By Andrew Hood
The multimillion-dollar Russian spending spree that’s energizing the contract market shows no sign of abating soon.
Robbie McEwen, three-time green points winner at the Tour de France, and mullet-man Vladimir Karpets are the latest big names lured to the new Katyusha lineup for the 2009 season.
Backed by a reported budget worth 30 million euros (about $45 million, said to be split between the professional team and the promotion of cycling within Russia), Katyusha is making a big splash right in the heart of cycling’s silly season.
The Russian’s open checkbook comes just as such teams as Gerolsteiner and Credit Agricole are closing shop because they couldn’t find new sponsors.
The team has already penned deals with Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) and Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) and rumors are flying that it’s trying to lure away 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, whose contract with CSC-Saxo Bank ends at the conclusion of this season.
Others snapped up include Alexandre Botcharov from Credit Agricole, Spanish riders Antonio Colom (Astana) and Joan Horrach (Caisse d’Epargne), as well as Belgians Kenny de Haes (Topsport) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r-La Mondiale).
Plans for the multimillion-dollar team were first revealed during a press conference in July during the Tour de France.
The squad will be forged from an existing Russian continental team and a merger with Tinkoff Credit Systems, started by Russian entrepreneur Oleg Tinkov in 2005. Tinkoff is currently racing in its first Vuelta a España.
Tinkov will stay on as general manager while ex-racer and Paris-Roubaix winner Andrei Tchmil, who is the sports minister at Moldova and runs cycling academies across the former Soviet Union, is coming on board as manager.
The arrival of new, well-heeled Russian sponsors such as Gazprom, Itera and Ros Technologie are fueling the new spending spree.
Much like the government-sponsored Astana team in Kazakhstan, Katyusha officials aren’t shy about spending money to get star riders.
Backed by influential political and business officials, the team hopes to make a big push for the elite of professional cycling and earn a bid to the 2009 Tour de France.
The team is part of a larger push within Russia to promote cycling at unprecedented levels. Plans to create a weeklong Sochi Tour near the Black Sea resort town that will host the 2014 Olympic Winter Games are moving forward for May 2009.
Officials say the name Katyusha is taken from a song popularized during World War II to inspire Soviet soldiers during the war. But it’s also the name of a truck-mounted rocket launcher used during the Soviet era.
The way it’s throwing around cash to lure away top stars, most disgruntled rival managers will likely mutter references to the latter.