ITERA - a presentation without a presentation

An interview with Alexander Kouznetsov and Viatcheslav Ekimov

By Sergei Kurdukov, Russian Eurosport commentator
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Kouznetsov and the boys
Photo: © Vladimir Stashkevitch

The legendary coach Alexander Kouznetsov, who has taught 37 World and 6 Olympic champions (including dual Olympic Gold medalist Viatcheslav Ekimov), was in no mood to organize a team presentation in the conventional sense of the word. It was not that he felt disappointed with the results of ITERA, the very first 100 percent Russian pro squad, in its opening season. He actually felt rather satisfied. He was just certain that the time was not right for a great ceremony held. Not yet, not this winter.

So the coach invited cycling journalists to attend the team's training in the Krylatskoye Olympic velodrome, to have a look back on the year 2001, and above all to share a look into the future.

While the risky TV cameramen took close-up shots of ITERA's train whizzing by at almost 60 km/h (21 seconds for a 333m lap), we began our talk. I made up my mind to use a simple tactic, that is to shuttle between Kouznetsov and his new directeur sportif Ekimov.

Alexander Kouznetsov: It won't be correct to call us a totally new team. The team that used to be called Lokosfinx was born about 30 years ago. Surely, with the advent of ITERA as a sponsor, it greatly transformed, but I never look upon that amateur squad of the past and the pro team of today separately. They are forever linked through former champions, some of whom are coaches now, through the traditions, through bases after all.

C.N. At one of these situated in Spain, you've just used for putting in miles. Judging by the results of this Russian track championships (congratulations on the victory of Mikhail Ignatiev!), the pre-season work was pretty fruitful. What did it look like?

Kouznetsov: Nothing out of the ordinary. We opened the training camp in the second half of November, as usual, and covered about five thousand kilometres plus by the beginning of the new year. No special training for speed of course, so a couple of weeks spent in speed training in Krylatskoye will be all to the good.

C.N. I heard from Ekimov that to train in Spain this time was not all beer and skittles. His small swimming pool got covered with ice for the first time since he made his second home in Spain.

Kouznetsov: Yes, the weather this autumn held a bit of a nasty surprise for cyclists. Though I wouldn't call it disastrous. The most unfortunate side of it all were the falls of our boys during training rides. Thank God, nothing serious.

C.N. Tell us a few words about the last season from the point of view of a long-time prospect.

Kouznetsov: The season of 2001 was only the first in the five year plan. Some time ago we discussed our long term prospects with our sponsors (they are, actually, more than merely sponsors who normally give money and want it back through advertisement as soon as possible, but we'll dwell on the subject later).

According to this plan, the first two seasons are supposed to be filled with basic work and 'basic' races to lay the foundation of future success. From the third year on the team is to be on the constant rise to the 'elite club' of the cycling groups which are given the start in the great races. The top of the hill is, of course, le Tour de France. So when impatient Russian journalists ask us when, oh when our boys will set the pace in the Tour, we answer: no earlier than in the fifth year of the plan's being carried out. It is a long-term project indeed.

CN: The same impatient colleagues of mine keep asking why not to add a couple of top names positioned in first hundred of UCI ranking to the team list. Then the supergoal could have been close at hand instead of looming on the horizon.

Kouznetsov: That's the principal question! All too often teams which resort to these tactics are doomed not to live long. It suits their sponsors all right to get the necessary publicity and switch to other forms of advertisement. We are in a different position. The thought of pure advertisement is next to last that crosses the mind of the chairman of ITERA, former world class track rider Igor Makarov. He manages a gas-producing holding, not a home appliances workshop or a mineral water factory...

CN: ...And you'll hardly bring it home to every housewife watching TV that she should buy gas right from ITERA, even if you'll get a spectacular victory.

Kouznetsov: Exactly! That's why I don't call them simply sponsors. They are supporters heartily interested in real rebirth and constant growth of Russian cycling (Cyclingnews has already told its readers that a fair part of ITERA's management and employees are former cyclists). They took the whole of Russian cycling federation under their wing, they help us with organizing competitions at home.

So the ITERA team is just the tip of the iceberg. If we don't disappoint our partners and supporters with our performance, then their goal will be as good as accomplished. To bring up not one or two young Russian pro riders, but a whole team. And only, if and when, we find ourselves on the threshold of the Tour, it will perhaps make sense to invite Russian and foreign stars. One or two of them.

