Katusha bolsters Kristoff’s sprint leadout with veteran Morkov

Veteran racer Michael Morkov will serve as one of Alexander Kristof's lieutenants next season.

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The war of the sprint trains will heat up even more in 2016. Katusha is bolstering its leadout for Alexander Kristoff next season, and will be looking to elbow its way to the front of the pack.

Kristoff won 20 races in 2015, and Katusha is betting on more next season by tapping Michael Morkov, who brings top-notch bike handling skills and experience to join Katusha’s budding sprint train.

Katusha worked on sprint drills along Spain’s Mediterranean coast over the past week at the team’s training camp in Calpe. Morkov joins Marco Haller and Jacopo Guarnieri as the riders to lead out Kristoff in the mass gallops next season.

“We’ve been working on the sprint train during the training camp, and we’ve been looking for the best position for each of them,” said Katusha sport director José Azevedo. “Haller has done a great job leading out Kristoff, and Morkov will give us another option.”

The 30-year-old Dane joins Katusha next season after spending seven years with Tinkoff-Saxo. An accomplished track rider, Morkov is quite adept in the sprints as well, winning stages at the Vuelta a España and the Tour of Denmark. Morkov will also be a key rider for Katusha’s northern classics program.

Morkov will join Guarnieri and Haller as part of a block of riders who will protect and support Kristoff across most of the season, in both the classics and the sprints.

“Those three riders will be around Alex all season long. It’s important for a big leader to have support like that,” Azevedo said. “Alex deserves it. Any rider who wins 20 races in a season deserves big support.”

Kristoff enjoyed a breakout season in 2015, confirming that his victories at the 2014 edition of Milano-Sanremo and two stages at the Tour de France were no flukes. Last year, the Norwegian won the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), GP Scheldeprijs, and the overall at the Three Days of De Panne and GP Ouest France-Plouay. The lone blot was missing a Tour stage victory; he had four top-5 finishes in sprint stages.

With Katusha bolstering its sprint train, that will mean very crowded roads in the mass gallops at the Tour and other major races next season.

There could be at least six teams bumping elbows in the major sprints, including Etixx-Quick-Step, Dimension Data (with the arrival of Mark Cavendish, Bernard Eisel, and Mark Renshaw), Lotto-Soudal, Giant-Alpecin, Cofidis, and Orica-GreenEdge.

“The level of sprinters is very high right now, but we confide 100 percent in Alex,” Azevedo said. “Alex is among the best sprinters in the world. The team is going to be working for him next season even more. We will be stronger in the sprints. He’s our leader. He deserves it.”

With Morkov, Haller, and Guarnieri in tow, Kristoff will have a full schedule for 2016. After debuting in Qatar and Oman, he will race a full classics schedule from Milano-Sanremo through Paris-Roubaix. After a break, he will race at the Amgen Tour of California before the Tour. With a hilly Olympics course that doesn’t suit him, Kristoff will place his late-season focus on the UCI Road World Championships in Qatar in October.

Report: Ekimov waiting on Paolini, Caruso

Speaking to the Spanish sports daily MARCA, Katusha team manager Viatcheslav Ekimov said the team is waiting to see what happens with Luca Paolini and Gianpaolo Caruso.

Caruso was sidelined in August after out-of-competition samples from 2012 were re-tested, revealing the presence of EPO. Caruso is challenging the results.

“Caruso’s case is still open, and we’re waiting to see what the UCI decides,” Ekimov said. “It was quite a shock, because Caruso gave his approval by phone to have the samples re-tested because he believed everything would be OK. His case is not yet closed.”

Paolini, meanwhile, tested positive for cocaine July 7, and his case remains unresolved before anti-doping authorities. Ekimov said Paolini doesn’t currently have a contract with the team.

“I know he is training, but I told him he cannot come back to racing yet,” Ekimov said.