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Offseason Capsule: Katusha

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One K for another, I’m gonna change ya, I’m gonna swap ya swap ya swap ya swap ya!

Elite Company: Zakarin on the Vuelta podium
NurPhoto via Getty Images

Katusha’s season can hardly be thought of as thrilling. There were long periods where they hardly mattered at all. Their offseason, though, has been electric. Let’s see where things are going for the boys in red, different red, and blue.

What we said last year

We didn’t. Here’s Chris from the 2013/14 offseason, however. It is kind of refreshing to see that some of these shady characters have moved on. Nothing’s perfect in cycling, but there’s evidence of progress here.

What we got in 2017

The team, sporting new jerseys as a result of Alpecin switching allegiance from Giant (who became Sunweb, keep up) to Katusha, got off to a hot start. Kristoff picked up five of his nine victories by the end of February, three of them in Oman. Tony Martin’s first win of the season was in Valencia, also in February. As if I needed to tell you, none of those wins counted for anything in VDS terms.

Once we hit March, the pace of winning slowed. If you’re trying to be a competitive World Tour cycling outfit, that’s a long way from ideal. The highest-profile wins were probably Simon Spilak in the Swiss Tour (rescuing an otherwise lost year for someone who I’d got pegged as Mr Reliable until 2015) and Kristoff’s wins in Frankfurt and London. None of which were monuments or Grand Tours.

That’s not to say the team were anonymous in the biggest races, though. Ilnur Zakarin enjoyed his most consistent season yet, climbing with the best at the Giro and Vuelta to pick up 5th and 3rd overall. Kristoff had an “almost” season, winning the bunch sprints in Milan-San Remo (4th) and Flanders (5th) finishing 2nd to Demare in a hardman’s sprint for stage four of the Tour and finishing agonisingly thisclose to Peter Sagan in his home World Championships. Lots of points for all that, and lots to be proud of, but no actual wins.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

13th – Below average, but not down by the wooden-spoon contenders. As we discovered in the last preview, this is an unusally top-heavy team, with the top two riders providing 61% of VDS points, and 82% coming from the top 5.

Top Highlights

1. Ilnur Zakarin generally. Consistency isn’t exactly a highlight, but putting it together for three weeks in Italy, then backing up with another three weeks in Spain, was exactly what we needed to see from him. His best moment was probably on the climb to Oropa, when he stuck closest of all to Tom Dumoulin to move into the top 5.

2. Probably Kristoff’s 2nd in the Worlds. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow, coming so close only to be beaten, but it proved he’s still in the conversation as one of the elites in these races. Also, yes, the fact that the team’s top two highlights involve finishing second should tell you something.

This doesn’t look like a highlight for Kristoff, does it?
Corbis via Getty Images

3. Simon Spilak won the Tour de Suisse. That’s a boatload of WT points and continued credibility, and, as I say, probably the most prestigious win the team managed in 2017. Which is faint praise indeed.

Bottom Lowlights

1. Every time Sagan accelerated. That might be an exaggeration, but this is a team built around a hardman-sprinter, and there’s a better one out there. Kristoff lost his chance in Milan San-Remo when Sagan attacked on the Cipressa. He lost his chance in Flanders when Sagan took off after Gilbert on the Oude-Kwaremont. He lost his chance in Bergen inches from the line, when Sagan came around him. I mean… ouch.

2. Tony Martin’s first time-split in the Worlds TT. Once they put that hill in the course, he was never going to win, but finishing 9th was a bitter pill, and it wasn’t just the hill that did for him (noted Alpinist Rohan Dennis beat him, for instance). He won the German champs, but no other TT all year, which is far below par. He’s too young to be written off but needs to bounce back.

3. The whole “not winning” thing. Specifically, three victories from the 24th June until the end of the season. That’s not cutting it.

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Ian Boswell (Team Sky), Steff Cras, Alex Dowsett (Movistar), Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), Matteo Fabbro (Friuli Cycling Team), Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), Willie Smit (Nippo-Vini Fantini)

Outs: Sven Erik Bystrøm (UAE Team Emirates), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), Michael Mørkøv (Quick-Step Floors), Rein Taaramae (Direct Energie), Angel Vicioso (retired), Piotr Havik (Beat Cycling), Matvei Mamykin (Burgos-BH)

Renewals: Maxim Belkov, Jose Goncalves, Reto Hollenstein, Pavel Kochetkov, Tiago Machado, Jhonatan Restrepo, Simon Spilak, Ilnur Zakarin, Robert Kiserlovski.

