2014 Report Card: Katusha

Team Katusha 2014 report card
WorldTour ranking: sixth (down from third)
Win count: 22 (down from 31)
Top riders: Alexander Kristoff (8th), Joaquim Rodríguez (12th), Simon Spilak (29th)

There was a definite shift in the balance of power and success for Katusha's top men in 2014. The team may have slipped down a few rungs of the WorldTour ladder this season but it was by no means a terrible year for the Russian outfit.

Alexander Kristoff made sure that the team continued to ride high as he enjoyed the best season to date, which was capped off by his commanding victory at Milan-San Remo. In contrast, Joaquim Rodríguez's season couldn't have looked more different to his Norwegian teammate's. Rodríguez has spent the past two seasons emphatically at the top of the WorldTour rankings but the cycling gods weren't looking down on him in 2014. The Spaniard admitted that it was likely the worst, and most challenging, season of his 14-year career.

Rodríguez went into 2014 targeting the Giro d'Italia, where he was expected to give Nairo Quintana a run for his money in the mountains - and potentially in the general classification. The season started off so promisingly for the 35-year-old with overall victory and a stage win in his home race the Volta a Catalunya. With the Giro just over a month away, he definitely looked like a contender. That would be where the plaudits would end in 2014 though.

The season took a sharp downturn in April at the Ardennes Classics when Rodríguez hit the deck during the Amstel Gold Race. The result was two broken ribs but the team decided to keep it quiet so as not to give his rivals any extra ammunition. The bad luck compounded its self with another crash at Flèche Wallonne before he was forced to abandon Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing but, from the vantage point of the year's end but Katusha and Rodríguez should have cut their losses here and reset their focus. Allow Rodríguez to recover, put your efforts behind Daniel Moreno at the Giro d'Italia and then send a fresh Rodríguez to the Tour de France and there was still a chance to find turn the year around. But it's hard to tell a cyclist to rest and, in the end, Rodríguez started the Giro. The Montecassino crash was clearly nothing to do with Rodríguez's injury - and it's hard to say what would have happened if he had been entirely healthy – but it certainly couldn't have helped in avoiding the incident. From then on, Rodríguez was constantly in catch-up mode but he never quite got there.

While Rodríguez spent his year taking two steps forward and one step back, Kristoff took an almighty leap in his career. With 16 wins registered on his palmarès in 2014, Kristoff was responsible for over 70 per cent of Katusha's wins this year.

Ahead of this season, the Norwegian sprinter and Classic rider had shown some big potential by winning the sprint for the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. Last year yielded yet more promise with top tens at Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders showing that he could hack it with the best in some of the longest races on the calendar.

Potential turned into reality at this year's Milan-San Remo. The Norwegian was set-up beautifully by his experienced teammate Luca Paolini and dutifully delivered the desired win. It was an impressive result for Kristoff, considering the torrid conditions endured by the peloton. Kristoff will have a tough challenge in defending his title but a second win isn't unlikely. However, he may choose to put his efforts into targeting the Flanders and Roubaix where he can certainly add another two monument victories to his palmarès.

While Rodríguez tried and failed to secure a stage win and the mountains classification at the Tour de France, Kristoff impressed in the sprints. He was knocking on the door of his first Grand Tour win right from the start and finally came good on stage 12. Like buses, a second one soon followed three stages later, with him getting the better of Peter Sagan on both occasions. The Slovakian must have been looking enviously at the Katusha rider, as he hoovered up the victories he so desired. Kristoff claimed a string of other victories before the year was up.

The rest of the team had a consistent, if unspectacular, year but did the hard lifting when needed to help and protect Kristoff and Rodriguez. Simon Spilak continues to eschew the Grand Tours in favour of the one-week stage races and claimed a number of top 10 finishes including second behind Chris Froome at the Tour de Romandie. Daniel Moreno had an average year in comparison to 2013 but provided some much needed moral and physical assistance to Rodríguez throughout the season.

What to expect in 2015: Katusha are unlikely to make too many changes to its strategy for next season. Rodríguez's problems were beyond his control and the team won't be panicking just yet. The Spaniard almost certainly won't be racing all three of the Grand Tours this time around, and is set to target the Tour de France instead of the Giro d'Italia. The Vuelta a España, and the monuments of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia will once again be in his sights.

It should be business as usual for Kristoff in 2015. There is more to come from the Norwegian, who looks like he is only getting better. He suffered some bad luck at Paris-Roubaix at the beginning of this year and should be a serious contender there and could also cause an upset at the Tour of Flanders.

Kristoff's success came at a great time for Katusha and eased some of the pressure off the struggling Rodríguez. It also poses some interesting choices for the team next year. With both Rodríguez and Kristoff potentially targeting next year's Tour de France, Katusha must choose how to split the team support. Get it right and they could have a fantastic Tour and, potentially, a brilliant 2015.

Best signing: Katusha hasn't been overly busy during this year's transfer window, only signing a handful of riders this winter. Two men stand out in that small bunch and they are U23 world champion Sven Erik Bystrom and Tiago Machado.

Machado returns to the WorldTour with Katusha after spending a season at Pro Continental level with NetApp-Endura. He impressed with his performance at this year's Tour de France where he battled through injury to finish the race. He could play a key role for Rodríguez in the mountains while providing the team with options for stage victories. 2015 will be about learning the ropes for Bystrom but he couldn't be in a better place with his compatriot Kristoff in the team, whose presence persuaded Bystrom to choose the Russian team.

Biggest loss: There is a reason that Katusha have been so quiet during the off-season, the Russian team has managed to retain the core riders that have brought them so much success over the past seasons. The biggest name to leave them this year is former Russian champion Pavel Brutt, who heads to Tinkoff-Saxo. However, the Russian languished somewhat in 2014 and shouldn't be too missed in the team's ranks.

Man to watch: Bystrom is a man for the future and he showed that with his canny solo victory at the World Championships. His big goal is victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège but the team will have to be careful to put too much pressure on him too early.

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