor Silin's addition to the stage race roster. So expect more of the... um, maybe not. 2013 was an emotionally trying experience, being cast into limbo by the UCI, for good or ill, and the team responded with character. Next year will be a bit calmer, and duplicating the hot start won't be easy. But the fundamental qualities will be there.

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