Russians at the Giro: Alfa Lum to Ilnur Zakarin

Zakarin Giro d'Italia 2015 podium COR VOS

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.

Alga Lum team dinner 1989 Tchmil Ugrumov Poulnikov Konyshev
Alfa Lum’s Soviet squad, 1989 (Flickr – Anders)

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.

Zakarin triumphs in Imola last May
Ilnur Zakarin triumphs in Imola last May

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.

Zakarin wins at May's Tour de Romandie, a victory that was later rescinded due to irregular sprinting
Zakarin wins at April’s Tour de Romandie, a victory that was later rescinded due to irregular sprinting

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.

Menchov Rabobank Giro d'Italia 2009 Rome COR VOS
Denis Menchov’s famous fall during the 2009 Giro’s final time trial

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.”

Zakarin with the favourites group during stage 12 to Asolo
Zakarin with the favourites group during this year’s stage 12 to Asolo

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!

The MPCC just got even smaller

Tour of Qatar 2016 - Elite - Stage 5
Katusha at the Tour of Qatar earlier this season (Cor Vos)

Yet more teams leave the voluntary organisation

WorldTour teams Katusha and Orica-GreenEdge have become the latest teams to leave the Movement For Credible Cycling (MPCC) this week. It leaves the France-based organisation with just seven teams in the sport’s top tier, with seventeen remaining at ProContinental level.

The latest withdrawals continue the exodus of last year, when five teams left the group, with a variety of reasons cited.

Lampre-Merida (9 March 2015) – Quit after hiring Diego Ulissi, when MPCC rules stated they would have to wait another year to do so.

Bardiani-CSF (4 June 2015) – Left after a fallout over an unnamed rider who rode the Giro d’italia with low cortisol levels.

LottoNL-Jumbo (10 June 2015) – Fell out with the organisation after being forced to withdraw George Bennett from the Giro due to low cortisol levels.

Astana (4 September 2015) – Kicked out after letting Lars Boom start the Tour de France with low cortisol levels.

Southeast (20 June 2015) – Chose to leave rather than suspend itself from racing after Ramon Carretero’s EPO positive.

Meanwhile, Katusha have found a delightfully contrived reason to leave, and thus avoid the mandatory self-suspension had they stayed aboard. With the team cleared to race by the UCI Disciplinary Commission in the wake of Luca Paolini and Eduard Vorganov’s positive tests, they claim that they will fall foul of a mandatory participation rule should they self-suspend from racing.

“A suspension of Team KATUSHA during a WorldTour race based on the MPCC Rules would violate the UCI Regulations of mandatory participation and the Disciplinary Commission would then be obliged to sanction the Team.”

The remainder of the press release goes on to state how dismayed the team is with the MPCC for not bringing their team suspension rules (8 days for 2 positive B-Samples) into line with the UCI’s (15 days for 2 positive A-samples), before reaffirming their commitment to clean cycling.

However, we have already seen teams suspended from racing in similar situations, notably AG2R La Mondiale in 2013 – the French team missed the Critérium du Dauphiné and were not punished by the UCI.

Katusha meanwhile, have taken this nice opportunity to leave the group whose rules, considering the team’s past, are likely to cause them trouble at some point in the future, as well as preventing themselves from missing any important Spring races.

Santos Tour Down Under 2016 stage 4
Simon Gerrans at the Tour Down Under (Cor Vos)

Onto GreenEdge, and their exit is an interesting one, being as they are the only team so far that isn’t departing under a cloud of controversy. Their reasoning is altogether different to any given previously, too.

As general manager Shayne Bannan noted via press release, several initiatives put in place by the MPCC “have now become an integrated part of the rules of the sport.” So if many of the MPCC’s rules have already been incorporated into the UCI’s rulebook, teams see no reason to stay part of what they see as a now largely useless organisation.

The no-needle policy has been adopted by the UCI, as has the idea of team suspensions, while the CIRC Report reccomended that the cortisone rules also carry over. Meanwhile, UCI President Brian Cookson has already talked about a possible tramadol ban.

