Katusha-alpecin are the Rus­sian team who have gone global. Ex­pec­ta­tions are high, but as Cy­clist joins them at the 2017 Tour de France, wins are prov­ing hard to come by…

Cyclist - - Contents - Words JAMES WITTS Pho­tog­ra­phy JUAN TRU­JILLO ANDRADES

‘Ihave no news on Kristoff or Kit­tel. There are al­ways ru­mours at this time of year. Some are true, some are not.’

Katusha-alpecin’s gen­eral man­ager, José Azevedo, is giv­ing noth­ing away. It’s the morn­ing of Tues­day 11th July 2017, just over a week into the Tour de France, and Cy­clist is nes­tled with the World­tour team at their ho­tel in Dor­dogne. The Manoir du Grand Vig­no­ble in Saint-julien-de Crempse, on the out­skirts of Berg­erac, is charm­ing and rather re­gal, but has seen bet­ter days. I can’t help think­ing that the creak­ing and dis­jointed floor­boards of the Grand Vig­no­ble are laden with sym­bol­ism, as Azevedo bats away ques­tions about the im­pend­ing trans­fer merry-go-round.

The talk is that Quick-step Floors’ Ger­man sprinter Mar­cel Kit­tel is to join the team, to re­place the former Rus­sian team’s own mis­fir­ing sprinter, Alexan­der Kristoff. Azevedo won’t con­firm any­thing, but it’s fair to say Kristoff has failed re­cently to meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of a team look­ing to rein­vent it­self as an in­ter­na­tional lineup of high-pro­file race win­ners.

Now 30 years old and in his sixth year with the team, Kristoff’s im­pos­ing Vik­ing frame saw him rack up two sprint wins at the 2014 Tour. In the same sea­son he won Mi­lan-san Remo and then a year later he be­came the first Nor­we­gian to win the Tour of Flan­ders. His star as­cended, along with the terms of his con­tract.

Fast-for­ward to May this year, and the pic­ture was far from rosy, with Kristoff telling a lo­cal TV chan­nel, ‘I’ve been told I’m too heavy. I’m the same as other years. I do not see why they are go­ing to be mad at me be­cause I’m the only one who has per­formed in Katusha. Of seven vic­to­ries in the team, I have six. But there has been a stressed mood in the team this year.’

It’s the state­ment of a man who knows he’s not meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions. The year started well, with Kristoff win­ning the sprinter’s jer­sey and three stages of Fe­bru­ary’s Tour of Oman. But since then the best he has man­aged is a stage win at Three Days of De Panne and fourth place at Mi­lan-san Remo. Not good enough.

Now the Tour is into its sec­ond week and the moun­tains loom. The first week fea­tured four out-and-out sprint stages. Three of them went to Kit­tel. Kristoff’s best re­sult so far? Sec­ond on Stage 4 – the one where Mark Cavendish be­came in­ti­mately ac­quainted with Sa­gan’s right el­bow. More pres­sure, more ‘ru­mours’.

‘We are in good spir­its,’ as­serts Azevedo, the former pro racer who took over from Vi­ach­eslav Eki­mov in the win­ter of 2017. ‘The team will once again work for Alex to­day and the same again to­mor­row. We’re con­vinced we’ll win a stage be­fore Paris. One of Alex’s big­gest as­sets is his strength. When he won stages of the Tour [in 2014], it was dur­ing the sec­ond half of the race. We fully sup­port him.’

Af­ter the storm

To­day’s Stage 10 looks set to be a mo­ment of calm af­ter one of the most chaotic and sav­age stages to sweep over the Tour in years. Stage 9 will be re­mem­bered for BMC’S Richie Porte los­ing con­trol on the de­scent of a sat­u­rated Mont du Chat, slid­ing across the road and head­first into a wall of rock, tak­ing out Quick­Step’s Dan Martin in the process. Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas also crashed hard and was forced to with­draw.

‘That was a bru­tal stage,’ re­flects my guide for the morn­ing, team doc­tor Dag Van El­s­lande, over cof­fee. ‘The rid­ers burned up­wards of 5,000 calo­ries over a rel­a­tively short stage [181.5km]. That’s why we served up French fries that night. We also made them a re­ally tasty sand­wich to eat on the short plane trans­fer. Stick around if you want to see Tony Martin’s club sand­wich…’

In ad­di­tion to the restora­tive pow­ers of car­bo­hy­drates, the rid­ers have also had a well­timed rest day to re­cover their strength, and the em­pa­thetic crew at ASO have laid out a rather gen­teel 10th stage from Périgueux to Berg­erac to ease them back into things. It’s a 178km loop, as the start and fin­ish towns are only 40km apart as the crow flies. The route takes in a pair of cat­e­gory four climbs and, well… that’s it.

