Ekimov: Kristoff saved Katusha in 2014

Katusha general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov has admitted that Alexander Kristoff's breakthrough season saved the team’s blushes in 2014. The Norwegian won 14 of the team’s 25 victories in 2014 including the rain-swept Milan-San Remo and two stages of the Tour de France.

“Kristoff saved the situation, the big picture and the visibility of the team. We all thank Alex for that, he gave us a chance to manage the damage,” Ekimov told Cyclingnews.

After a disappointing 2014 for their other leader Joaquim Rodríguez, Ekimov is keen to look at the bigger picture and despite nine fewer victories compared to the 2013 season the former Russian rider likes what he sees.

“It was a very successful year for us. Of course, every team wishes that they had more but in the bigger picture it was a good year,” he argued.

“If you calculate the team’s success and the victory numbers compared to 2013 it was a little bit less but the quality of the victories was much bigger. First of all we won Milan-San Remo, that was huge. That was for sure a page of history in the team book. We won two stages of the Tour de France and we were present in almost every WorldTour race competitively.”

Unfortunately, Kristoff’s performances couldn’t help the team from slipping to sixth place in the World Tour team rankings, down from third the year before.

The 2015 goals

Kristoff and Rodríguez will once again lead the team’s ambitions for the 2015 season. For Kristoff it will be much of the same with the Classics his first target of the year before a brief spell racing in Norway and then back to mainland Europe for the Tour de France. Kristoff claimed his first two Grand Tour stage wins at the 2014 Tour but Ekimov thinks that he can do even better next July.

“If I were Alex Kristoff at the Tour de France I would think about the green jersey,” he said.

Peter Sagan has had an iron grip on the green jersey for the last three seasons but the team manager says that the switch to Tinkoff-Saxo could put that dominance under threat.

“If you imagine Sagan goes with Alberto in the same team, Sagan might be isolated because the number one goal for the Tinkoff-Saxo team is to win the Tour de France with Alberto Contador. The team must be calibrated accordingly and Sagan might be isolated.”

Kristoff will have to hope that the same doesn’t happen to him with the team also sending Rodríguez to the Tour to cover their general classification ambitions. The pair rode together this year as the Spaniard used the race to build his form after crashing out of the Giro d’Italia two months earlier. Rodríguez finished third in the 2013 Tour de France but next year’s climber-friendly route looks like it could be Rodríguez’s best chance yet to win a Grand Tour.

Ekimov is sure that they can balance the goals of both their leaders and still have some space for home grown talent in the nine-man team.

“Why not? Alex is a guy who doesn’t need six riders around him. Purito is a guy who needs his lieutenants, who are Dani Moreno and [Alberto] Losada and [Giampaolo] Caruso and that is it. So we still have some room for some Russian guys.”

The bigger picture

The team’s training camp in Calpe at the beginning of December was a chance for everyone at the Katusha team to reflect on and draw a line under the 2014 season. It also gave the management an opportunity to assess the direction of the team in the further future. Katusha was set up in 2009 as a pathway for Russian cyclists into professional cycling and has since spawned the development teams Itera-Katusha and RusVelo.

Katusha is currently bankrolled by Russian businessman Igor Makarov, the president of the Russian Cycling Federation. In an interview with the website rsport.ru, the Russian businessman speculated that he could chose not to renew its WorldTour licence due to the high running costs of three teams. Ekimov was more confident about the team’s future however.

“The biggest thing for the Katusha project is to perform at the Olympic Games in Rio,” he explained. “If we are successful there then this team could be forever. I think Russia deserves to have a team at the level of Katusha and Russia is a wealthy enough country to have this team. This team could be forever we just need to hit the right targets each year.”

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