Katusha-Alpecin (formerly Katusha and before that Катюша) have been a team in transition in recent years. A major rebrand, unveiled in 2016, was the first sign that times were a-changing.
Gone was the naff, post-cold war era identity. In its place a hyper-modern look: simple and stylish; red and white, but no blue. The name, previously emblazoned across the jersey in Cyrillic, was replaced with the logo of the sports brand that would emerge out of the team.
Last year Katusha not only transferred its registration from Russia to Switzerland but also added a big-name German shampoo brand as co-title sponsor.
Then there’s the riders themselves. Although always less of a mono-culture than many perceived, Russia was undeniably the dominant nationality, with the 2014 roster listing 19 Russians. Today only four of those remain. The team can now count athletes from 16 different countries among its ranks – more than any other WorldTour team except Trek-Segafredo.
At their recent training camp in Mallorca, Rouleur sat down with a cross-section of the new-line-up: two recent signings, Ian Boswell and Nathan Haas, and a couple of older hands, Marco Haller and Baptiste Planckaert.
Rouleur: Firstly, how would you guys who have been here a while describe the culture of Katusha to your new colleagues?
Baptiste Planckaert: It’s a nice team. The new riders really fit in, and I think it’s a good atmosphere.
Marco Haller: We’ve really changed image through the last year. Being here six years, it almost feels like being on a new team every year. The board and management understood that cycling is a global thing, and this is the direction we develop. It’s a cool thing.
Nathan and Ian, what were your expectations coming into the team?
Ian Boswell: I didn’t really have any, although I’ve found it a very welcoming environment. I think because of the international structure of the team, it’s not very cliquey. There’s not groups of riders of different nationalities all hanging out with each other. Where you sit at the dinner table isn’t limited to the language you speak.
Do you think that will help when it comes to the racing as well?
IB: Yeah, one thing that I’ve noticed already is that we’re here to compete, but we’re not competing with each other. We’ve had some training rides and people aren’t out there trying to swing their dicks – for lack of a better term. I’m not trying to drop [Ilnur] Zakarin on the climbs to prove I’m better; I’m not trying to outsprint Nathan.
Nathan Haas: What did I expect coming to this team? My true feeling of Katusha riders is I kinda always hated them, because they were so good at riding as a team. There was always that thing where you’d try to put your bars into where you had to be but “nope! here comes Katusha…”
I had to come to this team. It was like a hunger to be with a group of guys that actually know how to race together. That combined strength, but also I want other riders to hate me because of the team that I’m on, because we’re so good.
I think the real masterclass of cycling is doing without doing. A good team is one that actually does the least for the most of the race. Until it matters. The way a team rides together is that they protect each other, in the hard and the easy moments, and that’s what Katusha has always been good at. That’s why I think this is such a good place to be.
Were there any nerves or apprehensions, either about joining a new team or coming to a training camp after a while away?
MH: For me it’s almost like a routine already, as year by year we come together. Still there are always good changes, good progressions of getting new riders in. What’s pretty brilliant about the team is we don’t do signings by pure numbers. You could easily go out and find one rider who had the best results and bring him on the team, but the management is filtering also by character.
As well as the training side, is there an additional purpose that these camps serve?
MH: As a kind of team-building, sure. You sometimes have riders who you don’t race with for the whole season. It’s good to have these team camps to get yourself updated and to get to know these guys.
BP: It’s the only time in the year that the whole team is together. Staff and riders and board management, it’s a nice time to meet.
IB: At Sky we had the Nice/Monaco base. There were fifteen, twenty of us there, but I don’t think that needs to happen. I think when you get to this level of the profession, everyone needs to do what they need to do, in their own time.
We don’t have to see each other every day to be friends, to communicate. Marco has already started a little Whatsapp group with all the riders, building up good camaraderie with everyone.
Has technology made it easier for teams to gel?
NH: I think a good meme gets in between language issues.
MH: [Technology] brings you closer. As soon as there’s some success, it’s easy to send a quick message to congratulate a team-mate. You just feel closer to each other and this is, at the end, what makes the last one or two percent. You’re part of it too. Even though you train for another race, at the end of the day we all wear the same jersey.
What are you all most looking forward to about the season ahead with the team?
IB: I’m looking forward to [Marcel] Kittel ripping up some sprints. I’m not part of a sprint lead-out but I think just getting a large number of wins at the beginning of the season helps to carry the whole team, as far as motivation, throughout the whole year.
NH: I’m looking forward to being in a real group of people with the same goal. Sharing the idea of how things are to be done, and just having fun together. When I first started in B-grade criteriums, you had to have fun. Then you realised you had to get a bit more serious to actually win the thing. Now we’re at the highest level, but I still think you still have to have fun with it.
MH: I hope the first win for the team will come pretty soon because it makes everything way more easy.
In that respect does having someone like Kittel, who you might expect to take a win relatively quickly, make you more excited about the season?
MH: There’s no single win in cycling which comes easily. Even though he won five stages of the Tour de France it could be easy that he wins none at all this year. We really need to work hard, and he needs to work hard, and the team needs to be sharp.
BP: As the others have said, the most important thing is winning, and then having fun.
NH: It’s easy to have fun when you’re winning.
BP: I think almost everyone is strong enough to win races but the year is long. I hope it’s fun. Not only when we win but even when we fail, even when we lose, we still keep motivated and sharp for the next races.
Is there a sense that how you present yourselves can feed into the performances themselves? Is it possible to “fake it ’til you make it”?
NH: No, the truth always comes to the surface. I think it’s impossible to act as somebody you’re not in cycling, because the emotions and pressure that you’re under are so high. That’s why I think exercises like a training camp, where we’re all together, are so important, because we actually learn each other as people, and learn to manage each other’s relationships.
It’s managing the hard moments and really latching onto the good moments and the good feelings to keep that flow. As a team we have to be better than the others at taking the good things away from losing.
Even when we don’t have someone to necessarily win the race, we have to go to each one with the ethos of always practising the style, the discipline, so the day we have the right leader it’s a habit, and they’re given a chance to win, because we’re just good.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity