Behind closed doors at the Tour Down Under with Katusha-Alpecin

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It’s not often that a WorldTour team will let journalists behind closed doors, to see the inner workings of a team at a professional bike race. But at this year’s Santos Tour Down Under Katusha-Alpecin were good enough to do just that.

CyclingTips’ Australian editor Matt de Neef spent a day with the now-Swiss-registered outfit to see what life is like for a WorldTour team at Australia’s biggest race.

There’s a knock on the door of the Hilton Adelaide hotel room. It’s Tiago Machado, one of two Portuguese riders racing for Katusha-Alpecin at the 2017 Tour Down Under. He’s a few minutes early for the team meeting, but that’s nothing new.

“Tiago’s always first,” explains team PR manager Falk Nier.

“I hope I’m first at the finish today,” Tiago adds with a laugh. “And not just of my team!”

Tiago’s six teammates filter in one-by-one, joining Falk and director sportif Gennady Mikhailov in the small eighth-floor room. Tiago sits on a chair near the bed – “that’s my seat”, he tells Falk with a smile, the latter quickly standing up. Tiago’s teammates each take a seat; all but Angel Vicioso finding a spot on the queen-sized bed.

It’s the morning of stage 2 — a much-anticipated stage with a crucial uphill finish to Paracombe. It’s a day that’s likely to shape the overall classification, if not decide it. Gennady begins by congratulating Belgian rider Baptiste Planckaert on his seventh place a day earlier, before turning his attention to the race ahead.

He’d like to see one of his charges get up the road if a big-enough breakaway group starts to form. “If group of six, seven, eight riders — if somebody is there we are safe all day,” he says. But a breakaway isn’t the day’s main objective — the plan is to deliver Tiago Machado and Dutchman Maurits Lammertink to the base of the steep final climb inside the 10-15 spots in the peloton.

The remaining five riders on the team have license to attack once Tiago and Maurits are in position on the final climb, if they want to and if they can.

“Be sure nobody [is] on the wheel. If you go alone, just full gas,” Gennady says. “Tiago and Maurits can sit on the wheel of guys who will be chasing.

“Maurits and Tiago … if you go from the beginning, it’s not possible to do this plan. Just wait as long as possible and then when the steep part is finished …”

The hope is that Tiago and Maurits will be able to follow the best climbers in the race and be there at the finish; to post a strong result and set the team up for a good result overall. But that hope is tempered by the knowledge that just about anything can happen out on the road.

Getting to that final left-hander in good position is the day’s non-negotiable. After that, Gennady says, it’s about reading the race, relying on racecraft and experience, and seeing who’s got the best legs when it counts.

There’s only one question from among the riders, from 2016 Tour of Turkey winner Jose Goncalves: should the team look to get in a breakaway if it’s only, say, three riders? No – only if there’s five or more riders, replies Gennady. Certainly not a solo breakaway like Laurens De Vreese (Astana) did a day earlier.

“Never, actually,” he says of solo breakaways. “Never do this.”

In six short minutes the team meeting is over and the riders file out of the room as quickly as they came in. They’re followed out the door by one last reminder from Gennady — they need to be at the event village on time, in 20 minutes, for the drive to the stage start.

“9:10 at the bus. Ok, Jhonatan?”

The Colombian Jhonatan Restrepo was late on stage 1 and nearly had to take a taxi to the start.

Katusha-Alpecin sports director Gennady Mikhailov addresses his riders.

It’s little surprise when Tiago Machado is the first to arrive at the team van. “To settle his nerves”, suggests media man Falk. When the time comes, Tiago and five of his teammates pile into the van supplied by race organisers, joined by several team staff. Angel, the team’s 39-year-old Spanish veteran, rides along in the team car.

Angel and Gennady chat as the latter drives to the start. Angel doesn’t speak English — the team language — so he and his Russian director converse in Italian with a smattering of Spanish thrown in for good measure.

This coming together of multiple nationalities and languages is nothing new in professional cycling, but for Katusha-Alpecin it’s a recent point of pride. The setup has made a concerted effort to rebrand itself for the 2017 season; to distance itself somewhat from its Russian heritage. The racing team is now Swiss-registered, and boasts 14 nationalities among its 26 riders. Of the seven riders at the Tour Down Under, none are Russian, although Gennady and several of the staff are.

A key ingredient in the rebrand is the team’s clothing supplier, also called Katusha, which is seeking to expand its reach into the increasingly global cycling marketplace.

Spanish rider Angel Vicioso (left) and his sports director discuss the stage en route to the start in Stirling.

