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Offseason Capsule: Katusha-Alpecin

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By the way, it’s also important to fight for strong results

2015 Santos Tour Down Under Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

How do you say dumpster fire in Russian? That was Katusha’s season. Their premier offseason signing, Marcel Kittel, performed as well as caffeine would work on revitalizing Valverde’s sparse dome. Sometimes hitting rock bottom can lead to inspiration. For Katusha, it has led to signing Dani Navarro.

What we said last year

Err…. Andrew was “quietly optimistic” about their chances and thought they would easily match their 2017 win total. Also, there was some enthusiasm expressed for Nathan Haas. To be fair to Andrew, though, he did recognize the fragility of all of Katusha’s eggs in Kittel’s basket:

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.

What we got in 2018

It was easily Katusha’s worst year as a World Tour team and in the running for worst year by a World Tour team with ostensibly deep coffers. They managed only 5 wins in 2018, if you count Tony Martin’s German TT championship. Nils Politt won a stage of the Deutschland Tour. Nathan Haas won a stage of Oman. And Marcel Kittel won 2 stages of Tirreno-Adriatico. In 2017, they had 17 wins, with Kristoff providing 9 of those. In 2016, they had 25 wins (w/ Kristoff providing 13). 2016 saw then win 40 times (and Kristoff with half of those).

Even with Kristoff having a below average year in 2018, that Kittel for Kristoff swap earns the dubious honor of being the worst transfer of 2018. Kristoff at least won on the Champs-Elysees and was generally in the mix on many race days. Kittel, besides some early promise at Tirreno-Adriatico, was nowhere close, with the lowest moment being his disqualification from the Tour after being outside the time limit on stage 9 stage 11. His most memorable performance, as piss poor as it was, was his Tommy Wiseau-level acting in that ubiquitous Alpecin commercial.

Besides one bright spot to be discussed below, Katusha were awful across the board. In the spring classics, the best placing they could manage was a 7th in Paris Roubaix. They were outside the top 10 in all of the rest. Their best result in any one week WT stage race was the third place finish by Nathan Haas in Turkey. In all of the legitimate WT one week stage races, they only finished in the top 10 two other times-- a 10th in the Dauphine and 6th in the Tour de Suisse, where even Simon Spilak was lacking his usual Swiss superpowers. The 9th place at the Tour by Ilnur Zakarin, which was a disappointment after the podium at the Vuelta last year, ranks as one of Katusha’s most memorable performance, which really says something about how bad a year it was.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

17th with 3,690 points. The only team that was worse than them was Dimension Data, but with reportedly one of the larger budgets in the World Tour, this was definitely the most disappointing result.

Top Highlights

1. Nils Politt was the lone bright spot in a miserable season— showing his promise in the classics, in breakaways in stage races, and in providing Katusha with their only team win after March on Stage 4 of the Deutschland Tour. Even so, as a microcosm of Katusha’s season as a whole, the most publicized moment for Politt was not his win or his 7th place at Paris-Roubaix, but rather when Jerome Cousin “played with his balls” during stage 5 of Paris-Nice and allowed Politt to do most of the work in their 2 man break at the end of the stage, just to come over the top of him at the end and poach the victory from him. The upside for Politt in remaining with Katusha for next season is that he’ll be the big fish in Katusha’s small classics pond and will get plenty of opportunity with perhaps some assistance from new transfer Jens Debusschere.

Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage Twenty Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

2. Katusha did managed to eke out 2 World Tour wins, their only WT wins of the season, from Kittel at Tirreno-Adriatico.

3. Let’s put Nathan Haas’s 3rd place at the Tour of Turkey as the 3rd top highlight to complete this section, which really should be entitled “Damning with faint praise.”

Bottom Lowlights

1. Scheldeprijs was supposed to be a processional for Marcel Kittel. He had won it in 5 of the last 6 years, only failing to win it in his année sans in 2015. Then there were echelons, but somehow Kittel and his Katusha teammates made the split, while Kittel’s two main competitors-- Dylan Groenewegen and Arnaud Demare-- were disqualified for failing to stop at a railroad crossing. It looked certain Kittel would seal his 6th victory, but then with about 12 kilometers to go, Kittel had a puncture. The tire swap was made quickly enough, and his teammates rallied behind him to get him back in contention but with 7 kilometers still remaining, Kittel started shaking his head and fell out the back of the bunch to finish 3 minutes behind the winner Fabio Jakobsen. This performance, more than any other, encapsulated the high expectation of Kittel and Kittel’s woeful inadequacy at coming close to meeting that expectation. The denouement came at the Tour, where Kittel was disqualified after failing to make the time cut on Stage 11, and his directeur sportif, Dimitri Konyshev, told the press that Kittel only cares about himself. Kittel would only race 7 more days during the rest of the season.

