WorldTour ranking: 2nd (Up from 6th in 2014)
Win Count: 40 (Up from 25)
Top riders: Joaquim Rodriguez (ranked 2nd), Alexander Kristoff (ranked 4th), Simon Spilak, Daniel Moreno, Ilnur Zakarin
After a 2014 season that was saved by the rampant Alexander Kristoff, Katusha nearly doubled their win tally in 2015 and put themselves third in the victory standings, with all of their key riders hitting the mark.
Kristoff was once again on song, with 15 wins in his back pocket before the end of May, including a monument at the Tour of Flanders. There were a few guest appearances from Sergei Chernetskiy, Aton Vorbyev, and Luca Paolini – more to come on the Italian later – but Kristoff lead the way in the first half of the season. The Norwegian would eventually end the year at the top of the victory rankings, taking four more than his nearest WorldTour rival, Andre Greipel, and almost half of the team’s overall win count.
The Russian team were missing a big component last season with Joaquim Rodríguez beset by injury problems, but he too was on song in 2015, taking a brace of stage victories at the Tour de France and returning to the podium at the Vuelta a Espana. He got his name on the scoreboard in April with two stages and the overall at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and would carry his strong form into the Ardennes Classics, but he didn’t have enough to beat compatriot Alejandro Valverde and finished third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Ilnur Zakarin was the surprise package in the opening part of the season with his overall victory at the Tour de Romandie. The 26-year-old, who has previously served a two-year ban for the use of anabolic steroids, took the lead on the penultimate day and put in an impressive ride in the final time trial to keep hold of the leader’s jersey. Simon Spilak made it a one-two for the Russian team. A month later, Zakarin made his debut at the Giro d’Italia, where he went on to take a stage win at the Imola circuit. His performance impressed the team sufficiently that they extended his contract for two more years. Spilak would turn second into first in June when he took overall success at the Tour de Suisse.
The summer months at the Tour de France provided a mix of emotions for the Katusha team. Rodriguez got things off well with his victory on the Mur de Huy on stage 3 but things soured when Paolini tested positive for cocaine after a doping control taken the following day. The Italian was swiftly booted out of the race and suspended by the team but the black mark that he has left will be tough to get out in the wash. The result of a retrospective test a few weeks later would see Giampaolo Caruso also suspended. However, the team escaped any punishment under the new WADA regulations as Caruso’s control was taken in 2012.
The team hardly seemed to be troubled by the news of Paolini’s positive and his subsequent absence from the race, however. Rodríguez would again be on the top step with a second win on stage 12 to Plateau de Beille - a victory that put him firmly into the battle for the polka-dot jersey, though he would eventually miss out.
While Rodriguez was coming good at the Tour, Kristoff was struggling to find the form that did him so well earlier on in the season. Illness in the final week didn't help his cause either. It wouldn’t be until August that he got the win counter ticking again, perhaps showing that he had gone too deep earlier in the year. Following the Tour, the Vuelta a Burgos proved a fruitful hunting ground with victories from Vladimir Isaychev and Daniel Moreno.
After a solid performance in July, Rodriguez would add the final flourish for Katusha in 2015 with his stage 15 success at the Vuelta a Espana. He also took second place behind Fabio Aru in the final classification after Tom Dumoulin cracked on the penultimate stage. A collision with a road sign just two days before Il Lombardia prevented him from fighting for his third overall WorldTour victory but Katusha were still in with a shout for the team competition. Moreno picked up the baton at the final monument of the season but his second place, after a valiant chase, behind Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t enough to stop Valverde helping Movistar to their third consecutive team title.
What to expect in 2016
Off the bike, general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov says to expect a more ‘international’ feel to the team, as he looks to entice sponsors from outside of Russia. On the bike, it should be much the same. Norwegian Kristoff will be the flagship rider in the Classics, but the team will have to be careful not to burn him out before the Tour de France. Spaniard Rodríguez plans to end his career in 2016, with the Tour and the Olympics his main targets. Belgian and Estonian additions Jürgen Van Den Broeck and Rein Taaramae will shore up that Grand Tour squad.
Katusha’s headline signings this winter were Van Den Broeck and Taaramae but it is the latter that has shown the most potential over this past season. After a couple of seasons in the wilderness, Taaramae took victory at the Vuelta a Burgos, the Arctic Race of Norway and the Vuelta a Murcia in 2015. At 28, the team will be hoping that he can fill the gap left by Rodríguez at the end of the season.
For whatever reason, Katusha chose not to extend Moreno’s contract for 2016 and he will now move to Movistar. The Spaniard has been a consistent ally for Rodríguez and has often taken the lead in his absence. Moreno showed his former employers what they will be missing with his performance at Il Lombardia.
Rider to watch
Zakarin’s surprising early season performances have put him on the map and how he develops as a Grand Tour talent will be interesting to watch in 2016. However, with his past, he probably has more to prove than most.