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Until last year’s Tour de Romandie, few cycling fans outside of Russia had heard of Ilnur Zakarin. But when he won that race overall — beating Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali, among many other big names — and followed up with a stage win at the Giro d’Italia, it became impossible to ignore the lanky, enigmatic Russian.
One year on, Ilnur Zakarin is riding the Giro d’Italia as a genuine contender for the overall. He sits third after six stages, having impressed on the race’s first proper uphill test, and is likely to feature heavily as the race progresses.
But just who is Ilnur Zakarin? How did he go from being a strong junior time trialist to an impressively strong all-rounder competing at the highest level of the sport? Fran Reyes investigates.
It’s not easy to get an interview with Ilnur Zakarin. When we asked Katusha press officer Vitalii Abramov to organise one for us, he insisted on being present because “Ilnur doesn’t speak too much, and with a journalist he doesn’t know [and] with nobody from the team PR [around] he will tell even less”.
With the schedules of journalist, rider and press officer not syncing up, we offered several alternatives: having another team official present during the conversation, speaking via a certified interpreter in order to allow Zakarin to express himself in Russian, or even sending the original audio recording of the interview and its raw transcription to the press officer to avoid anything being lost in translation.
In the end it all came down to an e-mail interview.
It might be hard to understand why the Katusha press officer took such precautions, unless we take into consideration the fact that Zakarin is not a normal rider and Katusha is not a normal team. After nine years of operation, funded and fuelled by the money and ambitions of a gas oligarch, the Russian Global Cycling Project that manages Katusha has, in Zakarin, an exciting prospect.
He is perhaps the setup’s best chance to produce some return for all the money invested to this point, and a way for the organisation to live up to its raison d’être: developing Russian talent.
The way he tells it, Ilnur Zakarin got into cycling the same way many riders do.
“I had some friends in school who were already in a cycling club in my city,” Zakarin said. “So they invited me to come and I went there. It was fun there and I liked it, it was nice to ride the bike, to compete with other guys.
“The results came quite quickly, so I decided to continue”.
Zakarin’s path through cycling continued in the way that many riders’ do. He had a coach, Gumyar Nurulin, who guided him through his first years of racing; someone he is still close to. He had a collection of local idols he looked up to — Viatcheslav Ekimov, Pavel Tonkov, Dimitri Konyshev, Denis Menchov. And then came a brilliant result as a junior, when he was crowned European time trial champion ahead of riders like Michal Kwiatkowski.
But in 2009, before he’d even turned 20, Zakarin’s promising journey was disrupted. He tested positive for methandienone, an anabolic steroid, and was sidelined for two years.
When confronted about this during last year’s Giro d’Italia, Zakarin said he was keen to move on: “It remains a bad mistake. I hope to forget about it and start a new career as a great rider. I’m not affected when people talk or write about it. I’m a different rider now. For me it’s all forgotten”.
He was even more elusive at this year’s Paris-Nice.
“I understand your questions and they are not a problem for me”, he told journalists. “But it is in the past. I’ve talked enough about this fact. I want to focus on the future”.
After serving his suspension, Zakarin was quickly taken back by Russian Global Cycling Project coach Nikolay Morozov, who recruited Zakarin for the Continental Itera-Katusha team. This would be his springboard to a two-year contract with Rusvelo, the organisation’s second division team currently riding the Giro as Gazprom-Colnago. Zakarin excelled at this level, winning three stage races in six weeks during an awesome streak in 2014.
From his early results as a time trialist, Ilnur Zakarin had evolved to become one of the most promising all-round riders in world cycling. The secret? His wife, Viktoria.
“She is a nutritionist and helped me to do a good and well-balanced diet. I spent around two years to lose 10 kilo,” said the 187cm, 67kg rider. “This helped me to become lighter and stronger in the climbs”.
Another crucial change happened in those two years with Rusvelo, when he moved to Cyprus in order to find better weather for training. And then, in late 2014, he got a contract with Katusha for the following season.
“When I came to Katusha, I wanted to get some strong results in the WorldTour level,” Zakarin said. “I felt like I was ready for it. But I expected to come on it step by step.
“I did not expect such big results like overall victory at Tour de Romandie or a stage win in the Giro. It was a big surprise for me”, Zakarin says, recapping the breakout performances he offered in the spring of last year.
Zakarin wasn’t the only person puzzled by his breakout performances at last season’s Tour de Romandie and Giro d’Italia. Three-time world time trial champion Tony Martin only beat Zakarin by 13 seconds in the Tour de Romandie time trial despite the fact Zakarin had a mechanical during the 17-kilometre exercise. Martin said afterwards he “didn’t know of him before.” Even Zakarin’s DS, Xavier Florencio, admits he was and is still amazed with his talent.
“We knew that he was strong, but not that much,” Florencio said. “It is now that we are realising the extent to which he has a potential to become a top rider”.
Asked about Zakarin, the first word that comes out of Florencio’s mouth is ‘progression’.
“He shows progression in every race he takes part in. He doesn’t only keep the level he showed in the previous competition, but ups it a little and fights for victory. He is strong on the climbs and copes perfectly fine with time trials – indeed, I’d say he still has the traits of a real specialist in that field.”
Knowing he has the physical conditions to become a champion, the immediate question is: does he have the mindset for taking on the biggest challenges of this sport?
“Yes he does”, Florencio answers quickly. “He is a real leader, generous and grateful with his teammates, thankful for their work regardless of the result. Besides, he is always trying to keep a good morale within the team and, despite the fact that he only knows Russian and a bit of English, keeps everyone involved on the jokes.
“Maybe last year he was a bit shyer, but that’s normal because it was his first season on the WorldTour. Right now, he has a central position on the team and is quite charismatic.”
2016 is set to be Zakarin’s best year so far. He has started it in style, netting top-10 places in every stage race he has competed in so far. He beat Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and Geraint Thomas (Sky) to win a summit finish at Paris-Nice, and did the same against Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in the Tour de Romandie before being relegated for allegedly deviating from his sprinting line.
At the time of writing, Zakarin is roughly a week into his second Giro d’Italia. Heading into the three-week race he was hopeful of a podium finish: “I am coming with an ambition to fight for a high result in the general classification. That’s my priority.”
Right now, the enigmatic Russian is on track. He finished third on stage 6, the race’s first summit finish, with only solo winner Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) ahead of him. That result put him into third overall, ahead of pre-race favourites Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) and Mikel Landa (Sky). It’s still early days, of course, but Zakarin is riding strongly and will almost certainly feature in the mountainous stages of the second and third week.
Regardless of how his Giro pans out, Zakarin has another big target for 2016. In August, he will compete in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on hard, hilly courses that suit him.
“I was in Rio last December, I saw the route. It will be a very tough race,” Zakarin said. “I want to do my best there to bring Russia the highest possible result.”
Xavier Florencio is even more enthusiastic about Zakarin’s Olympic prospects.
“He can get a medal there, for sure. The road race is going to be quite open and he’ll be one to watch there, but it’s in the time trial where he will be able to surprise everyone.”
Ultimately, it is the Rio podium where the Russian Global Cycling Project wants its Zakarin Rocket to land.
About the author
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modelling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF