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The Explainer: Katusha, Katyusha, ???????

Oleg Tinkov's Tinkoff team is taking a step up in 2009.

Oleg Tinkov’s Tinkoff team is taking a step up in 2009.

Photo: Graham Watson

Dear Explainer,
Katusha? Isn’t that the rockets that have and are killing Americans? Am I wrong? What does Katusha have to do with cycling and why does Katusha have a ProTour license?!?!
Jim Manning

Dear Jim,
Well, for a short question we have a lot to cover. Where to start? Maybe, since we are a cycling publication, let’s first look at the team before we discuss the relevance of naming it after a mobile artillery unit.

As many readers probably already know, the new Katyusha cycling team is a successor to the existing Tinkoff Credit Systems squad. Tinkoff currently operates with a UCI Professional Continental team license. The original Tinkoff team was established in 2006, as the Tinkoff Restaurants team and has operated as Tinkoff Credit Systems since 2007.

The team has been largely financed by Russian millionaire and cycling fan Oleg Tinkov. The 40-year-old Tinkov initially made his fortune in the beer and restaurant business, establishing a small brewery – more like a brew pub – in St. Petersburg in 1998. Tinkov built a number of restaurants throughout Russia and eventually expanded the business to the point that it began exporting Tinkoff-labeled beer to western Europe and North America. By 2005, the business had grown to the point that it was Russia’s third largest independent brewery and he sold the business and brand name to InBev (the Belgian company that recently purchased Anheuser-Busch) for about $250 million.

As you can tell from his team’s current moniker, Tinkov expanded his business into the financial markets and established Tinkoff Credit Systems.

The team generated some controversy in early 2007, when it hired, and then fired, American Tyler Hamilton and German rider Jörg Jaksche, both of whom had been implicated in the Opera?ion Puerto doping scandal.

Since then, the team has enjoyed some success as a wild-card invitee to major events, including this year’s Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, usually putting riders into long breaks in a hunt for stage wins.

Like the U.S.’s Garmin squad, the Tinkoff program was ready to step up to ProTour status for 2009 and made the application earlier this year. That license was granted on Monday.

Unlike Garmin, the team underwent a substantial reorganization in order to achieve that. To do that, Tinkov went in search of additional sponsors and put together a consortium of Russian businesses to move the team up to the next level. He didn’t hold back, either, putting together a $24 million budget with the support of Russian giants Gazprom, Itera and Ros Technologie. Tinkov, however, says he will scale back his direct involvement in the team, saying that he will need to focus on maintaining his portfolio by guiding Tinkoff Credit Systems through the current global economic crisis.

With or without Oleg’s involvement, the team has recruited aggressively and was even working to sign Tour winner Carlos Sastre at one point. The team will keep several Tinkoff standouts, including Evgeni Petrov, Pavel Brutt and Nikoli Trussov and has signed big names from other teams, like Vladimir Karpets (formerly Caisse d’Epargne), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) and none other than Robbie “the Rocket” McEwen (Silence-Lotto).

What’s in a name?
Okay, so Robbie gives us a nice segue into explaining the new name for the team.

Jim, you’re right, the name is the same as the mobile multiple rocket launcher originally developed by Soviet Union during World War II (or the “Great Patriotic War” as the Russians call it). You’re also right in that several generations of the weapon are still used around the world, and has been used by Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan against U.S. troops. Some of those were originally captured from Soviets after the 1980 invasion.

For better or for worse, the name – and the weapon – have achieved iconic status in Russia and the Katyusha designation of the cycling team reflects that. There’s a little bit of history behind that, too.

One of the original Katyushas, mounted on an American Lend-Lease Studebaker.

One of the original Katyushas, mounted on an American Lend-Lease Studebaker.

Photo: File Photo

The Soviets’ BM-8 truck-mounted mobile artillery unit and its heavier counterparts – the BM-13 and BM-31 – proved to be an effective weapon against advancing German troops. Interestingly, the early versions of the BM-8 and BM-13 were often mounted on American trucks, delivered to the Soviets through the Lend-Lease program, as is the case with the Studebaker pictured on the right.

Red Army troops gave the new weapon the affectionate nickname “Katyusha,” which was the title of a popular wartime song about a young Russian woman waiting for her true love to return from the battle front. The woman’s name was Yekaterina (Catherine), the affectionate diminutive of which is “Katyusha.”

In the original Cyrillic alphabet Katyusha is “??????,” which explains why those of us who use the Latin alphabet can never quite figure out how to spell it. You can expect to see it as “Katusha,” “Katyusha,” “Katjuscha” or any other of a number of variations.

German troops on the receiving end of the “??????,” in World War II branded it with the less affectionate, Stalinorgel – “Stalin’s organ” – based on the ominous sound it produced when fired.

A newer version of an old idea.

A newer version of an old idea.

Photo: File Photo

The concept has evolved over the years and many countries produce a truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher which is generically referred to as a ??????. Because the idea was originally developed in the Soviet Union, there is an element of national pride associated with it.

On top of that, the above-mentioned song is still widely popular in Russia, as you might see from this concert last May, held to honor veterans of the Great Patriotic War, or any number of interesting variations, including this rendition by the Red Army Choir and this Euro-pop version with Russian cheerleaders (we included that last link because you just can’t make up stuff like that).

So no matter how it might be viewed in other parts of the world, the name chosen for the cycling team reflects the very Russian character of the program and its sponsors.

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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