After spending four years within the old T-Mobile setup as it morphed into Bob Stapleton's Columbia-HTC team, Kim Kirchen is now clad in Team Katusha kit and set to represent the Italian-based Russian ProTour outfit in its Classics and grand tour campaigns.
And the Luxembourger has enjoyed success in both types of racing. He won the Flèche Wallonne in 2008, beating Cadel Evans and Damiano Cunego on the Mur de Huy. He has also twice finished seventh in the Tour de France. An explosive climber and a solid time trialist, he has the two most important characteristics needed for a strong Tour ride, plus the power and tactical nous necessary for one-day success.
Last season was supposed to be the year when Kirchen stepped up another level. He told Cyclingnews in 2009 he still dreamt of a top finish in the Tour de France, referring to Lance Armstrong’s continuing good form in his late 30s to support his contention that he had several more years to aim at the top slot in the race.
“I am really close to the podium as well, everything is possible,” he said at the time. “I am not saying that it is possible to win the Tour [at this point] but I am saying that for me, it is possible to reach the podium. That has to be a goal and that will be in my thoughts for this year’s Tour de France. Longer term, I hope to keep improving further.”
Unfortunately, his goals for much of the season were severely compromised due to a bad crash at the Tour of California in which he suffered a broken collarbone. The physical injury healed but mentally, Kirchen struggled. His fall led to nervousness and, in races where position in the bunch is vital, it's costly to be inhibited through fear.
He put his aspirations on hold, instead helping Mark Cavendish at the Tour; while that was a success, his value in the team dropped and he couldn’t get the terms he wanted in contract renegotiations.
Now one of the top riders in Katusha, he will help lead an extremely strong Classics squad in March and April, then turn his focus towards the Tour later in the year. Kirchen is convinced he’s got some big performances in store and is determined to return to the big time in 2010.
Cyclingnews: You have changed teams this year, going to Katusha. You had been with the Highroad/Columbia setup for a long time, so what prompted the move?
Kim Kirchen: Well, I had a really good season in 2008 but I had to sign a new contract [last year]. It was not possible to do it right away, so I had to wait. Later on, after the Tour, the results were not the same as the year before. Perhaps the team lost a bit of confidence.
I always said that I can certainly come back in 2010 in good shape again, but the offer wasn’t that good. That was the reason why I had to change a team. I’ve found a good one now. I meet a lot of friends from the past that I was with in Fasso Bortolo…a lot of Italian guys and staff I already know.
I stayed there [with Columbia] for four years, I had a really great time and it was a really good team, but you know when you come to discuss about the future, there are so many things that can make the difference.
CN: Several other riders have also changed, including Edvald Boasson Hagen. Do you think it is a case that the team is so built around Mark Cavendish that it limited opportunities for riders like you?
KK: I think that HTC-Columbia is looking for really young guys, to show them everything. To have a team like last year with so many good riders is nearly impossible to keep intact, though; you need the biggest budget ever in cycling to keep all the riders from moving. I think their strategy is to find young riders for a good price, then develop them and get some very nice results.
It is good for cycling, I always say to young riders that the best thing they can do is sign with Columbia because you get everything you need, and also the time for it [to develop].
CN: This year, there’s been talk that HTC-Columbia's Tour squad will be completely built around Mark Cavendish for the green jersey. There’s been suggestions that Tony Martin will have to give up his overall aspirations this season, putting his energies into helping Cavendish…
KK: Well, now Mark is the best sprinter in the world and you have to build the team around him. You have to go to the Tour with a top team for the sprints. It is really hard to find someone who can ride for GC in the Tour de France. Now again they need a really big budget. There are just three riders now who can win the Tour and the other ones can just do a good general classification, about fifth and sixth.
With Mark, you are sure that you are going to have the publicity and you are sure that you are going to have some victories in the Tour. That is really important and so why not bring the team around him? That’s completely normal, I think.
CN: With that in mind, was it essential for you to have the chance to go somewhere else and have more freedom?
KK: No, last year I did actually have the possibility to ride for the overall. It was my choice to help Mark in the sprint. I knew that I couldn’t do better than fifth in the GC, so why not help another team-mate to get big victories?
Now [with Katusha] it is a bit different, we are looking forward to stage wins and a good GC. I had two years now [as a Grand Tour contender], I had everything from the team to perform well overall. I finished seventh twice, and I don’t know if I can do more than that – we are going to see how it will go this year.
CN: At the training camp last year and you said then that Lance’s Armstrong’s return at such a late age showed that you had more years to try to chase a top position in the Tour…
KK: Yes, I have the possibility again. In 2008 I saw that I was one of the best time trial riders, I was with the first ones in the hills. Okay, I lost some time, but if I can repeat this again, I can finish in the top five. For me, that is realistic and that must be my goal.
CN: You had a bad crash in the Tour of California last year. Are you completely over it, physically and mentally?
KK: Well, now it is okay. Now it a new season and it is already a long time ago. Of course you think about it a lot of times, but I don’t have physical problems right now and I am feeling great in the bunch – I am not really nervous. I think it is going to be okay now.