There’s a lot going on here. Let’s leave the big moves until last.

From the 2017, some good climbers were retained, with Zakarin and Spilak among the leaders of the team, the former climbing among the GC elite and the latter a week-long specialist. The likes of Machado, Kiserlovski and Goncalves are very reliable helpers. However, Vicioso, Taaramae and Morkov will be missed.

The group coming in are hard to classify, even if I leave Willie Smit for later. Boswell was a big talent for whom the time at Sky was not a success, though he did show occasional signs that he retained the abilities we knew from his junior days. Cras and Fabbro are typical young riders of the young riders who join a team at this level – both have the results of all-rounders and are more-than-handy time trailers, and we’ll see what they can do. Alex Dowsett is a time-trial engine and a potentially helpful leadout man, though that’s not a role with which he has much experience. You’d think Tony Martin might be able to help.

Of greatest interest (leaving aside the obvious) is Nathan Haas. I really like his style and I think he’s still to reach his ceiling. Races like the Ardennes and Canada seem to suit him best and at Katusha he should get some support, and the chance to ride for himself.

Maybe stick to cycling, Nate?
Corbis via Getty Images

Now – the big move. Essentially, it is Kittel in, Kristoff out. On one level, a pretty straight swap of elite sprinters. Except… we all know that’s not quite right. Kittel is a pure fast-man. As he proved in the 2017 Tour, when he’s right there’s nobody in the world to catch him on a flat stage. He’s 29 and has 18 Grand Tour stage wins in his palmares. The leadout train at Katusha is absolutely good enough to help him add to that number, and he comes in as the number one rider on an established world tour team.

Kristoff was never the certain winner that Kittel was. However, he was competitive in a very wide range of races. What Kittel can’t do is compete in the toughest of cobbled classics, leaving a gap. Can the rest of the cobbled squad compete without their leader? It’s a huge ask. This is as close as you’ll get to a controlled experiment: which is better, certainty (well, near-certainty) in one field, or possibility in two?

Most intriguing rider

This really has to be Willie Smit. He is an unusual case, leaping into the WT with a Russian team from continental African riding at the age of 25. His last European contract was with Vini Fantini back in 2014. Since then, he’s had an itinerant career, paying for his own way for much of last year, but the talent appears to be there. I don’t know much more than I read here, but I suspect our extraordinary community can help me fill in the gaps. At any rate, he’s found a unique route to the World Tour and I challenge anyone to read that Bicycling article and not root for him.

So, what happens next?

Katusha lacked depth in 2017, and have gone some way to addressing that with a strong offseason of transfers. I like their moves and think they’re stronger, on paper at least. Marcel Kittel is the little girl with the curl in his hair. When he’s good, he’s very very good, but when he’s bad he’s awful. A good year is double-digit wins with three or four Tour stages, and that’s in play, but this squad can’t afford him to repeat a year like 2015. It is a lot of eggs in one basket.

In the absence of Kristoff, it is asking a lot of this team to compete on the cobbled roads of Belgium. Plankaert and Martin are fine riders, but we’ve probably seen the best of them. Freed of support duties they might pick up a few results. One who can be expected to improve is Nils Pollitt. 23, only developing, he’s looked good for the last couple of springs and might have a bit more freedom this year. Kittel will presumably drop by for Scheldeprijs and not much more, unless he’s looking for Tour preparation on the cobbles.

As always with these pieces, it isn’t clear who’ll go where, but I’d expect Zakarin to head to Italy, leaving France for Kittel. He’s made consistent progress in GC terms in the last few years. Depending on how the field works out, he could have a shot at a Giro podium. Spilak and Martin will both do their thing, and that usually picks up some wins (though Martin was disappointing in 2017). I’ve talked about Nathan Haas and I’d keep an eye on him in the Ardennes.

All in all, I’m quietly optimistic about this squad’s chances. It’ll be a slower start to the season but they should easily match their win total from 2017 and the increased youth and depth in their squad gives plenty of room for enthusiasm.

Wait, you three aren’t my leadout train, are you?
Corbis via Getty Images