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At the Tour de France with Katusha-Alpecin

James Witts
21 Nov 2017

Katusha-Alpecin are the Russian team who have gone global, but as Cyclist joins them at the 2017 Tour, wins are proving hard to come by

‘I have 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 line-up 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 Quick-Step’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 well-timed 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.

‘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 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.

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