Last year, I had really big problems after that crash to come into the races again. I lost a lot, and so I hope that this season will be different.
CN: You had your first races with the new team in the Challenge Mallorca races (pictured above). How did that go for you?
KK: It was great, the weather was better than Luxembourg. I trained well in Mallorca, and did my first races with the new team. We got a victory straight away with Robbie, then I was sixth on one of the other days.
I came back very easy [after the winter], despite some bad weather at home. In races you see where you are, you never really know from training. I already felt great in training and now I have the confirmation that I'm in good shape.
The course for that race [the Trofeo Deià] was really hard. We went up one of the biggest mountains in Mallorca, then later there was an uphill finish at the end. It was pretty hard in terms of temperature as well – it was just two degrees at the top and that’s not so easy. So going well was a good sign.
CN: What is your schedule like, in terms of your programme between now and the Tour?
KK: Well, now I am concentrating more on the one-day Classics. I am going to focus on Het Volk and [Kuurne-Brussels] Kuurne, then I am going to go for Tirreno [Adriatico] and [Milan] Sanremo. After that, I will come back to Belgium again for the Tour of Flanders and then the three Ardennes Classics.
CN: Of those, which one will suit you best to go for the victory?
KK: Well, I will try to become better and better each day. I think it will be good to help riders in Tirreno and Sanremo, and then after that, from the Tour of Flanders to Liège, I have to be in the best condition. For sure these races are the most important for me.
CN: What will be plan for Sanremo?
KK: Well, we have a few riders…we have Pozzato, we have Ivanov, we have also Rodriguez now, who came from Caisse d’Epargne, and Kolobnev, coming from Saxo Bank. In my opinion we have the strongest team for the Classics this year.
It is also very helpful to have someone strong beside me. If I am not good, there is someone else who can take the pressure away to do well as well. If we can ride as a team, we are going to have a lot of good results.
CN: Rodriguez is also an explosive rider and a good climber. Will you be sharing the leadership with him in the Ardennes Classics?
KK: I hope so. Okay, I am the fastest in the sprint at the end, but in the training camp we already know each other pretty well and also from some years before.
It is always good if you have someone by your side who is as strong as you are. To make the tactics in the finale, to trouble others. We are going to see how it works out to ride together against all the other teams.
CN: After the Ardennes, what is your programme towards the Tour?
KK: I will have a normal programme. I have a training camp for the Tour, I will see some stages, do the Tour de Suisse, and then I am focused on the Tour.
CN: The team will be chasing a wildcard. ASO said it will announce it in March. I guess the goal is to get as strong results as possible before then?
KK: Yes, okay, but the team showed last year that it is with the best teams and now we have even better riders than before. We have to find out if we will get a wildcard, but I think for sure we are in the first 10 teams. If we stay at home during the Tour, the Tour will be less exciting.
CN: Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the season, then? Do you go for the world championships, for example?
KK: Well, that is pretty far. It is in Australia and we don’t know the course yet. Some say it is for sprinters, others say it can be hard. But it is a long way to go there and you have to speak beforehand with the team to see what their plans are for the final of the season. Then we are going to decide. At this point of the year, I am focused on the first races now in the season. Later, we will see.
Kirchen's Tour predictions
Cyclingnews: Do you think Armstrong and Contador will be a lot closer this year, or will Contador move to a new level?
Kim Kirchen: Well we have a Luxembourg guy who is really strong [Andy Schleck], don’t forget about him. Okay, for me Lance is coming back stronger than last year. Last season I saw him struggling a bit in time trials, but he will not lose any time in time trials this year, so it will be really close for the first place again.
Maybe Contador’s team is not as strong as last year, but we will have to see. There are not so many who can ride for the victory…there are three guys, maybe four, but that is it. The other thing is that the Tour is hard, but you can control it. There are not really many places where you can attack from far away.
In my opinion, we are going to have a Tour like last year where it was controlled and the differences are made at the end in the uphills. We have just one time trial on the second-last day. I don’t think that is enough to make a big difference in the GC.
CN: Would you prefer more than that?
KK: Yes. At least two. Now we have just one, and no team time trial. We just have a prologue and the time trial. It is also very hard for the riders to attack, because we have flat stages again and we have uphill finishes. There isn’t very much between the two.
Perhaps having a hill two or three kilometres from the finish would be good, or maybe having an uphill finish of two or three kilometres. But those are not in this Tour. We are going to have a lot of sprint finishes and a lot of uphill finishes for the GC.
CN: Do you think it is possible for Andy Schleck to win?
KK: It is always possible to win. He was really strong last year but I think he is still young and he needs some more experience, maybe. Also, more power in the time trial. But this will come in the years ahead.
I think he could be better on another course; this particular Tour is, in my view, perhaps not his ideal race. I mean, he can always win, but I think on a different parcours, a more difficult parcours, he could finish first. But this year…we will see, but I don’t think so.
CN: Who is your favourite this year?
KK: Now he has pressure from Lance and I think he is going to be even more focused than he was before. I think if Contador has no accidents, he will be unbeatable.