It’s a cool morning at the stage start in Stirling, quite a departure from the 40ºC+ temperatures the riders faced a day earlier in the Barossa Valley. There’s no neutral zone on stage 2, and so the riders head out for a 20-minute warm-up after signing on — they’re expecting fireworks in the five laps of the tough Stirling circuit that kickstart the stage.

Ultimately, it’s a rather sedate start to the day’s racing. Two riders get up the road — “no problem guys, no stress” says Gennady over the radio — and when they’re caught, there’s a solo breakaway for the second day in a row. Again, Gennady isn’t concerned. The peloton, too, is happy to let Movistar’s Jasha Sutterlin suffer out front alone, and the first few hours of the stage progress at a somewhat pedestrian pace.

It’s mostly quiet in the team car, the silence punctuated by the occasional update from race radio, the odd conversation in Russian between Gennady and mechanic Roman, instructions from Gennady to his riders and, very occasionally, a static-laced message from one of the riders, requesting food or drinks.

Gennady himself rode as a professional from 1996 to 2009, spending time with US Postal (2003 to 2006), Astana (2007) and Katusha (2009). He rode the Tour de France twice, in 2001 and 2002 with Lotto-Adecco, and fondly recalls being last lead-out man for Robbie McEwen.

He’s quick to qualify “last lead-out” — the way he recalls it, his job was to get McEwen to the last couple kilometers. From there the Australian did the rest, hitching onto other lead-out trains and sprinting to considerable success. In 2002, McEwen won two stages of the Tour and secured the green jersey after a spirited battle with Erik Zabel that came down to the final stage.

Gennady retired from racing in 2009 and became a DS with Katusha the following year. He’s in his third visit to Australia — he was the Katusha DS for the Herald Sun Tour back in 2011, the year that Igor Silin won on the uphill finish to Arthurs Seat and Nathan Haas won the overall. In 2017, he’s DS-ing at his second Tour Down Under.

Like so many visitors to Australian shores, Gennady is curious about the local wildlife. He’s glad to hear he’s unlikely to get hurt by a koala (little does he know of drop bears), and surprised to hear that both koalas and kangaroos roam freely beyond the urban fringe. He listens carefully when advised to look out for snakes in the long grass.

As the stage unfolds, the peloton takes two leisurely nature breaks, riders filtering back through the convoy when they’re done. Gennady and Roman take a nature break of their own, the former making sure not to venture too far into the scrub. Then it’s quickly back to position five in the convoy, the team’s place dictated by its highest placed rider on GC (Jose Gonvalces started the stage in seventh).

It’s this convoy order that, somewhat bizarrely, is one of the main motivators for teams at the Tour Down Under. Long gone are the days of the Tour Down Under being a training race — since its promotion to the ProTour (now the WorldTour) in 2009, foreign teams have come to the TDU with the goal of racing hard and getting good results.

It’s hard to compete with the Australians who turn up motivated to win on home soil, but for the foreign teams, the TDU is a chance to secure early WorldTour points and lock up a good convoy position for the races ahead. This position is determined by WorldTour points and is particularly vital for the Spring Classics where narrow and poorly-maintained roads mean getting to riders quickly is both more difficult and more important.

While the Katusha-Alpecin riders are just starting their season, they’re not here to make up the numbers. Tiago is in his fifth Tour Down Under and has posted good results here. He’s been third, fifth and seventh on the Willunga Hill stage in the past, and has two top-10 finishes overall, including third overall in 2012. It’s with him that the team’s hopes rest.

Every so often the team car is called to the back of the peloton to deliver bottles to a rider. Gennady pulls out from position five and makes his way forward to the back of the bunch, to rendezvous with the designated domestique. Today it’s Norwegian former U23 world champion Sven Erik Bystrom.

It takes plenty of skill and more than a little courage to drive in the convoy of a WorldTour race. To the uninitiated it’s a frighteningly chaotic environment. Cars overtake one another constantly, often passing at great speed with mere centimetres to spare. Motorbikes weave in and out and riders move throughout the convoy and all across the road. It all requires great care and skill from drivers in the convoy.

Gennady handles the chaos with nonchalant aplomb. He’s receiving bidons from Roman in the backseat, passing those bidons out the window to Bystrom, shouting instructions, and all while driving with one hand on a technical descent and maintaining a safe distance from his rider, the cars in front, and other riders on the road.

It’s undoubtedly skillful and impressive to watch. Still, it’s remarkable crashes don’t happen in the convoy more often.