‘Ahh, here are Mau­rits [Lam­mertink] and [Ti­ago] Machado,’ Van El­s­lande adds. ‘They are al­ways down first. Then you get some rid­ers who wake up late and come down at the last minute, like Robert Kiserlovski. Cy­clists love a rou­tine. Nine dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties, seven dif­fer­ent coun­tries – though English is now our team’s lan­guage – and nine dif­fer­ent ways of wak­ing up. Here comes Tony…’

…and there goes Tony, straight past us. The time-trial spe­cial­ist is a fo­cused man. Be­neath his left arm is his own bag of muesli. Martin clutches it tightly and slightly self-con­sciously.

‘Now we can see Martin’s club sand­wich. It’s amaz­ing.’ Van El­s­lande has cer­tainly bigged it up, but I feel the con­tents are a touch mori­bund, com­pris­ing mostly Philadel­phia and boiled eggs – yolk re­moved, of course, as that’s ex­tra calo­ries. What’s more hyp­notic is Martin’s food prepa­ra­tion style, which melds mil­i­tary fo­cus with biome­chan­ics that are un­nerv­ingly slow and pre­cise. Many of the rid­ers are onto their smooth­ies – a se­cret recipe from chef Gian­paolo Cabassi – by the time Martin’s fin­ished.

‘Now let me show you my ass cream,’ Van El­s­lande says.

One of the less pleas­ant jobs for the team doc­tor in­volves clean­ing and dress­ing wounds. Of the team’s nine rid­ers, three have sad­dle sores. Van El­s­lande tells me he is an ex­pert and has even cre­ated his own for­mula. He in­sists I take a look in his cab­i­net of ‘nod­ule ripen­ers’.

‘Let’s have a look,’ he says, as we step onto the team bus. He pro­duces a range of tubs, tubes and dress­ings. ‘This is tar. I’m go­ing to put it on your ass,’ he says. I don’t re­spond. ‘I’m jok­ing!’ he adds quickly. ‘Here’s some for your fin­ger. It ripens an ab­scess faster and in­cludes cod liver oil, zinc, dis­in­fec­tant, vi­ta­min E… We also have a lo­cal anaes­thetic; a heal­ing cream with zinc; Com­peed, which acts as a sec­ond skin; Be­ta­dine soap that pre­vents your groin from pick­ing up an in­fec­tion – and that’s just for the out­side. If you have a nod­ule un­der your skin, it’s time to ask the os­teopath why you have fric­tion. Maybe you’re twisted on the bike. All th­ese creams don’t work if you have a me­chan­i­cal prob­lem.’

It’s an in­sight into the suf­fer­ing and in­dig­ni­ties of cy­clists that is in­vis­i­ble to the av­er­age race fan, and leaves me with a new­found re­spect for pro rid­ers. All the same, I de­cide I’ve heard enough about pos­te­rior com­plaints and leave the bus. Say­ing farewell to the doc­tor, I hitch a lift with press of­fi­cer Philippe Maertens to the start line at Périgueux.

The job comes first

Bel­gian cycling fans know Maertens well. As well as work­ing for Katusha, he com­men­tates for Bel­gian TV on his first love of cy­clocross. He also gar­nered wider at­ten­tion dur­ing the trial of disc brakes in the pelo­ton last year when sev­eral rid­ers, in­clud­ing Team Sky’s Owain Doull, claimed they had been slashed by scyth­ing ro­tor blades in a se­ries of crashes – which led to the trial be­ing sus­pended. Maertens re­mained con­vinced discs were safe, and demon­strated this by stop­ping a rapidly ro­tat­ing ro­tor with the palm of his hand and up­load­ing it to Katusha’s Twit­ter ac­count. ‘It re­ally didn’t hurt,’ he says.

Maertens is one of the more ex­pe­ri­enced and con­sid­ered com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­agers around, and has opin­ions on every as­pect of the sport. As we drive, the is­sue of TV rights flow­ing not just to race or­gan­is­ers but also to the teams comes up. I sug­gest to him that if teams could get a share of TV money it would pro­vide more sta­bil­ity and help to off­set the pre­car­i­ous na­ture of the spon­sor­ship model.

‘I get the point but there’s an­other ar­gu­ment,’ he replies. ‘If ASO had to dis­trib­ute some of their TV in­come to the teams, they’d rightly say that the same rules would have to ap­ply to all events. That would sim­ply kill off the smaller races. It could also put in jeop­ardy some of the more well-known races. Take Liège-bas­togne-liège and Fleche-wal­lonne. They’re both ASO races and lose money. What would hap­pen to them?’

