With the Giro d’Italia set to head into the mountains for the first time, Team Katusha are the squad under the microscope tonight.
Who are their sponsors?
Katusha differs from the naming convention of most teams in professional cycling in that it isn’t drawn from the names of its principal sponsors.
Katusha is the familiar form of Russian name Ekaterina (the closest English approximation would be Kathy instead of Katherine) while much of the team’s money comes from the Russian Global Cycling Project, a project supported by Russian energy giants Itera and Gazprom.
Team nationality: Russian
Rider for today’s stage
Stage 6 of this year’s Giro d’Italia marks the first chance for the climbers to shine as the race covers 165 kilometres from Ponte to the mountaintop finish at Roccaraso. With that in mind, I’m tipping Katusha’s rising Russian star Ilnur Zakarin to come to the fore on the final Category 2 climb to the line.
For most cycling fans, Zakarin burst into prominence at last year’s Tour de Romandie, when he took a remarkable overall win ahead of the likes of Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali and Thibaut Pinot. He followed up that win a couple of weeks later when he powered away from his breakaway companions on a wet Stage 11 of the Giro to win alone on the Imola motor racing circuit.
The man nicknamed ‘The Stork of Tartarstan’ had a fairly quiet 2015 after that win, but he’s come out firing in 2016, winning a mountaintop finish of a stage of Paris-Nice in front of Alberto Contador and finishing in the top ten at three separate week-long stage races: Paris-Nice, the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and the Tour de Romandie.
Zakarin’s opening time trial wasn’t outstanding – he actually finished behind Orica-GreenEdge’s Esteban Chaves, who’s not a time trial specialist by any stretch of the imagination – but he looked good on Stage 4 to Praia a Mare.
It’s possible that he’s still better suited to races of one week rather than the three weeks of a Grand Tour, so I’m tipping him to make an impact tonight before falling out of contention for the rest of the Giro.
The only non-Russian in the Katusha squad at this year’s Giro, Estonian Rein Taaramäe was once tipped as a Grand Tour contender. He’s ridden most of his career for Cofidis, the highlights of which were a stage win in the 2011 Vuelta a España and 11th place overall behind Cadel Evans at the 2011 Tour de France.
After transferring to Astana for the 2015 season, he won the Arctic Race of Norway, the Vuelta a Burgos and the Vuelta a Murcia, before switching over to Katusha for the 2016 season. He hasn’t had any results of note this year, but he’ll be Zakarin’s key domestique when the race heads into the mountains.
Depending on how Zakarin fares overall, Taaramäe may get a license to infiltrate a breakaway in the third week of racing.
A top five finish for Zakarin, who in theory is perfectly suited to the plentiful time trialling in this year’s Giro, but is ultimately unproven over the three weeks of a Grand Tour. He could finish anonymously or he could win the whole thing. The rest of the team will most likely be deployed in his service, but if Zakarin falters, then the remaining riders will try for stage wins.
Reason to cheer
After having had the team’s Russian ties and lack of transparency draw the suspicion and ire of many in the global cycling community, Katusha are trying to adopt a more cosmopolitan image in 2016.
With that in mind, they’ve changed their kit from a predominantly white jersey featuring a silhouette of the Kremlin to a rather fetching two-tone red number. They’ve also released a range of lifestyle clothing, which is… something.
Reason to jeer
There’s more than a little bit that’s suspect about Katusha, from the opaque nature of the team’s funding to its connections to shadier parts of the Russian government to the fact that it was nearly kicked out of the sport on “ethical grounds” at the end of 2012.
If you feel like reading more on the topic, this piece from the excellent Inner Ring blog offers a fascinating insight into the shadows behind the enigmatic cycling team.