Katusha management shake-up shocks staff

Staff for the Russian squad surprised by departure of general manager Hans-Michael Holczer

MILAN (VN) — Katusha’s management shake-up on Monday shocked those within the team, given the success the squad has seen this season with general manager Hans-Michael Holczer. The Russian team announced yesterday that Viatcheslav Ekimov would replace Holczer, effective immediately.

“The decision came from the Russian sponsor and federation; I don’t know why or the reason,” sports director Valero Piva told VeloNews. “It’s difficult to understand after a season like this. I can’t say any more on it, though.”

Holczer ran Germany’s Gerolsteiner team until 2008 and stepped in to replace Andrei Tchmil for 2012. He helped guide the team to several big wins this year, 29 in total, including the WorldTour classification with Joaquím Rodríguez.

On his way to winning the classification, Rodríguez won one-day classics Flèche Wallonne and the Giro di Lombardia. He also nearly won the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, finishing second behind Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) by 16 seconds in the former and third overall in Spain.

After his win in Lombardia just over a week ago, Rodríguez gave a hint that there might be a shake-up.

“They have their ideas, I have mine,” Rodríguez said of the team. “I am racing with my group of guys; the boys are happy. It’s up to them [the management] to do their work, but, up until now, they haven’t done it. I will be with Katusha through next year, but if they keep thinking the way they are, for sure, I won’t be with them in 2014.”

Rodríguez renegotiated his contract last December and signed it in April, extending through 2013 and keeping valuable WorldTour points in the Russian team. It appears, however, that other teams are trying to lure him away with bigger contracts, given his spectacular season. He will win the WorldTour title this weekend, 91 points clear of Bradley Wiggins, and leads CQ Ranking for the year by nearly 500 points over Wiggins.

The team catered to Rodríguez and his Spanish teammates, including Daniel Moreno, winner of two stages in the Critérium du Dauphiné, this season. Katusha management ensured they had extra cars, training camps, helicopter rides for key transfers and their own masseur. The team even paid Rodríguez bonuses after Alberto Contador lost his 2011 wins due to a doping suspension, but tension between the GM and his star rider drove a wedge at the top of the team.

“At the moment, it’s not the time to say something because not everything is done yet on the (contractual) side,” Holczer told VeloNews on Tuesday. “I am not willing or able to give any information.”

It is unclear at this time whether Holczer resigned or was let go and the German refused to confirm the details of the split. A resignation would have put the team’s Moscow headquarters on alert, prompting Igor Makarov into action. Makarov is the de facto team president, head of the Russian Federation and a UCI Management Committee member. He would have given the green light yesterday to the team’s press officer in Russia, Vitalii Abramov, to announce Ekimov as the new GM.

“All I know is based in that press release from Moscow. It was a fulmine a ciel sereno, a surprise for us,” Italian press officer Andrea Agostini told VeloNews. “Maybe Hans decided to go on his own. He worked well – very well – over the last year and we were proud of what we accomplished because, truly, the organization was better this year. Everything worked better. In my opinion, he worked very well.”

Agostini and Piva said that they are forced to wait until next week’s team management meeting in Austria to see what other changes are in store. Makarov and Ekimov are expected to draw out a new working plan, not just for 2013, but for the next few years, that will likely have an even greater Russian feel.