It’s a fair point. But per­haps Maertens could do with fewer races. He looks tired. Dis­cus­sion turns to the de­mands of the Tour and how in­tense it is. ‘The me­dia, the spec­ta­tors, packed roads – ev­ery­thing is harder. It’s the best or­gan­ised event in the world but it’s truly ex­haust­ing.’

Woes, fa­tigue and tribu­la­tions of the sup­port crew are a side of cycling the pub­lic doesn’t see. ‘It must be hard, es­pe­cially if you have fam­ily. Do you have fam­ily?’ I ask Maertens. ‘I do, but,’ he sighs, ‘my wife and I sep­a­rated. This life isn’t con­ducive to re­la­tion­ships. The prob­lem is, it’s a great job.’

Team talk

In Périgueux we head for the team bus. Cy­clist has been given rare ac­cess to the team talk.

‘My wife and I sep­a­rated. This life isn’t con­ducive to re­la­tion­ships. The prob­lem is, it’s a great job’

‘Guys, it’s a flat stage and an­other chance for us to win,’ says Azevedo. ‘I want ev­ery­one mo­ti­vated. Work for Alex. Peo­ple feel tired. Yes, it was a rest day yes­ter­day but the week­end was re­ally hard. Key is that we have Alex and Marco [Haller] fresh at the end. If we can keep Nils [Politt], Alex, Ti­ago, Marco and Tony all to­gether with 3km to go, that is the per­fect sce­nario. There’s a bridge around that mark. Try to lead af­ter the bridge.’

Tony Martin in­ter­rupts. ‘On this long route to the 5km it’s slightly up­hill with left-hand turns so we must stay on the left side. Al­ways stay left be­cause of the turns, and al­ways count for three sec­onds af­ter each turn be­fore re­ally ac­cel­er­at­ing to en­sure Alex is right with us.’

Azevedo takes cen­tre stage once more: ‘Wait a lit­tle, or­gan­ise and go. Oth­ers know we are the most or­gan­ised team at the end. I won’t say any­thing in the last 5km – it’s up to you. I don’t want to con­fuse.’

‘Should we speak Ger­man in the last 5km so there is no mis­un­der­stand­ing?’ asks Martin. ‘Can Marco speak Ger­man?’ Much mer­ri­ment and mut­ter­ing ac­com­pa­nies this last point. It looks like Azevedo was right – the team does seem in good spir­its.

It’s time to head off. I’m in a car with soigneurs Ryszard Kielpin­ski and Dmytro Bo­rysov. Kielpin­ski is pos­si­bly the fittest-look­ing 60-year-old I’ve ever seen while, it tran­spires, Bo­rysov has a love of Deep Pur­ple and Depeche Mode. Kielpin­ski is from Poland and Bo­rysov Ukraine. It’s hardly the mainly Rus­sian im­age many have painted of the team.

‘I think there are 15 or 16 na­tion­al­i­ties on our team at the Tour,’ says Kielpin­ski. ‘We have no Rus­sian rid­ers here. In fact, there’s isn’t a sin­gle Rus­sian rider in the race.’

This in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of Katusha is a re­cent phe­nom­e­non. For 2017 the team has reg­is­tered in Switzer­land for the first time, in­stead of Rus­sia. They also brought on-board Ger­man brand Alpecin as ti­tle spon­sor, whose caf­feinated sham­poo was pre­vi­ously tasked with cleans­ing the hair of Tom Du­moulin and co at Sun­web. It’s a far cry from the stereo­type im­age of Katusha as the Rus­sian ter­ror from the East, the cycling equiv­a­lent of Ivan Drago.

The im­age shift is all about at­tract­ing global spon­sors and sell­ing Rus­sian sport – no easy task when the coun­try is still be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for state-spon­sored dop­ing.

Katusha’s own his­tory is equally ‘colour­ful’. The team was cre­ated back in 2008 by oli­garch Igor Makarov, and was the first Rus­sian cycling team li­censed to com­pete on the World­tour. Ini­tially, team shirts were em­bla­zoned with the words ‘Rus­sian Global Cycling Project’, and Rus­sian rid­ers dom­i­nated the squad. Some called them Team Krem­lin be­cause of their po­lit­i­cal links.

Cyn­i­cal per­cep­tions bor­dered on prej­u­dice, but the team’s deal­ings only fanned the flames of scep­ti­cism, which ul­ti­mately led to the UCI sus­pend­ing their li­cence for 2013 be­cause of fi­nan­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, in­clud­ing a €28 mil­lion travel ex­pense bill for 2012. The Li­cence Com­mis­sion also cited sev­eral in­ci­dences of dop­ing in the team (two in 2009, one in 2011, one in 2012); its hir­ing of seven rid­ers with known dop­ing con­vic­tions from the past; staff members who had also been in­volved in dop­ing in the past, no­tably Erik Za­bel and Dr An­drei Mikhailov; and 12 where­abouts mis­takes since 2009. De­spite all that, Katusha were re­in­stated and con­tin­ued to race, fu­elled by the money of Makarov, who’s still a co-spon­sor.

