Time to shine for Kim Kirchen

Next year Kim Kirchen will ride for the Russian Katusha squad having made the move from the Columbia-HTC team of Mark Cavendish. Kirchen’s best year in terms of results was undoubtedly 2008. He finally won the Fléche Wallonne classic having previously come 2nd in 2005, he also took stage wins at the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Tour de Suisse as well as wearing both the green and yellow jerseys at the Tour de France where he also finished in 7th place in the G.C. In an interview with Daily Peloton at the beginning of this year he outlined his goals for the season.

“This year I am going to try to win another classic, then focus on the Tour de France to get the yellow jersey. I also will concentrate on the General Classification because while I am not that close to first spot, I am not that far away based on 2008.”

In 2009, he came up short on all three of those goals in what was an extremely disappointing season for the Luxembourger, not helped by a broken collarbone sustained at the Tour of California. He didn’t finish either of his preferred Ardennes classics, Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége. He never came close to the yellow jersey at the Tour, losing almost 2 minutes on the stage 1 time trial in Monaco. He lost a further 4’30 on the first mountain stage to Arcalis, over half an hour on stage 17 to Le Grand-Bornand and a further half an hour on the penultimate stage up Mont Ventoux. He finished the Tour in 57th place almost an hour and a half behind Contador. Compare this with his 6’55 defecit to Carlos Sastre in 2008 and it’s safe to say that Kim Kirchen took a giant step backwards last year.

At 31 years of age, Kirchen is no spring chicken and he took the decision this year to leave the might of Columbia-HTC and move to the relatively new Katusha team. This, I feel, is an excellent move by Kirchen. At Columbia-HTC this year, Kirchen found himself doing plenty of work to set up stage wins for Mark Cavendish. He chased down breakaways and even formed the early part of the Columbia lead out train. Columbia, in my opinion, have evolved from a team that could challenge on all fronts to a team now functioning for the sole purpose of sprint wins for Cavendish and Greipel. There was Hincapie and Burghardt for the cobbles, Kirchen and Lovkvist for the Ardennes classics, Rogers, Martin and Kirchen to challenge for G.C., a vast amount of time trial specialists and then obviously the sprinting talents of Cavendish and Greipel (and let’s not forget Boassan Hagen who’s immense at everything).

But this year, there has been an exodus of established talent. Lovkvist, Boassan Hagen, Hincapie,  Burghardt and Michael Barry have all joined new teams in search of success. No doubt a contributing factor to these riders leaving is the responsibility of having to constantly work as part of a sprint train. Indeed, that’s why Bradley Wiggins left Team Columbia for Garmin at the start of this year. At Columbia-HTC, Kirchen and Lovkvist were the only realistic challengers for the Ardennes classics, although Lovkvist’s only real showing was his 6th place at Fléche Wallonne this year. At Katusha, Kirchen will now find himself surrounded by a team which could do extremely well in April of next year.

At Katusha are Sergei Ivanov, winner of this year’s Amstel Gold, he also finished 5th in Liége and 13th in Fléche Wallonne. Also there is Christian Pfannberger who finished in the top 10 of all three Ardennes races in 2008, although he currently finds himself in the middle of a legal battle regarding doping. Classics speciaist Filippo Pozzato could also prove to be an invaluable team mate for Kirchen should he decide to expand his racing horizons to the Ardennes. Finally, also joining Katyusha next season will be Joaquim Rodriquez who unusually finished 8th in all three Ardennes classics in 2008 and took 2nd at Liége-Bastogne-Liége this year.

Katusha’s other hopes for next year will be sprint victories for Robbie McEwen and Danilo Napolitano. The good news for Kirchen though is that neither are the kind of sprinter that require a long lead out train. Nor, unlike Cavendish, are either of them of sufficient ability to warrant a whole team built around them. Along with Kirchen, the other G.C. hopes within the team will be Joaquim Rodriguez who finished 7th at the Vuelta this year, and Vladimir Karpets, a previous winner of the Tour de Suisse and the young rider’s classification at the Tour de France.

At Katusha, Kim Kirchen should now consider himself to be an out and out leader where he can finally free himself of the shackles of having Cavendish as a team mate. In a feature about Kirchen in the July 2008 issue of Pro Cycling magazine, the journalist from Luxembourg Marcel Gilles said that he’s always likened Kirchen to Moreno Argentin. By the time Argentin was Kirchen’s age he had already won four editions of Liége-Bastogne-Liége, two Fléche Wallonnes, a Tour of Lombardy, a Tour of Flanders and the World Championships. Kirchen has a lot of work to do, but I think he’s finally at a team now where he can start thinking about catching up.

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