#6 â€“ Team Katusha (Preview Ranking: #10)
What We Said:
Katusha takes #10 by a hair over Omega Pharma-Lotto, due to the depth of talent on its roster.Â But talent has never been Katushaâ€™s problemâ€”fulfilling itâ€™s potential has.Â The signings of Kolobnev, Kirchen, and Rodriguez bolster an already impressive squad, while the healthy return of Robbie McEwen should add wins as well.Â If this squad performs as impressively as it looks on paper, it will be a very good year for the Russian super-team.Â Weâ€™ll get our first indication of Katushaâ€™s prospects this weekend at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Remember last spring when everyone spoke about how Filippo Pozzato was a top-favorite to win a classic in 2010?Â Well, nothingâ€™s changed really, other than the fact that other riders have moved to the front of our consciousness.Â But Pozzatoâ€™s power display last April shouldnâ€™t be forgotten.Â In Flanders, many consider him to have been the strongest rider in the race, more a victim of Quick Stepâ€™s overwhelming depth than anything else.Â In Roubaix, he was unfortunately on the wrong side of Thor Hushovdâ€™s fall; otherwise we might have seen a different winner in the Roubaix Velodrome.
Now Pozzato enters 2010 as a man on a mission to win one of the monuments of the Northâ€”Flanders or Roubaix.Â Heâ€™s won Het Volk and Milan-San Remo; Flanders and/or Roubaix are the logical next steps.Â The best thing Pozzato has going for him is undisputed team leadership; unlike other favorites he wonâ€™t have another contender wearing the same jersey as he does.Â Yes, this might allow other teams to focus on him, but in the end it must feel nice to know that your biggest competition really comes from your competition and not your own team.Â Even better, heâ€™ll have Sergei Ivanov at his side once more.Â Ivanovâ€™s a talented rider in his own right (he won Amstel last year) who knows the roads and will be able to support Pippo into the later phases of these races.Â In fact, I wouldnâ€™t be surprised to see Pozzato do the Flanders-Roubaix double, as he the skills necessary to excel in both.
In the Ardennes and shorter stage racesâ€”like Pais Vasco, for exampleâ€”look for Katushaâ€™s trio of Kim Kirchen, Alexander Kolobnev, and Joaquin Rodriguez to shine, with perhaps one of them taking an overall victory here and there.Â Kirchen returns after a difficult 2009; heâ€™ll be eager to return to the form that saw him win Fleche Wallonne and ride well in the Tour.
And donâ€™t forget Katushaâ€™s sprinters, Robbie McEwen and Danilo Napolitano.Â McEwenâ€™s 37-years-old and perhaps a year or two past his best days.Â Napolitanoâ€™s in his prime, but perhaps a rung below the best.Â Together though, good things could happen if they learn to complement one anotherâ€™s strengths.
Man of the Hour: Pozzatoâ€™s just entering his prime; expect big things from the talented Italian.
On-the-Hot Seat: Kim Kirchenâ€™s a man on a mission as he attempts to rebound from a terrible 2009.Â Look for him to excel in short stages races and the Ardennes before tackling the Tour.
Up-and-Comer: Alexander Kolobnev burst onto the scene last year with several top-10 results in races including Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Amstel Gold Race, the World Championships, and the Tour of Lombardy. Katushaâ€™s hoping he can at least win one of those.
Best Pick-Up: Together, Kirchen, Kolobnev, and Rodriguezâ€”if they perform to the level of their expectationsâ€”might be the 3 best signings of the off-season for any team.Â If they perform…
Biggest Loss: Hardly anyâ€”unless Geert Steegmans finally wins a big race or two.
What We Saw:
Katusha came into 2010 with high hopes following an aggressive off-season in which the squad signed Joaquin Rodriguez and Alexandre Kolobnev. Â But while both investments were sound, Rodriguez the team its best results.