With the five laps of Stirling complete the riders are poised to descend Norton Summit before swinging up towards Paracombe. “Be at the front for the descent; everyone around Tiago and Maurits,” Gennady tells his riders over the radio.

And then race radio crackles to life — a Katusha rider has dropped their chain. Gennady speeds to the back of the peloton, barely bringing the vehicle to a stop before Roman leaps out of the backseat. He quickly gets the chain back on and Baptiste Planckaert is on his way. But the Belgian’s got a chase ahead of him.

As the convoy barrels down the fast, technical descent of Norton Summit, Baptiste is taking all sorts of risks. He’s leapfrogging his way through the convoy, latching onto the slipstream of one car long enough only to slingshot to the next in line. He desperately wants to get back to the bunch, to be there for Tiago in the vital final kilometres.

Gennady, too, has thrown caution to the wind, in an attempt to get back through the convoy to position five. He’s flying down Norton Summit at more than 80km/h, overtaking cars and riders on the wrong side of the road, tyres screeching around each corner.

“Convoy, stop!” comes the call over race radio, and Gennady obeys. A rider has crashed on the descent and is standing in the middle of the road. Gennady passes safely around and speeds up to resume his position in the convoy. “This is little bit … stressful,” he says.

As the left-hand turn to the Paracombe ascent approaches, Gennady is back on the radio, reiterating the team strategy he’d outlined that morning.

“Everyone have to be there for Tiago,” he says, firmly. “He has to be in good position for the left-hand turn.”

When the news comes over race radio that a Katusha rider has attacked just before the final climb, Gennady has his hand to his head, disbelieving. The plan had been clear — no attacks until the final climb. Everyone was supposed to be riding for Tiago and Maurits.

The move doesn’t last long — not even long enough for race radio to reveal which rider it was — and then it’s into the final left-hander and the final ramp to the finish.

Around the corner, on Torrens Hill Road, the race is being torn to pieces. Riders are being spat out the back of the peloton, unable to match the pace of those ahead. But that doesn’t tell the full story of what’s happening up the road.

There’s no TV screen in the car and no play-by-play commentary over race radio – just the one announcement to say that Richie Porte (BMC) has attacked.

There’s a sense of nervous anticipation in the Katusha-Alpecin team car. Were the riders in position as they were supposed to be? Was Tiago able to follow the big names when the road tilted up? Could he be a chance to win it?

“Allez allez Tiago, very good. Until the end.” Gennady’s words of encouragement are as much in hope as anything else.

Race radio confirms that Porte has won the stage but still there’s no indication of how the Katusha-Alpecin riders have gone. That will have to wait for a moment.

Gennady pulls the team car into the designated spot in the teams paddock, coming to a stop next to the van. Riders are starting to filter in and Gennady is straight out of the car to find out how things unfolded.

It’s clear from Tiago’s body language how things have gone, even before he opens his mouth.

“Nah, I don’t feel good,” he says, taking off his helmet and grabbing a drink, avoiding eye contact with those that ask.

He didn’t have the legs today and ended up losing more than a minute. But Gennady isn’t too upset – sometimes things simply don’t go to plan. The team’s best finisher is the Colombian Jhonatan Restrepo in 20th place, 19 seconds down. He’s finished in the big group behind the podium finishers — an honourable result, and one that puts him 19th overall.

The feeling is subdued in the Katusha-Alpecin camp as the rest of the riders turn up and sit down. They don’t wait around long – they’re quickly up and back on their bikes, riding the 25km back to the hotel.

Two don’t ride back. One is Baptiste, who is frustrated to learn he’s been chosen for a random anti-doping test. The other is Angel who opts for the relative comfort of the team van for the drive back to Adelaide. “Do you know how old he is?, asks PR manager Falk, indicating the Spanish veteran. He’s 39. “That’s why he doesn’t ride back to the hotel any more!”

From the outside Angel seems like a quiet individual who enjoys keeping to himself. And he’s earned that privilege – he’s a stalwart of the team, having joined in 2012, and he’s the TDU team’s most decorated rider. He’s a stage winner at the Giro d’Italia, in addition to his 13 other pro victories.

Back at the hotel, the mechanics are getting to work cleaning the team’s bikes and preparing them for the following day’s racing. The riders disperse, heading back to their hotel rooms for a snack and then a massage. They’ll regroup later for dinner before heading to bed.

And then they’ll do it all again the next day, aiming for an even better result on stage 3.

CyclingTips would like to thank Katusha-Alpecin for the opportunity to join them at the 2017 Tour Down Under.

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