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Ever since the Katusha team unveiled its own clothing line in 2016 the team has gone through nothing less than a transformation, morphing from a heavily Russian-based team into one of the more international teams in the world. We caught up with Katusha’s product and merchandising manager Mathieu Danel this past weekend at Paris-Nice. He explained to us how a cycling team can inspire a clothing line and how a clothing line can inspire a team.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to PELOTON
PELOTON Magazine: Mathieu, you are product and merchandising manager at Katusha. Obviously the pro team has been around for awhile now, but it is a relatively new brand in the industry when it comes to clothing.
Mathieu Danel: Well, I came to the company in September 2015 after working several years with Salomon. I have always worked in the sports industry, but I really wanted to work in cycling. When I was in high school there was a great period of hour record rides with all kinds of new materials and new positions with guys like Chris Boardman or Graeme Obree. As a result I got a university degree in biomechanics and physiology and really started my career in the field of sports R&D.
PELOTON: Salomon is really known for outdoor sports, trail running and skiing. Are there things from those sports and their industries that you were able to transfer into cycling apparel?
Danel: Well, when you look at the Strade Bianche this year or Paris-Nice this past week, you see two prime examples of how cyclists are exposed to some of the most extreme conditions. Our job is to protect them from the elements. Outdoor sports have been focused on this for years but that has been much less the case in endurance sports, so when I came to Katusha I knew there would be areas where I could really exploit my savoir-faire. Before you can perform on a bike, you have to be protected from the elements.
PELOTON: The Katusha team has been around for over a decade. It really started out as a Russian cycling project, focused very much on Russian athletes. But it has really evolved into something else in recent years.
Danel: Well, in the beginning it was only a sporting project and aimed at creating an elite infrastructure for Russian cyclists. The team was registered in Russia and was really dominated by a Russian organization, with Mr. Makarov investing most of the money and Andreï Tchmil serving as manager. Mr. Makarov earned most of his money in the gas and oil industry, but he was a passionate cyclist, who had raced at a high level on the track and remains an avid rider today.
A cycling team costs a lot of money but also generates a lot of visibility, and the organization came to the conclusion that it wasn’t benefiting from the visibility the team offered as much as it could. As a result, in 2015, they decided that the Katusha brand would be devoted to creating and offering a number of services for cycling enthusiasts. Our first initiative was in the clothing line, and now we also have a travel company as well as Katusha Café that we use as meeting points for those interested in meeting us and riding with some members of the team. Mr. Makarov is still behind the team on a financial level, but the idea is transitioning into a new business model where the team is self-sufficient.
The current model of cycling, as you know, relies on a person or sponsor that can change their marketing direction at any moment. Hopefully our model will be more sustainable. We want to get to the point where our different cycling companies will pay for the team, but they will benefit from the visibility of the team and the expertise of the team to keep their products at the highest level.
PELOTON: And why did you decide to focus on cycling clothing first. There is a lot of competition these days.
Danel: Yes there is a lot of competition, but there is still room for a brand that really combines performance and style. When we started in 2015 we saw a lot of brands that were principally focused on style—what I call the Instagram of cycling, products that were very high-tech but a bit dated in style or products with a real vintage focus. We said to ourselves that there is a real place for high-quality cycling clothing in a contemporary style. That was the starting point and you instantly saw a radical change in the team’s identity and our working relationship with the riders to produce top-quality products.
PELOTON: Well, it is certain that the Katusha kit is one of the best-looking kits in the peloton today, something that, how should I say, was not exactly the case a few years back.
Danel: Well, the textile industry was a good starting point because we could get into it rather quickly, and, we could see that there was just a lot of demand. We figured out, for example, that there are a lot of people getting into cycling these days that don’t want to change their look when they get on a bike. They don’t want to have the idea that they are dressing up in disguise when they get on a bike. They want a similar look to what they have in the office or with their families. They want to have the same level of quality when it comes to the material and the look as when they are dressing for work. The days where we put aesthetics behind us when we prepared for sports is behind us. So we have really focused on two main directions, the aesthetics and the performance of the product.
PELOTON: It’s pretty incredible. You only entered into the market two years ago and I am seeing your products increasingly in shops and on rides.
Danel: Well, I think it is safe to say that we have a business model that is pretty much the opposite of a traditional brand. A traditional brand that is successful can hope to break into the professional peloton in say 10 years. But we already have a pro team. Our principal job is to communicate to people who the new Katusha is and so since 2015 we have really focused on explaining our transformation. But I think part of our success is also because we have managed to respond to the needs of those looking for aesthetic, high-performance clothing.
PELOTON: Is there a product that you can say you are really proud of?
Danel: Well, there is our aero kit that we started developing as soon as we began working with Tony Martin. Tony is a time-trial specialist and we have worked closely with him since he came to the team in 2017 to develop a really top quality time-trial suit and to use that technology for an aero kit that we could produce commercially. The aero suit on the market is not the same exact thing, because the average cyclist has different needs than an elite time trailer and the aerodynamic qualities are not the same for someone riding at say 40 kilometers an hour and someone riding at 60 kilometers an hour. But the kit that is on the market is inspired from the pro kit and adapts the best elements to the average cyclist.
PELOTON: Tony is very involved in the R&D of Katusha’s clothing line then?
Danel: Absolutely. We spend a lot of time with him during the training camps, testing and giving us feedback.
PELOTON: What has been the greatest challenge getting into the cycling clothing industry?
Danel: Getting our name out in the public. We have a huge benefit already having a pro team. But a lot of people think that our product is just a replica of the team kit. So our challenge is to get our name out there as a high-quality product. As a result, when we launched the new team project in 2016, we needed to do to two things. We really needed to change the visual image of the team. It is, after all, our showcase. And we needed to make the team more international. That is why we changed our team license and moved it to Switzerland, a place that would be more neutral. And that is why we have recruited more and more riders from around the world, with guys like Tony Martin from Germany, Ian Boswell from the U.S. or Nathan Haas from Australia. As a result, today we are the team with the most riders from different countries around the world. We don’t necessarily cut ourselves off from our roots, but we want to be as international as possible.