That might be an understatement in fact, as Rodriguez had one of the most impressive seasons of any rider in 2010, ending the year as the UCIâ€™s #1-ranked competitor.Â The Spaniard started his season at Mallorca and Algarve before finishing sixth overall at Paris-Nice.Â Two wins were soon to follow at the Volta Catalunya and the GP Miguel Indurain.Â At Pais Vasco, he won a stage and finished third overall in his last race before the Ardennes classicsâ€”his first â€œmajorâ€ rendezvous of the season.
Meanwhile, at the cobbled classics, Filippo Pozzato was doing his best to justify the expectations placed upon him after last spring.Â Unfortunately, a bad case of the flu struck the rider shortly after the E3 Prijs.Â He missed the Tour of Flanders completely, and managed to rebound just enough to take seventh in Paris-Roubaix, winning the Memorial Ballerini prize as first Italian finisher.Â And letâ€™s not forget Robbie McEwenâ€™s second-place finish in the Scheldeprijsâ€”a result that might be enough to snare him a last-minute contract with a Belgian squad for 2011 following collapse of Team Pegasus.
Back in the Ardennes Rodriguez experienced a bit of â€œslumpâ€â€”by his standards at least.Â After abandoning the Amstel Gold Race, he finished second at Fleche Wallonne, but a disappointing 43rd at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.Â Luckily, Kolobnev was more than happy to take the reins of the team.Â He and Sergei Ivanov did all they could to win Amstel, repeatedly animating the race final 20 kilometers in the hopes of forcing a winning selection, only to succumb to those teams trying to set-up their captains for the Cauberg.Â At Liege, finally Kolobnev managed to find himself in the selection that matteredâ€”too bad they found themselves chasing a lone leader in the form of Alexandre Vinokourov.Â Kolobnev took second on the day though, adding yet another runner-up prize to a resume packed with near-misses.
At Mayâ€™s Giro dâ€™Italia, Evgeni Petrov and Pozzato won back-to-back stages, but the team lacked a true GC-contender.Â By the middle of June, Rodriguez had returned to racing at the Tour de Suisse, his only race before Julyâ€™s Tour de France. After a third-place finish on the queen stage to La Punt, he ended the race in ninth overallâ€”not a bad result after almost 2 months away from racing.
Rodriguez has been a professional since 2001, and as much as itâ€™s hard to believe, this yearâ€™s Tour de France was his first.Â That said, the â€œrookieâ€ performed quite well, taking the Stage 12 summit finish in Mende (over Contador no less) and finishing eighth overall in Parisâ€”he might have fared better were he able to ride a decent time trial.Â From France he went straight to San Sebastian, where he finished fifth in the Classica before resting for the Vuelta a Espana.
At the Vuelta, Rodriguez took another impressive stage win and wore the leaderâ€™s jersey on two separate occasions.Â After taking the red jersey for the second time following the summit finish on the Alto de Cotobello, he dramatically lost it in the next dayâ€™s time trial in PeÃ±afiel.Â The setback proved disastrous: despite a last-gasp effort on the Bola del Mundo, he finished fourth in Madrid.Â He concluded his season with a DNF at the Tour of Lombardy weeks laterâ€”a lackluster end to an incredibly successful year.
Most Valuable Rider: Rodriguez entered 14 races in 2010 (including two grand tours) and finished inside the top-10 in all but fiveâ€”and he raced from February through October.Â If thatâ€™s not an impressive tally in the â€œmodern eraâ€, then I donâ€™t know what is.Â Were he able to time trial, he certainly would have finished higher in both France and Spain.
Biggest Surprise: Aside from the Russian Championship, I was surprised to see Kolobnev go winless in 2010.Â Hopefully he manages to break through in 2011.
Biggest Disappointment: Filippo Pozzato won one race in 2010â€”a stage at the Giro dâ€™Italia.Â Expect to see him on the hot seat next spring.
Thatâ€™s it for #6.Â Come back shortly for #5 (I promise).
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