Time to flip the calendar on 2008. I tried to wait, but it's killing me... and yeah, I promised to start with Bweeg, but I just can't. Yet.
I'll take a wild guess and say that one of the more memorable elements to the upcoming year will be the Russification of the peloton. Not in any dominant way; Russian riders won't be obscuring their Spanish or Italian brethren anytime soon. But there are two rather huge milestones coming our way: the first Russian team in the top rung of pro cycling, and the first Russian race in the top-rung calendar. For at least one week, while Team Katyusha is unleashing its full arsenal on the Sochi Tour, you can be forgiven for wondering if it was all just a dream and Stalin didn't really stop the Red Army at the Elbe.
Sound overblown? Maybe -- this was Team Tinkoff, a marginally Italian squad, a year ago. But if you were around for Team 7-Eleven back in the day, you'll recogize the significance of gaining a team foothold on the peloton. And if you ever watched the Coors Classic roll by, well, this is what we'll be seeing, Russian style, in May. Not the apex of the sport, and certainly not the best team, but the Russians are officially invited to the party now.
Attributes: Closing speed. Robbie McEwen is on board now to see if he can still finish some races, which he continued to do in 2008, at least when Cavendish wasn't around. McEwen's five wins this year included the Vattenfalls and Paris-Brussels classics, as well as stage race wins in Switzerland over Oscar Freire and Daniele Bennati. At Katyusha he can count on nice leadouts from -- or sharing the spoils with -- Gert Steegmans. Danilo Napolitano heads up the B Team, and Kenny Dehaes has already flashed his speed at the top level, winning a Belgian Tour stage and notching an impressive fifth at Gent-Wevelgem.
Problems: Stage races. Correct me if I'm wrong, but is Evgeni Petrov their leader in the Tour de France? Or Shaggy Vlad Karpets? Or Christian Pfannberger? Maybe all of the above will make for an interesting team here and there, challenging in some stages. But joining the big time means investing an awful lot of money in the Grand Tours, so presumably in a year or two Katyusha will start looking for some results.
Key Rider: Filippo Pozzato. Or maybe Pfannberger. The team's best chance at a huge result, early on in their incarnation, probably comes from Pippo's spring campaign. I've mentioned too many times how well I thought he was riding last March and April, losing Milano-Sanremo to Cancellara's headlong dash and Paris-Roubaix to a series of flat tires, while riding strongly at de Ronde. Where some see a guy who should win more, I see a rider who's solidly in position to win, waiting for his luck to turn a bit. And while it's tempting to picture the new squad out of its element in its first campaign, Pippo might not be so alone, particularly if Vlad Gusev comes on board. Pfannberger pulled the rare triple top-ten at the Ardennes classics, but it was somewhat out of nowhere at age 29, so let's not get too worked up.
Key Moment(s): Sochi Tour. I dissed their grand tour hopes, but guys like Karpets and Petrov have enough class for a middlin' one-week race. Add in their sprint team, along with guys like Pippo and time trial stud Mikhail Ignatiev, and you could see them making a huge impact on the inaugural Sochi event. Doesn't hurt that almost every able body will be in Italy then.
Passing Thought: What does it take to gel as a team? In some American sports, where teams are occasionally created from whole cloth, it's usually a few years of abject misery before they can stick their head above water. Cycling is a lot more fluid, and in fact eleven of these guys were teammates last year. The sprint team could probably get their timing down in a matter of a couple months. Nobody will be marking them in any extraordinary way, meaning the classics squad will call on a small handful of guys to engage in some teamwork. It's not that dramatic. A bigger issue is that as much as half the roster will be new to the big races of the Pro Tour, but then you don't have to start all 27 guys in Compiegne.
I know little about the inner workings of the team, but it seems to me that's where the key lies. Look at T-Mobile/High Road/Columbia: their turnover from the Pevenage years to the Stapleton takeover involved a similar stripping of the roster. What emerged was... more of the same, for a season. But by season two, the roster gelled, the team bought into the plan, and they won an astounding 85 races and the world's number one ranking. You can't possibly compare the talent level in the two teams -- Columbia is frickin loaded -- but the general trajectory sounds about right: one year figuring it all out, and if the plan is a good one and the guys know how to stick to it, by 2010 those Katyusha millions may well start making a difference in the sport.