Is it just me or are Team Katusha the best oft-overlooked team in cycling? Fourth in the world in 2010, up eleven ranking places and 3000 points, at CQRanking. Fourth in the world on the Podium Cafe rankings. In amongst the Rabos and Garmins and Cervelo Test Teams last year. So why do I spend so little time rating them?
Wins. Twelfth in the world on wins, and a lot of those were out of the brightest spotlight (Burgos, Limousin, Russian nats...). By a back of the envelope calculation (meaning, without any actual calculating), Katusha's delta between overall ranking and win ranking is the biggest negative gulf among the top teams. In a sense, they really are Pippo Pozzato's team: full of the best quality, but just managing not to win or capture your imagination. One big problem is depth -- Katusha have one or two riders for every race you can think of, but in their second year of existence last year the Russian Rockets tended not to have more than two guys, or at least not to really bring much depth to any race. Luck and tactics come into play with victories too, but in fairness, telling Pozzato or Joaquim Rodriguez to go out and win without some key lieutenants on hand is a pretty tall order in stacked races like the classics and the grand tours. Last year's squad looked a lot like a hockey team to me, loaded with low-profile Russian names like Ovechkin and Klimov and Antonov. Not to disparage those guys, about whom I know nothing, and in fact from their ages it looks like a big part of the Katusha agenda is bringing along Russian kids -- a laudable goal. In the meantime, though, Katusha were seen and heard from in small numbers, something that has to change. And it just might.
What Went Right in 2010
The big story came with two major signings, Rodriguez and Vlad Gusev. J-Rod was the team's major offseason acquisition, and I'm sure they expected some nice things to happen when they handed him his own team, after several years of admirable riding in the service of Alejandro Valverde back home at Team Unzue. But while his podium in the Vuelta (once Mosquera is struck) was foreseeable, his run of great performances all spring and into the Tour had to have gone well beyond what Tchmil & co. expected. Purito placed high in Paris-Nice, then went on a tear where he won the Volta a Catalunya, GP Miguel Indurain, and a stage of the Pais Vasco (3rd overall) in the space of a couple weeks. And he just didn't quit after that: second in La Fleche (perfect classic for him), stage winner and 8th in the Tour, 5th in San Sebastian. He held the overall lead on a couple occasions at the Vuelta, beating Nibali for the stage in Pena Cabarga. Only in the penultimate test of the season, the terrible six-minute collapse in the Penafiel time trial, did he finally run out of gas. One more day in his season-long run of form and he might have been the Golden Crankset or whatever they give cyclists for being the world's best.
Gusev, meanwhile, came on board in mid-May, after more than a year in the wilderness combatting charges that his blood values were irregular. Unfortunately, the news around his former team and DS might make those charges stick in the minds of fans, but for now he's free to ride in peace. Gusev looked pretty strong for the four months he raced in 2010, finishing with an 11th in the Giro di Lombardia and clad in the Russian champs' kit for the time trial, his specialty (he was second in the road race). Not a lot of rust on that guy.
The other part of the 2010 program Katusha can feel good about was the work of Robbie McEwen. Two wins is still no biggie by the Scarlet Pimpernel's standards, but unlike in 2009 McEwen was mixing it up for stage wins in the Tour and came second to Tyler Farrar at the Scheldeprijs. Along with Danilo Napolitano, Katusha had the semblance of a sprint squad at times last year.
What Went Wrong in 2010
Kim Kirchen, the team's other big signing, developed a heart condition and may have even suffered a heart attack during the Tour de Suisse. Season over -- 2011 too. Kirchen has never been convincing as a grand tour threat, but he would have made a fine alternative to J-Rod in the mountains and the Ardennes.
The other big blow was the untimely illness of Pozzato during Flanders Week. However much some fans disparage his negative tactics, the fact remains that an in-form Pozzato is regularly one of the strongest, most fluid riders you'll see in the Classics, and it's not hard to imagine a three-way battle entering Geraardsbergen last year instead of just the top two. Pippo was back for Paris-Roubaix, despite the interruption, and was in the Boonen group all along -- even taking pulls! -- so it's clear he had the legs for another big run in Flanders and points just south.
Tchmil must have come to some similar conclusions about the makeup of his squad, because their key signings aren't so much headliners as depth guys. The top signing IMHO is Leif Hoste, who goes from playing second fiddle at Omega for Gilbert to perhaps a more open leadership situation with Katusha. He's quite possibly the perfect complementary rider, a sort of fire-and-ice duo with Pippo, as Hoste is known as much for aggressive riding as he is for aggressive arm-waiving. I don't imagine him being as strong as Cancellara or beating Boonen in a sprint, but Hoste was the only other rider besides Boonen in the Roubaix Tony-chase who had the strength and desire to try to counter the winning move. A best-case scenario: Hoste becomes Pippo's Devolder, up the road in one of those breaks that doesn't get chased right away, and hits the Muur as panic starts to overtake the main favorites.
Other classics signees include Luca Paolini, last seen finishing third in de Ronde before three years on the fringes at Acqua e Sapone, and Alexandr Kuschynski, a nice team rider for the cobbles. Continuing the theme of signing guys with clouded pasts, the big news for the Ardennes squad is the addition of Danilo DiLuca, one of the few riders in recent history to get three strikes -- and use two of them -- before being bounced for good. Hopefully il Killer di Spoltore has learned something, anything, and he can become the rider whose on-bike behavior was such a joy to behold back in the day. But naivete is in short supply at the moment.
The last major addition are some Spanish lieutenants for Purito. Alberto Losada is more of a helper, but Dani Moreno has several Vuelta finishes just off the top ten and was 21st in the Tour last year. His climbing skills, experience, and Spanish-ness (another former J-Rod teammate at Caisse) are just what Dr. Purito ordered.
How's 2011 Looking?
First, I have to admit, everything that I want to like about this team is clouded by the number of riders who have been suspended or under suspicion at some time. However, assuming the perps have learned their lesson and everyone else is scared straight, this is almost surely an improved team over last year's already solid effort. Rodriguez hasn't declared his intentions after the spring classics, though it sounds like he may tackle the Giro, where he would be a plausible threat to win. Anyway, he's got at least one run at a grand tour in him this year, provided the team decides which one in time for a full preparation.
The classics squad has kept pace with the arms race going on throughout the Flanders teams. Not only with the Hoste threat, but if the Leopards don't control the front of every race like Saxo did last year for Cancellara, it wouldn't be shocking to see Paolini, Maxime Vantomme, Stijn Vandenberghe, and my old favorite warrior Serguei Ivanov battling for control from Dwars to La Fleche. This is a much more versatile spring team than the 2010 version.
Dates With Destiny:
Roubaix: I want to say Flanders here, but I suspect both Hoste and Pozzato are a little better in France, where strategies have a bit less of a say than they do in Flanders.
Mur de Huy: J-Rod needs a crowning moment to add to his broad-based success, and this is where it almost has to happen. Really, there is no reason he shouldn't win this race in the next three years.
Vuelta: Just a guess that Katusha won't get lured into spending all their resources on the Tour. Everyone likes to please the sponsors, but Katusha are basically a billionaire vanity project, so they can think a bit more in terms of wins than exposure. It'd be ironic if they wound up launching a Giro-Vuelta front... against Denis Menchov.
Purito Photo by Getty Images; Pippo by Susie Hartigan, used with permission