With fourteen riders out of contract this year Katusha Alpecin's general manager José Azevedo has his work cut out as he looks to build a squad for next season but the former rider isn't worried as he enters negotiations with several of his riders.
The team's best GC rider in Ilnur Zakarin and their most successful sprinter, Alexander Kristoff, are both out of contract and can officially sign for new teams at the start of August. It's highly unlikely, according to Azevedo that Zakarin will leave the team but the situation surrounding Kristoff remains uncertain.
The Norwegian has been offered a contract extension but it is reportedly less than his current deal of 2 million Euros, before bonuses, per-year. Interest from Astana is well known and Kristoff has already ruffled feathers by claiming the Katusha management has called him overweight this season. Whether that was an act designed to initiate a move or trigger an improved offer remains to be seen but Azevedo's priority is to tie-up the riders he wants to keep before looking at the rest of the transfer market.
"We're working on this. We have a number of riders at the end of their contracts but that doesn't mean that they're going to leave the team. We're in the process of making the team for next year," he told Cyclingnews at the Criterium du Dauphine.
As for Zakarin, who spearheaded the team's Giro d'Italia challenge, Azevedo would only add that, "he's at the end of his contract but we're not worried about this," before chuckling to himself.
Kristoff's situation is somewhat more delicate. He has not won a major Classic since 2015 and although that hardly makes him a relic both him and the team are looking at their options. The Norwegian has won the bulk of the team's victories this year, which perhaps suggests why Katusha are still open to keeping the sprinter, although on a reduced salary.
"We're in negotiations and lets see. We don't stress on this. He knows Katusha, and he knows the team," Azevedo told Cyclingnews.
"He's had an offer from us. I don't know the other offers from the other teams but I'm not worried about that. We are in conversations with Alex and he's been on the team for six years. This is something we're working on inside and I don't like to talk to the media about Alex or Zakarin. We talk directly to the riders and we don't use the media to communicate. When the decisions are done, then we'll announce."
When asked if he is confident Kristoff would stay, Azevedo replied: "I can't answer. Like I said, we're in conversations with him, he has offers and now he needs to decide."
Kittel rumours build
Such a move does have a degree of logic to it. The German is out of contract; Patrick Lefevere has a ready-made and long term replacement in Fernando Gaviria; Kittel signed for a relatively low wage when leaving Giant and now commands a higher feel; Alpecin and Canyon would be keen on another German signing; and if Kristoff leaves the team need another sprinter.
For Azevedo, talks with potential signings, however, will only take place once he knows who is staying and who is going and that seems to be the sentiment for a number of team managers. There are no new teams on the horizon for 2018 - at least at WorldTour level – and team bosses are wisely keeping their chequebooks in their pockets for the time being. The consensus seems to be that if you sign a rider now you'll pay over the odds and that waiting until July or August should see prices come down.
"We move only after the decision is made on Alex," Azevedo told Cyclingnews.
"When that situation is decided we move. It doesn't make sense now to talk to other riders if Alex stays on the team. First we need to finalise the situation. Then we'll see who is free and on the market. We'll make our plans and strategy for the future but at the moment it doesn't make sense when we're talking to Alex.
"We know who is free for next year. I know all the riders who are free but it doesn't make sense to talk to them yet. First we need to decide what happens here and then see if it's necessary to talk to others."