By Andrew Hood
The image of a dozen riders trying to stay warm before a chilly training ride Thursday along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast doesn’t quite match up with the ambitious plans Katusha has laid out for 2009 and beyond.
The ultimate goal of the Russian-backed Katusha team is nothing less than to deliver a Russian winner of the Tour de France, and do so from a Russian team.
That’s heady stuff for any first-year team, but when the team’s backers include Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and an annual budget of 15 million euros, Katusha means business.
“That’s Putin’s message to the management team,” Katusha team manager Stefano Feltrin told VeloNews. “The ultimate goal is to have a Russian winner of the Tour and the spring classics from a Russian team.”
At first glance, Katusha seems nothing more than a dressed up version of Tinkoff Credit Systems, the continental team from which it was born.
While several riders and staff are holdovers from the Tinkoff Credit Systems team, don’t let first impressions fool you: this is very much a new team in terms of budget, scope, depth and ambitions.
“This is a global project lasting for eight years,” Feltrin continued. “We have a commitment for three years to develop the team. We want to be at the top of the pecking order within that time. We know we won’t win the Tour within three years – unless you get lucky – we want to be ready to win the Tour in three years.”
Katusha is aiming to be a big player in the spring classics, one-week races and ultimately the grand tours and has made solid headway by hiring such riders as Robbie McEwen, Filippo Pozzato and Vladimir Karpets.
It’s hard to imagine a less dramatic setting to the start of Katusha’s breathtaking goals than the deserted parking lot hidden in the shadows of a long row of mostly empty hotels lining Spain’s Calpe beach.
With some of the team in Australia, the rest gathered for a training camp to click into gear in what will be its debut season under its new Katusha colors.
Fans will get their first collective glance of Katusha (spelled without the “y” to maintain the same number of letters when the name was translated from its Cyrillic ?????? to the Latin alphabet) during its season debut at the Tour Down Under and the Tour of Qatar.
Katusha already made waves long before it lined up for a race.
Last summer, officials announced a bold plan to create a new Russian super-team dubbed the Russian Global Cycling Project, with an operating budget of an eye-popping 30 million euros per year.
“This is a political project,” Feltrin explained. “Russia decided it was time to have a ProTour team and a ProTour event (Sonchi Tour). They want that one of the best teams be a Russian team.”
That sum caused a stir among many in the cash-hungry peloton, but not all of those rubles are going toward the team.
At least half of that amount will be spent to create a national cycling academy, promote the national federation and produce the Sonchi Tour bike race (penciled in to debut in May, but no official date has yet been set).
The rainmaker behind the deal is Andrei Tchmil, who, after retiring in 2002, worked as a team manager at Chocolade Jacques in Belgium and then as sports minister in his native Moldova since 2006.
The former classics champ quietly pulled together sponsors with the help of powerful Russian officials who, in part, wanted to recapture Russian’s rightful place among the elite nations of cycling.
Sponsors include Itera, Gazprom, Rostehnologii and strong support from Russian politicians, including Putin.
“Putin has signed off on the project,” Feltrin said. “He stays informed in what’s happening with the team.”
Rather than start from scratch, everyone decided it easier was to work with Oleg Tinkov and his established Tinkoff Credit Systems team.
The staff and infrastructure were already in place and many of the riders were young Russians, just the kind of profile the team wants to promote.
Tinkov, however, is out of the picture. The financial crisis prompted the charismatic entrepreneur to direct his energy toward his company.
Taking the reins of the team is Tchmil, with Feltrin continuing his role as team manager from the Tinkoff organization. Most of the other Tinkoff staff stays on, with the arrival of ex-Mapei and QuickStep sport director Serge Parsani.
Regaining rightful place
All this is about Russian pride.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, cycling fell from one of the nation’s sources of pride for its Olympic gold medals to a sport that was largely forgotten without major support throughout the 1990s.
Ex-Soviet riders such as Tchmil, Viatcheslav Ekimov, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Evgeni Berzin and Dmitry Konishev were trained in Soviet-style academies and poured into Western Europe to revolutionize the peloton and forge successful professional careers.
Since then, a new generation of Russians, such as two-time Vuelta winner Denis Menchov, Alexander Kolobnev and the Efimkin brothers, have followed in their footsteps, but all of them were forced to race on foreign teams.
And none of them has ever won a Tour de France.
At least the hope of winning the Tour becomes a reality with Katusha, the first Russian-sponsored team at the elite level of the sport.
And you can’t help but imagine that Russian officials looked on with envy at Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic that’s had success with its Astana team.
Much like state-sponsored Astana, a mix of private and state-run Russian companies subsidizes Katusha.
Unlike the Kazakhs, who are trying to create a new cycling culture by promoting Astana, Russia is hoping to recapture the glory of the Soviet-era successes that brought home armfuls of gold medals each Olympic Games.
The team’s 15 million euros-per-year budget, guaranteed through 2011, gives the squad some of the deepest pockets in the peloton.
They wisely used some of that money to sign up a solid base of experienced and motivated newcomers to join the base from ex-Tinkoff and new Russian youngsters.
The biggest names are sprinters McEwen, Danilo Napolitano and Gert Steegmans, classics specialist Pozzato and GC candidates Karpets, Christian Pfannberger and Toni Colom.
“This team is new only in its sponsor. I’ve already been impressed with the level of riders, sport directors and support staff. Everyone knows what they have to do and when,” Colom told VeloNews. “It doesn’t feel like a new team at all.”
Tinkoff holdovers include Mikhail Ignatiev, Pavel Brutt and Evgeni Petrov. The team also scooped up experienced Russian hands, Sergey Ivanov and Alexander Botcharov.
Feltrin also said the team is committed to clean racing and will be working with its own medical staff as well as conducting independent controls throughout the season.
Instead of adapting a system similar to what Columbia, Garmin, Saxo Bank or Astana, he said the team will rely on UCI and WADA controls, work under the biological passport rules and use team doctors to monitor their riders. Outside controls could be implemented in specific cases, Feltrin said.
As a ProTour team, Katusha also hopes to race the most important races of the year, including a sought-after berth in the Tour.
“We have good relations with ASO and RCS. We’re openly talking with them,” Feltrin says, referring to the owners of the Tour and Giro d’Italia, respectively. “We’re doing everything properly. We’ll have a strong team with a good ethical background. Of course we want to be in the Tour.”
You get the sense that the team is champing at the bit to race. After a long off-season full of major changes, riders and staff are keen to put rubber to the pavement.
“We will be very aggressive, like Tinkoff always was, but we expect to be winning stages, one-day races, classics and maybe challenge for GC in weeklong stage races,” Feltrin said. “We’ll start working toward a group that can do well in GC at grand tours. What’s sure, we’re eager to race and win. We’ve had enough of second places.”
One can be sure that second place won’t be good enough for Putin.