What is Holczer doing?


Imagine the scenario. You run one of the biggest budget teams in the sport but sadly the results haven’t followed. Some riders have done well but in general things haven’t gone to plan. Maybe it’s time to change managers, who do you call?

Well this is a real scenario faced by Katusha and they’ve brought in Hans-Michael Holczer. Despite the emergence of Dennis Galimzyanov and the consistency of Joaquin “Purito” Rodriguez, the team’s results have not matched the budget. Worse, the team’s name was involved in the Tour de France’s only doping scandal when Alexander Kolobnev was ejected.

Oddly the team called the UCI for advice. And more oddly the governing body recommended Hans-Michael Holczer as a solution.

Holczer used to run the Gerolsteiner team and their light blue kit was visible but the team rarely won anything. Worse, many of the big wins landed were tarnished and some even stripped after scandal. Bernhard Kohl and Stefan Schumacher were caught using CERA; their star rider Davide Rebellin was busted too. There were several other cases.

Now either Holczer knew what his riders were doing and this makes him unsuitable; or he had no clue what his riders were doing which also makes him unsuitable. He lamented that Bernhard Kohl had a 12 page contract of which two pages contained provisions and penalties to guard against doping but given the many positives, you’d hope he had more than paperwork. Culture, ethics and useful support staff are more important that a piece of paper.

He also spoke out against the practice of internal testing which with hindsight looks worse that it was at the time; he said he preferred the bio passport. Yet when the UCI tried to get him to “rest” Levi Leipheimer for highly suspicious blood values Holczer later said he couldn’t jeopardise the hunt for a new sponsor. Money first.

Holczer left the sport and resumed his career as a maths teacher although you could spot him in the Tour de France village as a driver for Skoda, ferrying Germany VIPs and telling them about the race and there was talk of advising Team Sky when it started.

Zabel arrives
On the plus side, Holczer has hired Erik Zabel, one of the sport’s top sprinters in recent years and recently sprint consultant with Highroad. What part he played in Cavendish’s success is up for debate. But his advice apparently helped Cavendish know what line to take when he sprinted for the win in Sanremo.

It makes for an odd mix. The team is Russian but with a big logistical base in Italy, it has many Spanish riders and now we have a German layer of management with Holczer, Zabel and also Gerolsteiner’s deputy DS Christian Henn.

Katusha have a big budget but the results have not followed. In an effort to redress this the appointment of Hans-Michael Holczer seems an odd choice. Dave Brailsford said it’s hard to find team staff with pure records given the history of pro cycling. Indeed look at other squads and you’ll see some names linked to controversy. But if we see some in the top jobs despite controversy it’s largely because of association with some big wins. Holczer just didn’t deliver these results.

Sorry if this piece reads like a bit of a downer on Holczer but Gerolsteiner was a mess and his recruitment is an odd choice for a squad with almost limitless resources.

More optimistically the arrival of Zabel should help Galimzyanov and Alexander Kristoff but time will tell if things improve. Katusha have always looked a bit confused and Holzcer’s arrival is an odd one but given the money available for the team and their lack of results this year, 2012 should be better. Over to him to show what he can do, it’s the second chance of a lifetime.

15 thoughts on “What is Holczer doing?”

  1. Very happy to read this “alternative” view on Holczer, which I fear comes closer to reality than what is often suggested in the German media. Gerolsteiner was weird to say the least, and you forget a guy like Totschnig as well. And some up-and-coming talents suddenly turned out to be mediocre riders as soon as the team folded and the bio passport was introduced.

  2. Knowing what happened in the Tour de France, how can this guy come back into the sport?

    Katusha’s like the team of last resort, where you go if nobody else will take you. See Danilo De Luca.

  3. Kris: maybe I should have put the “normal” view too? It’s not all bad, Gerolsteiner went from a small team to the top level and on a small budget. But yes, some of this was not healthy. I did actually mention Totschnig but made a factual error so I deleted his name.

    CR: well, what has he done wrong? My view is that he’s more mediocre than anything else. Note there is a new UCI rule that prevents people with a bad past from joining team management but this means formal convictions and for offences committed from today onwards. Few in the sport have actual criminal records; although Katusha’s chief team doctor is a convicted criminal.

    Larry T: he is but as an assistant DS I believe. Holczer sits above him as “manager”. He also brings in Michael Rich, the German TT specialist, I omitted that from above.

