At the start of 2018, if you had asked most cycling fans who Nils Politt was, they would have probably shrugged before tentatively replying: "Isn't he one of Marcel Kittel's lead-out men?"
At that point, it wasn't an entirely erroneous presumption. The German was certainly an early pace-setter for Kittel in the sprints last year but seventh in Paris-Roubaix illustrated his ability in the Classics. This season the German has distanced himself altogether from the lead-out man tag with a breakthrough spring that included sixth in E3 BinckBank, fifth in the Tour of Flanders and second in Sunday's Paris-Roubaix.
"He's more than that. He's more than a lead-out rider," his Katusha-Alpecin director, Dirk Demol told Cyclingnews on Sunday.
"He was second in the Paris-Nice time trial. He can sprint, he can do a lead-out and it's just the high mountains that aren't for him."
Politt - still just 25 - has been such a revelation this spring that he has rejuvenated a struggling team. With only one win this season the Swiss-registered team were desperate for a rider to improve their results. Politt may have not have won a race this spring but has breathed life into a season that was on life support.
"It's a Monument and one of the biggest cycling races in the world," Politt's teammate Marco Haller told Cyclingnews on the Roubaix velodrome.
"A friend of mine and a teammate finished on the podium. I'm super happy and super proud."
Demol could barely hide his glee either.
"I knew at the start of the season that I had good riders and top, top riders but if you see the campaign we did with 6th in Harelbeke, 5th in Flanders, second today and tenth in Gent-Wevelgem, we've been in the game and that makes me happy.
"I'm honest when I say that he was a rider I had in my head when he was a U23 rider. I followed him from a distance and he's a rider I really liked. You can really work with him. He's like one from the older generation. There's no complaining, he works hard and just goes."
While Kittel labours to find his best form and Zakarin's star continues to wane, Politt's trajectory continues to rise. After Alexander Kristoff was sent packing at the end 2017, Katusha failed to sign a replacement but Politt now owns the mantle of Classics leader.
"The team just finished on the podium in a Monument and I'm so happy and proud to be part of this," Haller added.
"It was a very offensive ride because Nils and I were in the group before the first cobbled section. I had a puncture in Arenberg and it was really six hours of stress and fighting. To finish it all off with a podium though is the best that could have happened. It absolutely feels like a win."
Haller was immense during Paris-Roubaix and rode out of skin to defend his leader. Demol has managed to get the best out of his current crop of riders but he only came on board in the winter and will need time to instill his complete philosophy and Classics roster.
"We're building and we're quite a young team. We can grow and after what have learned from this campaign, it's promising," he told Cyclingnews.
"So far, I've said that they have to have the guts to try something. They can't wait all the time. They need to be present in groups and in the race. Why should we wait for the big guns? If you do that it can be a bit too difficult but we're close and this gives us morale to take home and we're going to come back stronger."
Demol will be aware that the search for improvements starts here. Classics riders will be eager to sign contracts while their performances are still fresh in team managers' minds in order to hold value in the market, and Demol will not want to see the right rider slip through his fingers. He's got his team leader, now he just needs to build around him.
"If I can have one or two the future that would be great, I'll look for that."
Politt will be a marked man next season and if you ask cycling fans who he is, they'll now know.
"To be honest, we were talking at the dinner table and we said Nils this is maybe the last time you'll fly under the radar so you better go out there and take it," Haller added.
"He did that and it was amazing and awesome. He rode a perfect race. He was alert when the first big selection was made before the first cobbles, and I was with him. I worked more than him so he could save his legs. He was there in the decisive move and he's just a brilliant bike racer. I don't know if anyone deserves it more than him."
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