Wednesday, April 22, 2009
In Soviet Russia...
When the Katusha cycling team, the biggest, most visible component of the “Russian Global Cycling Project,” became a reality this season, the formula looked familiar. While the team’s stated aim is to develop young talent from the home country, the Russian squad hired a healthy dose of mercenary foreign talent to keep the sponsors’ names in the papers until that young talent was sufficiently developed to provide the results on its own. Sure, the team lured some veteran Russian riders home, giving the team a little more authenticity and providing the youngsters with some native-language support and role-models, but most people expected that the first major results would come from Robbie McEwen racking up some stage wins, or Filippo Pozzato or Gert Steegmans bagging a big cobbled classic.
That’s not an indictment of the team’s methodology. Like I said, it’s a pretty standard format these days, particularly for young teams coming from outside the traditional Western European cycling nations. Think (post-Vino and Kash) Astana with Contador, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Kloden, or Garmin-Slipstream hiring Backstedt, Millar, and Wiggins. It’s also a good business strategy – by bringing in some foreign names with dependable specialties, the teams can secure the wins their sponsors demand without unduly burdening their more developmental riders with winning expectations right out of the gate. With the direction the sport is trying to take with regard to drug use, I’d call that a positive.
So Katusha set out this season looking for early wins from McEwen and Pozzato, home country interest from perennial Tour hope Vladimir Karpets, and some quality racing miles for its slew of younger riders, like Mikhail Ignatiev and Ivan Rovny. So when veteran Russian hardman Sergei Ivanov outsprinted the younger and much more fancied Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) to win the Amstel Gold Race, the team got something even better than it planned – the team’s first big classics win, gift-wrapped and delivered by a native Russian.
For a project that states freely and often its insidiously Cold War-esque mission of returning mother Russia to her “proper place” in the cycling world, it doesn’t get too much better than that. Yes, at just 40-plus years old, the Amstel Gold Race is no monolithic Tour of Flanders, no storied Paris-Roubaix. But for a team with Katusha’s goals, what’s better: your imported Italian playboy winning Flanders, or your Soviet-era, life-long worker Ivanov winning a pretty solid classic? I’d argue for the latter.
- At 34 years old, Ivanov hasn’t been a big winner over his career, and Amstel Gold is certainly his biggest trophy to date. His other wins include the 2000 E3 Prijs, stages in the 2001 Tour de France and Tour de Suisse, and stages of smaller races. He’s also a five-time Russian national champion.
- In the Service Course’s Tour of Flanders preview, I pointed out that Ivanov was one of the only riders on the Katusha roster that stood a chance of being there for Pozzato in the finale. He did the job at Flanders, and seems to have held his form pretty well since. That said, I don’t see him being a factor at Fleche Wallonne or Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where the climbs are a bit less suited to a puncher. (Full disclosure: I’ve already seen the result for Fleche Wallonne).
- The home team can’t catch a break at their home classic, can they? It’s been eight long years now since Erik Dekker’s 2001 win, and despite the presence of a second Dutch team in Skil-Shimano, it seems like Rabobank still gets to shoulder much of the blame for the drought. This year looked promising with natives Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) both in the winning move, but you could feel the air go out of the crowd when Gesink fell back and Kroon never even reached Ivanov’s back wheel, much less came around him.
- It seems like the Dutch riders and teams should really have an advantage here – half the challenge of the Amstel Gold is not getting lost. But their true disadvantage, at least in terms of public perception, is the lack of any other top-tier events in the Netherlands. If an Italian wins Flanders, the Belgians still have Gent-Wevelgem, the Brabantse Pijl, and all those prior home semi-classics to fall back on. For the Dutch, Amstel Gold and Veenendaal-Veenendaal are pretty much the only chances for a home classic win.
- In our ongoing Silence-Lotto watch, Philippe Gilbert managed a solid fourth place at Amstel Gold. Together with fellow Walloon Christophe Brandt, Gilbert has his homecoming this week with Fleche Wallonne and Liege. Neither race suits him particularly well, but maybe homefield advantage will do more for him than it’s done for the Dutch at the Amstel Gold.
- This has nothing to do with Amstel Gold, except that they both involve Rabobank not winning, but as a cycling site, I’m mandated to address the Theo Bos (Rabobank) Tour of Turkey incident. The Service Course’s official stance is that Bos wasn’t actually trying to put out a hit on Impey. How can we say that, when it looks so intentional? Because if you’re really aiming to take someone down, dragging them across your own front wheel at 50 kph isn’t usually the way you’d choose to do it. That said, the UCI needs to at least issue a fine or moderate suspension for the simple fact that you’re not supposed to take your hands off the bars in a sprint, and I’d say within the 1 kilometer mark is close enough to a sprint. Bos is a trackie, and a big one at that – he should have been able to do all he needed to do with his head and shoulders.
Oh, c'mon. That's like saying, "Despite the presence of a third American team in the TdF, Jelly Belly, Americans again failed to finish atop the podium." Skil-Shimano is a really good team, but they strike me as the equivalent of a 4A team in pro baseball - not quite the big boys but better than typical continentals. Hey wait, was this a test to see if any of your readers know that Skil-Shimano isn't just the name on remaindered jerseys sold at Nashbar?