CN: Your stars of the future are very young indeed (the only exception is Eduard Gritsun, who rode for a couple of German teams and came last autumn from Team Coast to share his experience in action). But what looks really amazing is that the youngest are able of keeping up with the classy adults!
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The ITERA team
Photo: © Vladimir Stashkevitch

Kouznetsov: We've brought all 33 of our riders to Moscow and it's really a pleasure to see that some of our smaller boys never get dropped, not only by their training partners but by their counterparts in points races either. Keep it in mind that they compete with juniors who are a couple of years older, and it's a very important difference at this tender age.

C.N. (to Viatcheslav Ekimov) A couple of traditional questions for a team manager. What brand of bikes are your boys going to ride this season?

Ekimov: The same as last year: Pinarello. The bikes have been tried out and suit us all right. Last autumn we held talks with a couple of manufacturers, all of them Italian, and finally made up our mind to continue with Pinarello. A new set of team bikes is all but ready, a new model of the renowned brand, called Marvell.

C.N. Let's hope they'll work marvels true to their name. What about clothes?

Ekimov: Here we've got a new Italian partner, Sportful. Quality is very good, and the design is more interesting than last year. You'll be able to appraise it in a couple of weeks, when our riders get a start in the Tour of Mallorca.

We received almost a last-minute invitation, but we don't mind. It was quite a pleasant surprise, although the terms on which we are going to participate are, so to speak, far less profitable than those Division 1 teams enjoy. But we don't care, for it's a blessing for young riders to be able to race with the best in the world in the opening months of the season.

C.N. It looks like a big debut for them. Do you feel excited?

Ekimov: Worried is the word for it. I'm often worried for the boys. For instance, taking up road and track combined is so tough even for the strongest rider! I went through it myself in early 90's, but I couldn't hold on like this for more than 2 years.

C.N. (to Kouznetsov) So perhaps it would be easier to focus on road racing and leave the track as a means of training?

Kouznetsov: We can't do that. Don't take my words as filled with pathos, but we feel responsible for track pursuit in this country. Gold medals in track World's and Olympics are well worth fighting for. But of course some of our riders are already more centred on road success. Pavel Broutt is very good in stage races, he has already had pro wins. Vladimir Karpets is a very powerful youngster, who is also good in mountain stages - a rare combination.

C.N. Back to the spring part of the road season. What races on the team's calendar will be particularly important?
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Ekimov in charge
Photo: © Vladimir Stashkevitch

Ekimov: Mallorca, then Classic Haribo and Tour du Haut Var, Tour of Murcia. The first peak of the season is April in Belgium. Three Days of de Panne, Gent-Wevelgem draw a lot of attention, both from specialists and media, and it's vitally important for us.

It won't be easy for the youngest of Russian pros to jump ahead of the train of mature professionals fighting for the podium in, say, Gent-Wevelgem. Classics or semi-classics are so different from what they have been through before.

C.N. But the only way to learn how to swim is to swim, and they are not going to sink. Give us a hint, who can grow into a world-class performer in the legendary one day races?

Ekimov: Let's mention only one name: Alexei Markov. The multiple World's and Olympics medalist is still quite young at the moment by pro cycling standards. He's well known as a track man, still he has got all that it takes to excel at classics but experience. He has already finished on the podium of the Russian road race championship, and we hope it's just the beginning. We want him to try his legs on the Belgian spring classics, while in the second half of the season he'll be able to focus on his preparation for the track Worlds.

C.N. The team's calendar for the second half of the season is not as clear-cut as the first one. But the basic strategy must have been worked out.

Ekimov: Certainly. There are substantial changes as compared to last autumn. The Tour of Poland is a good idea, the pack is rather strong, and our boys didn't ride passively in the middle of it. But what if some of them don't feel at the top of the world in one of the stages? If you bow out of the race, you've got no racing practice in coming days. And that's when the World Championships are just around the corner. We chose Italian semi-classics as a good alternative for September. If you fail to find superlegs in one of the races, you'll do it in the next one.

Kouznetsov: Ekimov's help is hard to overestimate. Let's call a spade a spade - if it weren't for him, we, as a recently born second division team, would have meagre chances of being included into the start list of a category 2.1 or even 2.2 stage race. This year, facing a new UCI qualification system, even some top division teams stand cap in hand to get a start in a Belgian or a Spanish race in spring. Pro races are overcrowded, and some of the organisers are leaving out better known names to invite our young squad. By and large it is done out of respect for Viatcheslav Ekimov. Knowing this, the boys will surely try to ride as solidly as possible.

C.N. And the very last question. So many journalists discuss the fact that Slava hasn't hung up his cycling shoes forever as yet. I know he is not inclined to give comments on the subject, partially not to make any promises and avoid pressure. What will you say about your pupil's future taken from this angle?

Kouznetsov: Don't write him off as a sportsman.

C.N. But for the meantime, we wish you both a lot of luck in the team car following the breakaways with your boys in them.

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