Things are chang­ing at Katusha-alpecin and chang­ing rapidly but that’s not to say the idea of a ‘Rus­sian Global Cycling Project’ doesn’t still have gas, even if the name it­self has been dropped. In 27-year-old Il­nur Zakarin the team could fi­nally have the GC star they’re af­ter. Zakarin joined the team from Pro­con­ti­nen­tal squad Rusvelo for 2015 and shocked many by win­ning the pres­ti­gious Tour de Ro­mandie in his first year with the team. He fin­ished fifth at this year’s Giro and at the time of go­ing to press has just be­come the first Rus­sian in a decade to fin­ish on the podium at the Vuelta.

‘Zakarin has signed a new con­tract, which is good news for the team,’ Azevedo says. ‘Yes, he’s 27 but he’s still rel­a­tively new to the World­tour and I’m cer­tain he can win a Grand Tour. This year we de­cided for him to race the Giro and

Rus­sian rid­ers dom­i­nated the squad. Some called them Team Krem­lin be­cause of their po­lit­i­cal links

Vuelta to see how he’d cope with two Grand Tours, but next year there’s every chance he’ll be back in France.’

Zakarin is cer­tainly a class rider, although he’s also a former doper af­ter test­ing pos­i­tive for the an­abolic steroid metan­dienone in 2009, which led to a two-year ban. In cycling, even with the best of in­ten­tions, it’s very hard to ride away from your past.

The psy­chol­ogy of los­ing

Zakarin says he’s changed and, ar­guably, has served his time. What­ever your views on pe­nal­is­ing dop­ers, as Stage 10 of this year’s Tour de France un­folds it’s clear that there’s go­ing to be very lit­tle ac­tion of note un­til the fi­nal kilo­me­tre. In fact, the high­light proves to be hun­dreds of flags with white roses on a blue back­ground flut­ter­ing in the breeze, the re­sult of a for­mal link-up be­tween the Dor­dogne area and York­shire. A beau­ti­ful flock of geese also catches my eye, though the sign soon af­ter pro­claim­ing the re­gion’s foie gras as the best in the world leaves a bit­ter taste.

Come the fi­nal sprint, Katusha’s lead out train fol­lows or­ders al­most to the let­ter but can’t pre­vent Kit­tel from win­ning his fourth stage of the race. He’ll go on to win the next day, too, be­fore re­tir­ing in the third week. Kristoff and the team look un­der­stand­ably de­jected. Tony Martin trudges off to spend 10 min­utes warm­ing down on the rollers.

‘I was sur­prised just how fast Kit­tel proved to be,’ Kristoff tells us. Azevedo puts it an­other way: ‘When a rider wins, it’s eas­ier to win again. It gives them con­fi­dence and ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion. Some­times rid­ers who aren’t win­ning start sprint­ing with panic.’

The con­fi­dence that comes with win­ning feeds into a phe­nom­e­non called the testos­terone feed­back loop. Stud­ies have re­vealed that win­ning raises testos­terone lev­els, which raises con­fi­dence lev­els, which re­sults in vic­tory, which raises testos­terone lev­els… Un­for­tu­nately for Kristoff, los­ing can have the op­po­site psy­chobi­o­log­i­cal re­sult.

‘But we still have con­fi­dence in Alex,’ says Azevedo. ‘We sup­port him 100%. He knows this.’

By the end of the 2017 Tour, Kristoff has failed to win a stage. In early Au­gust, it is an­nounced that he has signed a two-year con­tract with UAE Team Emi­rates. His re­place­ment at Katusha? Mar­cel Kit­tel. Some ru­mours, it seems, turn out to be true. James Witts is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who is happy to work for the high­est bid­der

Katusha’s lead out train fol­lows or­ders al­most to the let­ter but can’t pre­vent Kit­tel from win­ning again

Gen­eral man­ager José Azevedo (back) gal­vanises the team: ‘We’re all be­hind Alexan­der Kristoff,’ who’s look­ing at cam­era Above: Smil­ing but frus­trated, Tony Martin failed to win ei­ther of the two time-tri­als

Alexan­der Kristoff rides straight from a dis­ap­point­ing Tour into a two-year deal with UAE Team Emi­rates

Ger­many’s Nils Politt makes his Tour de France de­but, and is one of only four rid­ers aged 23 and un­der in this year’s race Be­low left: Soigneur Jaime Her­nan­dez – a man who loves his job

Me­chanic Bjorn Neyt washes down the Canyon of Por­tu­gal’s Ti­ago Machado

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