Russia and Italy have, in cycling terms at least, a close relationship. Over the years many Russians have moved to the Peninsula to start their careers in the U23 and pro ranks, while WorldTour team Katusha have always had an Italian flavour in the form of riders, staff and their service course in Brescia.
The relationship also extends to the biggest race in Italy, the Giro d’Italia. Since Soviet cyclists started racing in the West, only Spaniards and the natives have more Giro wins than Russia’s three, while Russia are also third in the stage win rankings with 25 during that time. What’s even more amazing is that these Giro successes can all be traced back to one team.
Back in 1988, Primo Franchini’s Alfa Lum team were enjoying the results of a young Maurizio Fondriest. The then-23-year-old was a star in the making, winning stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Suisse as well as narrowly losing Milano-Sanremo during his second year as a professional.
A surprise win at the World Championships in Belgium at the end of the season meant he was off to Del Tongo the following season and Franchini was left with a rebuild job. Luckily for him, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms saw the end of the amateur status of Soviet athletes as many moved abroad to compete.
With the Soviet economy collapsing, a new agency called Sovintersport was created. Overseen by friend of Vladimir Putin and ex-KGB agent Sergey Chemezov (who also had a role in creating the Russian Global Cycling Project and has served as chairman of the board at the Russian Cycling Federation), the agency brought in money by exporting Soviet athletes who were already professional in all but name.
Franchini took advantage of this, making a deal with Sovintersport and rebuilding his team entirely with Soviet riders. During the following two seasons, names such as Konyshev, Poulnikov, Tchmil, Soukhoroutchenkov, Ugrumov and Abdoujaparov would be introduced to western European racing thanks to Alfa Lum.
This starry alumni would go on to rack up nine Giro stage victories and four top-four finishes, as well as seven classification victories. Meanwhile two other riders who moved to Italy after Perestroika, Evgeni Berzin and Pavel Tonkov, won the race in 1994 and 1996, sharing twelve stage wins between them.
Now, twenty years on from those mid-90s glory days, Russians are back in vogue, with two teams racing La Corsa Rosa, a new star rider battling for the podium, and a stage win on one of the race’s toughest days. With an all-time high of seventeen Russians in this year’s race there’s a lot to talk about, so for this, the first in a two-part series, we’ll take a look at the biggest name of the lot.
Ilnur Zakarin, a lanky 26-year-old riding for Russia’s premier team Katusha, was an unknown to many cycling fans before the spring of last year. After serving his apprenticeship with Russian teams lower down the ladder, he hit the big time only a few months after joining Igor Makarov’s team.
A top ten finish at January’s Tour de San Luis showed his aptitude for stage racing but he really got going in April and May. The Vuelta al País Vasco, one of the hardest week-long races in cycling, concluded with Zakarin in ninth overall, which he followed up with overall victory at the Tour de Romandie. His first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, came days later and with it his first ever Grand Tour stage victory, on a rain-sodden hilly stage that ended on the Imola racing circuit.
This seemingly ready-made stage racer emerging so suddenly was a boon for Katusha, a team who had yet to find a homegrown Grand Tour leader. And with long-time leader Joaquim Rodríguez recently turning 37, Zakarin’s rise has been timed to perfection.
2016 has seen him consolidate and confirm his talent, winning a stage and finishing fourth at Paris-Nice, taking fifth after an aggressive showing at a snowy Liège-Bastogne-Liège, also finishing in the top ten at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie.
A Muslim Tatar hailing from the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, some 570 miles east of Moscow, Zakarin is Katusha’s leader this May, the first time he has ever led a Grand Tour team. The race has, so far, been a voyage of discovery for him.
“It’s one of my big goals, along with the Olympics,” he says. “Plan A is to fight for a high place on GC, though I can’t say which exact place I want to reach. It’s the first time that I have ever gone for a high result so we’ll see.”
Coming into the final rest day he finds himself in sixth overall, 4:40 behind leader Steven Kruijswijk and 1:49 behind the man in third place, Vincenzo Nibali. With three summit finishes left to race, it’s certainly within the realms of possibility that Zakarin can finish on the podium.
“There is still a week ahead, with many important stages left,” he said after Sunday’s Alpe di Siusi mountain time trial. “I will go day by day, giving my best in every stage.”
A natural time trialist, Zakarin has been winning races against the clock for years, and was National Champion in 2013. Thanks to the three time trials on the route, this edition of the Giro was thought to suit him well (before the race he said: “I studied the course and saw things that I liked. We have three time trials, so no need to panic.”), but the 40km time trial on stage nine was a disaster for him.
Zakarin fell twice on the wet roads in Chianti, also stopping at one point to change bikes A ride which, through the first two checkpoints looked like making him the first Russian in pink since Denis Menchov in 2009, ended with him dropping out of the top ten.
Back in July of that year, when Menchov (a cycling hero of Zakarin’s) was basking in the aftermath of winning the Giro, Zakarin’s world was being turned upside down. Still just 19, he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone, and would be banned for two years.
Nowadays Zakarin doesn’t like to talk about it, brushing off questions with responses about looking to the future and not the past, but it left a stain on his record as he worked his way up through the Russian cycling pyramid.
Success came at every level, winning the GP Adygeya and finishing in the top ten at the U23 Giro in 2012 with Continental team Itera. He moved up to ProConti RusVelo for 2013, and the good results kept coming, with wins at the Tour d’Azerbaïdjan, GP Sochi and the GP Adygeya once again, as well as a second place in the Tour de Slovénie.
During this final season with RusVelo, Zakarin made a number of big changes in his life. First and foremost was a move – not to the usual pro cycling bases of Lucca, Nice or Monte Carlo, but to Limassol, a city on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
His wife Viktoria, a nutritionist, moved with him, and has been a major force behind his rise to prominence. Put on a special diet by her, Zakarin claims to have lost ten kilograms as a result – and the weight loss has done no harm at all his climbing ability since his move to Katusha.
“When I came to Katusha and to the WorldTour I wanted to get some strong results,” says Zakarin. “I felt like I was ready, but I saw immediately that the level was higher. I did not expect the big results, but then I gained confidence.”
He surely didn’t expect to end up where he is now when he first got on a bicycle either, but he tells the story of how he began, and how he looked up to Menchov, Viatcheslav Ekimov and Pavel Tonkov as he grew up.
“I had some friends in school who were in a cycling club, and they invited me to join,” he says. “It was nice to ride the ride, to compete with other guys. The results came quickly so I decided to continue.”
“My brother Aidar is also a cyclist – he’s with Gazprom-Rusvelo. When we were younger we wanted to be like the Schleck brothers. If we can get the same palmarés it would be nice.”
Matching the Schlecks is a distinct possibility if Zakarin keeps learning and developing the way he has so far with Katusha, but he will want to go one better than Andy’s second place at the 2007 Giro d’Italia.
For the man who was born seventy years to the day after the great Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, this year doesn’t look like being the one he will take home the Trofeo Senza Fine. There’s time for Zakarin though, and from what we’ve seen of him a Giro win might not be far away. The motto of Tatarstan is, after all, Bez Buldırabız! – We Can!