2. After a 3rd and 5th in the Vuelta and Giro, respectively, last year, Ilnur Zakarin was to be Katusha’s homegrown (well, at least as home grown as you can get for a Muslim Tatar on a Russian-cum-Swiss team) GC contender. 2018 was to be the first shot that Zak would take at the GC at the Tour. While he managed a 9th place overall, he rode the race a la Zubeldia and never really showed himself on any stage, with his best placing on any road stage being 10th. While not a great race, that result would end up being Zak’s best result of the entire season. He would only manage a 20th at the Vuelta and was nowhere near a podium finish at any of the other races or stages that he would ride.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Seventeen
There would be no celebrations in 2018
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

3. It’s not easy to get wins from Kittel without employing a lead out train, and while Katusha did not have the train that they had assembled for Kristoff in 2015, the train that they did have was derailed by lots of bad luck. Marco Haller, one of the key lead out riders for Kittel, was involved in a crash involving an automobile shortly following Paris Roubaix, leading to a fractured kneecap and leg that put his career at risk (Luckily, Haller was able to come back at the Tour of Guangxi). Tony Martin then suffered a fractured vertebrae prior to Kittel’s DQ at the Tour. Despite valiant efforts from Politt and Rick Zabel, those injuries wrecked any possibility of providing Kittel with the support that would be necessary to get the wins to justify the presumably large salary.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins:

Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal)

Daniel Navarro (Cofidis)

Enrico Battaglin (Jumbo)

Ruben Guerreiro (Trek)

Harry Tanfield (Canyon Eisberg)

Outs:

Tony Martin (Jumbo)

Tiago Machado (Sporting Clube de Portugal)

Baptiste Planckaert (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic)

Robert Kiserlovski (Retired)

Maurits Lammertink (Roompot)

Maxim Belkov

Jhonatan Restrepo

Marco Mathis (Cofidis)

It’s not easy to see any positive in the transfer season for Katusha. I guess at least all the riders that left were fairly disappointing while employed by Katusha. Machado was a shell of the rider that Katusha signed in 2015. Marco Mathis, who was signed as a neo pro based on the result of one amazing performance -- his u23 TT world championship in 2016 where he beat this year’s FSA-DS one point wonder Maximillian Schachman, never came close to flashing that brilliance again. Until I started writing this post, I had no idea that Kiserlovski was still riding. Baptiste Planckaert was always going to have the Tom Van Asbroeck WT transition problem-- success in the Belgian SSRs in sprints doesn’t really translate to success at the WT level.

Tony Martin is the biggest name that Katusha has lost. But at this point in his career, that’s really all he is-- a recognizable name who no longer can provide the results that earned him that recognition. In my opinion, their biggest loss is probably Jhonatan Restrepo, who appears to have a lot of raw talent but never really got to define what that talent can translate to at Katusha. Hopefully, he’ll end up somewhere where a team can develop him properly.

Looking at the riders joining Katusha in 2018, Jens Debusschere is definitely an upgrade in the Belgian classics/sprinter department over Baptiste Planckaert. The question with Debus will be whether Katusha use him as part of Kittel’s lead out train or allow him to go for his own results. In looking at these off season transfers, it’s pretty apparent that Katusha intends to cut its losses with Kittel as soon as possible. If they were dedicated to getting Kittel back on track, building that strong leadout would have been paramount and that definitely was not the focus of Katusha’s signings.

Seemingly, Katusha would also want to help Zakarin in the mountains. I’m not sure that Dani Navarro is the help that is needed.

While I see a lot of potential in Ruben Guerreiro and think this is a good signing for Katusha, I worry it might not be the best landing space for the 24 year-old Portuguese rider. Like Restrepo, it’s still too early to define Guerreiro as a rider-- he finished 5th in the Bretagne Classic while also placing well in GC in stage races. Hopefully he can buck the trend of Katusha’s track record with developing young riders.

Most intriguing rider

I’ve discussed Nils Politt enough above, so let’s go with Mads Wurtz Schmidt. The former Paris-Roubaix junior winner and u23 TT world champion had a quiet year in 2018. But he was able to get his first GT in his legs at the Giro. I think that 2019 may be his break out year and with no real leaders for the classics, MWS will have the opportunity to shine.

So, what happens next?

Katusha can only regress to the mean upwards for 2019 after such a disastrous 2018. Even if Kittel is on the outs with the team, you’d have to think that he will get himself in decent enough shape to get enough wins to attract another sucker team for 2020 (looking at you, UAE). Still, with the lack of depth on their roster, all of their eggs are still in Kittel’s basket for next year. While he was able to post some strong results after a disastrous 2015 season, that turnaround involved a transfer to Quickstep. Now, he’s still stuck in a caffeinated-hair nightmare.

Zak will also need to make a comeback. At 29 years old, Katusha probably know what they have in him- a rider who can get some top 10 performances in grand tours and who may luck into a podium spot in a less competitive GT— essentially a more-wobbly-on-descents version of Ion Izagirre. Ideally, Katusha would send Zak to the Giro and Vuelta and concentrate on squeezing some value out of Kittel by giving him a full sprint team at the Tour. Realistically, Kittel will be sent home to sit on his couch, while Zak will be left to be demolished by the Sky demogorgon at the Tour.

My prediction is a 2019 that is marginally better than their 2018 and a 2020 version of the team that looks substantially different than the 2019 version.