Team Katusha′s future in doubt | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 10.07.2019
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Team Katusha's future in doubt

With the Tour de France in full swing, Team Katusha have informed their riders that they can look for new employers. With the team battling for survival, the staff's futures remain uncertain.

Nils Politt produces a flash of his pearly whites with a snarl, the trademark of the Cologne native when he's pushing himself to the limit. In the final of the fifth stage of the Tour de France from Saint-Dié-des-Voges to Colmar, his red helmet keeps flashing past fellow riders. Without the support of his teammates, Politt goes in search of the lead in raging pack. The 25-year-old is a passable sprinter, but on this occasion against the world's elite, he stood no chance.

Behind the winner Peter Sagan, who successfully defend his Green Jersey, Politt crossed the finish line in eighth place. A respectable result that could be seen as a sign of life from a team on the ropes after their riders received unpleasant news as reported by French sports newspaper L'Equipe. Team Katusha's 24 riders have been informed internally by management that they can seek new employ – a hammer blow in the midst of the highlight of their season.

Read more: Emanuel Buchman 'not a born captain'

Two sponsors have already jumped ship

According to L'Equipe the meeting took place on Tuesday evening. Talking to DW, Katusha press officer Falk Nier denied the claims. "I can't confirm that. A meeting already took place last Friday, in which our management told the riders and our entire personnel that this is a very serious situation for the team," said Nier. "Our sponsors Alpecin and Canyon have opted not to extend their contracts. In this meeting the riders were told that they were free to test other options. I would assume that all the riders have since told their agents."

Are Team Katusha done and dusted the way L'Equipe suggested? Not according to Nier: "The contracts will continue to run for now, but that could mean the end." Team owner Igor Makarov is expected to outline the team's future in the coming days. When that information would be made public, Nier couldn't say on Wednesday evening.

Frankreich Radrennen Paris–Roubaix 2019 | Philippe Gilbert of Deceuninck & Nils Politt (picture-alliance/dpa/Belga/S. Stockman)

A rare ray of light in a miserable season as Nils Politt (l.) finishes second to Philippe Gilbert in Paris-Roubaix

Vladimir Putin involved in Team Katusha's inception

Team Katusha-Alpecin are riding under a Swiss license, but have Russia roots after being founded in 2009 to promote Russian cycling. Back then they were funded by Gazprom, Itera (now: Areti), Rostechnologii (now: Rostec) as well as Rosnef, for whom President Vladimir Putin is said to have personally liaised.

The race team belongs to Russia billionaire Makarov, whose money comes from the oil and gas industry. Following several doping scandals and even serious allegations of fixing a race, the team initially lost its license in 2013, but reclaimed it after undergoing a revamp. With sponsors Alpecin (shampoo brand) and Canyon (bicycle manufacturer), there was also a German presence and influence on the team. They are now looking to break away.

The rumours have been floating around for a while: Katusha-Alpecin could merge with the Canyon-equipped Corendon-Circus-Team, who currently have rising star Mathie van der Poel under contract. Or they could combine forces with the Israel Cycling Academy, a second-rate team looking to make the step up on the world tour. Nier refused to comment on any of the rumors.

16 contracts set to expire

The question now is what will be left of Katusha-Alpecin? Top sprinter Marcel Kittel terminated his contract back in May due to a dip in form, but more so his public dispute with the team. The remaining captains Ilnur Zakarin and Nils Politt have long been linked with moves to other teams, while other riders will now be actively on the search for a new destination. Only eight riders have contracts until the end of 2020, the remaining 16's deals expire at the end of the season.

Several teams are already in the advanced stages of planning their squads for the next season, even if any moves can't be announced until the beginning of august. The Katusha-Alpecin riders could face a nervous wait. Not Politt though, who commented on the latest development: "I'll go with a trademark turn of phrase from Cologne. Everything has been alright up until now."

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