We continue our daily look at Giro teams, with Gazprom-RusVelo in today’s sights.
Who are their sponsors? Gazprom is a huge Russian provider of natural gas, founded shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today it provides 17% of the natural gas worldwide and 83% of the demand in Russia, with most of its reserves held in fields inside the Arctic Circle.
RusVelo is a road and track cycling team funded by the Russian government that’s part of the ‘Russian Global Cycling Project’, which helps explain why the team’s entire roster is filled with Russian riders. Couple that with the fact the Russian government holds a majority stake in Gazprom and it’s not hard to imagine that the team has managed to buy a place in this year’s Giro – there’s certainly not a great deal to suggest they’ll shake up the racing.
Team Nationality: Russian
Rider for today: He’s not a star, but veteran Alexandr Kolobnev has the most impressive palmares of the riders coming to the Giro this year, having won the inaugural edition of Strade Bianche in 2007. He also finished second in the World Championship Road Race in 2007 and 2009, and finished fourth in the road race at the Beijing Olympics. He was retroactively awarded the bronze medal from Beijing after Davide Rebellin was stripped of his silver due to a positive test for the blood-booster CERA. However, he’s most famous – or infamous – for (allegedly) selling the win at the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to Alexandre Vinokourov for 150,000 euros. Oh, and he also tested positive for the banned diuretic hydroclorothiazide at the Tour de France in 2011, though it was later ruled that it was taken for medical reasons unrelated to performance.
Unsung hero: If there is a Gazprom-RusVelo rider worth your time, it’s probably 33 year-old Sergey Firsanov.
Firsanov has ridden for Russian teams for the last five years, starting Katusha’s development team Itera-Katusha in 2011 before moving to RusVelo when it was founded in 2012. He’s been in decent form of late, winning a stage and the overall title at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali stage race in Italy in late March. A few weeks later, he won the Giro dell’Appenino one-day race and finished fourth overall at the mountainous Giro del Trentino. Look for him on the race’s more mountainous days – we suspect he may make a run at winning the king of the mountains title.
Team objective: A stage win would be the pinnacle of their expectations, but to be honest even that will be a tall order.
Reason to cheer: Their blue team jerseys and blue Colnagos are pretty inoffensive.
Reason to jeer: Gazprom-RusVelo’s presence at the Giro is somewhat suspicious, as they’re not a particularly highly ranked team – they’re ranked just 34th of the teams in professional cycling, below fellow wildcard candidates such as Wanty-Groupe Gobert, CCC Sprandi Polkowice or Bora-Argon 18.
Each of cycling’s Grand Tours tend to send wildcards to teams from the home nation – it’s why teams like Direct Energie, Cofidis and Fortuneo Vital Concept can rely on a ticket to the Tour de France year on year. But this year the Italian Androni-Sidermec team – whose sponsor-slathered jerseys are normally a staple of the Giro – were passed over for Gazprom-RusVelo.
It’s almost certainly not for commercial reasons, as a Russian gas company can’t hope to gain much of a market share in Italy, and in any case the Tinkoff and Katusha teams are already representing the face of Russian business in pro cycling. The team rarely race outside Russia, so it certainly isn’t a generous gesture allowing the Italian tifosi to see some of the sport’s biggest stars – though pink jersey contender Ilnur Zakarin of Team Katusha is a former RusVelo rider.
Androni-Sidermec’s absence has been put down to a couple of positive tests from riders Davide Appollonio and Fabio Taborre last year. While that’s a reasonable enough reason to exclude Androni-Sidermec from this year’s race, it’s not as though Gazprom-RusVelo are squeaky clean either.
The squad has had five failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs since 2013, most recently the second ever positive test for human growth hormone through Petr Ignatenko in June last year. It’s also just not a great time to be a Russian athlete in general, given that state-sponsored Russian athletics is so suspect that there’s a push to get the entire Russian team banned from the Rio Olympics.
With all of those things in mind, the most obvious reason for Gazprom-RusVelo’s participation in this year’s Giro is that they’ve paid the RCS Group (the race organisers) for the privilege. I can understand the necessity of accepting a wildcard application from such a profitable source – RCS Group are a business, after all – but I can’t help but be disappointed that not all of the 22 teams participating in the Giro have earned their place through athletic merit.