  4. I don’t know about his qualities as a team manager, because as I started to follow pro cycling more seriously Gerolsteiner was nearly done for.
    But there are some things speaking for the fact that not everything was good, like Haussler admitting not training hard enough and properly during his time there, which first changed inspired by Hushovd and Sastre as he went to Cervelo.

    But I’d like to add the argument, if he knew or did not knew, either way he is unsuitable could be said for many of other team managers as well. I believe he did knew that most of his riders were doing stuff, but on their own account, not as a team organised program. So without proof he had nothing in hand against them and willingly turned a blind eye onto that subject. And I believe that he was not the only manager doing this.

    But since he never promoted a team wide doping program, dealt with drugs, doped himself (since he never been a racer) or tried to cover up any doping, why shouldn’t be allowed back into the business, more shady figures have been pardoned. Also he presented himself always as an outspoken anti doping person. Despite not knowing how sincere that was, let’s assume he is, then back during the Gerolsteiner days he decided for the team and against his believes. Now he gets a new chance and we can only hope he stands this time to these believes especially since he is suppose to be also heavily involved with the youth program (iirc).

  5. Interesting post, thanks. It is great to have a critical view of the sport, as boosterism tends to dominate the other media. Gerolsteiner always seemed a strange bunch to me (at least in their latter years). German fans seem to have voted with their feet on this issue surely? Astana and Katusha similarly seem to have unconventional approaches to many aspects of the sport. Or am I being unfair? I celebrate the multicultural diversity of the sport and perhaps with diversity comes ways of behaving that seem problematic to ‘us’?

  6. Yes, in the early days Gerolsteiner was certainly one of the most sympathetic teams in the sport’s first league. But unfortunately their biggest successes were very much tainted. Cycling has changed since Holczer and Gerolsteiner left the peloton, but I also wonder where the added value is for Katusha. Maybe the hardcore business-first ethic? There’s already some minor controversy around Leif Hoste.

  7. What a lot of people don’t realize, I guess, is that Katyusha, and it’s true for Astana too, is not a Western team and hence trying to apply Western rationale in order to figure out what’s going won’t work, not often anyway. For example, just because Holczer is hired as a chief DS doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to run the show. Most likely somebody else will from behind his back (the proper Russian term for this is “having a roof”). If or when things will go bad, he’ll take the hit (and for that, he’ll be paid a premium). If, on the other hand, things will go well, he’ll get all the glory too. Either way, it’s better than teaching maths in a school or driving bureaucrats around the Tour de France.

  8. Very interesting POV and as Kris points out, very much different from what is usually reported in the German media – where Holczer is usually presented as the victim and whiter-than-white. (It’s not entirely true that he stepped away from cycling though, as he’s been heavily involved as a figurehead for Skoda’s very commendable efforts in the sportive scene in Germany.)

    However, and to be fair to Holczer – it also reads a little bit like the witch trials from the Middle Ages (float or sink). He’s damned if he did know about it and damned if he didn’t. If we applied those same criteria to all DS’s or general managers of the top teams, how many would remain unscathed? Any?

  9. TotheBillyoh: Astana’s an interesting comparison given the number of times they have changed managers. First we had Marc Biver doing the marketing side but the team was busted in the Tour de France; in came Bruyneel; then recently they hired a Frenchman to help improve the reputation but he was shunted aside (and is taking them to court I think). Chaotic too.

    Nikolai: good point and the “roof” idea was on my mind. I suppose he is a “shield” in English.

    Kieran: yes, concious of the trial point, what I meant to say is that he has the association of scandals from the past but without many wins. Whatever we might think of others, they brought wins or never had a rider actually test positive.

  10. I think Nikolai has it right – one can not assume these teams are designed like others. When you think where the sponsorship money actually comes from it’s a bit scary. But one could say something similar about SKY, a team I’ll never be a fan of just as I avoid pretty much anything having to do with Murdoch (other than the FOX animated TV series, which seem to be able to lampoon him and anything else they want with impunity) Empire. Will James Murdoch’s problems mean trouble for this team in the future?

  11. Nikolai has an interesting point.

    But I think the hiring had a wider intent. It seems Katusha has realized that being ‘too Russian’ is both not good for their image nor the results. Also, a cycling insider from the West can smooth up the multiple secondary little details that arise in day-to-day interactions with the UCI, other teams etc… than any Russian b/c the sport is still dominated by non-eastern Europeans.

    Interesting point, The Inner Ring, about the Katusha team doctor…where does that come from?
    Also, I read somewhere that Holtzer was recommended to the Itera sponsor by the German coach of the Russian track team.

    Kudos on your excellent blog!

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