Rider of the week
From Tatarstan to Romandie. It’s not the name of the James Bond latest installment, but a title that bodes well with Ilnur Zakarin’s career. A talented rider who showed glimpses of his potential since he was a 17-year-old who won the European ITT Championships in Sofia – where he defeated Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski – Zakarin has had a hard time two seasons later, when he was banned after testing positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone. After serving his time, the rider born in Naberezhnye Chelny (the second largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan) signed with Itera-Katusha and began his road back to the pro ranks.
In 2012, Zakarin clocked four wins, the most impressive of these coming in Girobio’s stage five, which finished in Gaiole in Chianti. Eventually, after a solid display, he was 9th in the GC, a result which brought him a contract with RusVelo, Russia’s second-tier team. During his two-year spell with RusVelo, Ilnur Zakarin continued to improve and his progress landed him two important successes: the ITT national title (2013) and the overall victory at the Tour d’Azerbaidjan (2014).
These results caught up Katusha’s attention, which decided it’s about time for Zakarin to make his World Tour debut, a couple of years later after riding for the team as a stagiaire. The season has started with a strong result for the 25-year-old, who came 10th in the Tour de San Luis, which was followed just a couple of months later by a 9th place in the difficult Vuelta al Pais Vasco. That was the moment when people began to take notice of Zakarin and follow him more closely.
Inspite of that, and the fact that he said his biggest goal of the year was the Tour de Romandie, nobody was rating him as one of the favorites for the Swiss race, where the pundits where expecting a showdown between Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France favorites. But stage by stage, Zakarin began to feel better and better, and eventually started to make amends once the decisive stages loomed at the horizon. So, after finishing second in the queen-stage to Champex-Lac, he put on a monster display in the individual time trial that concluded the Tour de Romandie. There, despite of a bike change due to a mechanical, the Russian rider managed to hang on to the yellow jersey and won the event ahead of his teammate, Simon Spilak.
Now, after becoming just the second Russian cyclist to emerge victorious in the Tour de Romandie (first was Pavel Tonkov, in 1997), Ilnur Zakarin is prepared to make his debut in a Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. There, he’s not going to start as one of the main contenders, but what’s sure is that people will keep a close eye on him after his recent success, so he’ll need to show that the Tour de Romandie win wasn’t just a one-hit wonder.