Hark back a handful of years and remember that both teams joined the organisation in order to look good. Katusha joined up while fighting the UCI in CAS for the right to stay in the WorldTour, while GreenEdge came aboard at a time when key staff members such as Matt White and Neil Stephens faced suspicions about their pasts.


The MPCC has, in many cases only been useful to teams for a PR boost – as we have seen in the past many find themselves leaving when they are inconvenienced by rules.

Still, it is hard to deny that the organisation is facing increased irrelevancy – yes, teams are jumping ship but the rules they had put in place have been adopted by the UCI. Only there are certainly more fronts to fight on in the war against doping, and no doubt more issues to highlight.

The MPCC’s strong relationship with the ASO is another wrinkle to this situation – Tour de France organiser has said in the past that members would be prioritised for Tour invites. Should the ASO vs UCI standoff remain in place, then the lineup of teams in future ASO races could get more interesting.

In spite of this, the prospect of teams flip-flopping in and out to please Prudhomme doesn’t seem too probable. And would he really refuse invitations to non-members such as Sky and Etixx-QuickStep? It’s unlikely.

Putting these hypotheticals aside, and despite its seemingly increasing redundancy, the MPCC remains an organisation that can make real differences in cycling. We have already seen that it can bring important issues to the fore, and should continue to do so, at least while it still has the power (via the members it holds on to) to have a voice.

Can Katusha ride?

Willunga Hill - Ausratlie - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Caruso Giampaolo (Team Katusha) pictured during stage - 5 of the Santos Tour Down-Under 2015 from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill, Australie - photo Wessel van Keuk/Cor Vos © 2015
The end of the road for Giampaolo Caruso? (Cor Vos)

Yesterday saw the news that retrospective testing by the UCI had caught Damiano Caruso for taking EPO three years ago, with the sport’s governing body communicating that his sample “had been stored and was reanalysed in light of new scientific developments.”

The positive, which dates to March 2012, could mean a four-year ban for the Sicilian. Aside from the possible career-ending ban, the question on everybody’s lips has been ‘What does this mean for the future of Katusha?’

The questions comes in light of a UCI rule, which was introduced this year. The full rule, which can be found here, reads..

uci rule 7.12

In short, two adverse analytical findings (AAF) from riders or staff on the same team means that the team is collectively punished with a racing ban of between 15 and 45 days. “Notified within a twelve-month period” is important here – the two AAFs don’t necessarily have to come within the same twelve months, so long as the team are notified of them within the same twelve months.

This is the rule that has seen Italian ProContinental team Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec sit out thirty days of racing after the positive tests of Davide Appollonio (EPO on June 14) and Fabio Taborre (FG-4592 on June 21).

Oscar Gatto sits out a month of racing thanks to the actions of his teammates (Cor Vos)
Oscar Gatto sits out a month of racing thanks to the actions of his teammates (Cor Vos)

Things are different for Katusha though. Even though notification of both positive tests came within a twelve-month period, the fact that Caruso’s positive dates back to 2012 means that a different set of rules apply.

Both the UCI’s rules and the WADA Code (both 25.2) invoke the principle of ‘lex mitior’ – a legal term which means that in cases where a law has been changed, the more lenient of the two will be applied. In this case, the 2012 regulations apply, given that the rule which saw Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec banned was only introduced at the start of this year.

So Katusha will race on, though their Italian contigent is rapidly diminishing. The team called the news of Caruso’s positive a “complete shock”. It’s hard to know exactly how to take this, given that the Russian squad employs Massimo Besnati (worked alongside Ferrari and Ibarguren in the past, was prosecuted for steroid possession in 2001) and Andrei Mikhailov (a convicted criminal thanks to his time at TVM) as doctors.

Are they shocked Caruso was doping, or that he was caught?

Caruso after his win at Milano-Torino last year (Cor Vos)
Caruso after his win at Milano-Torino last year (Cor Vos)