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Despite dark past, Zakarin gives Russians hope for grand tours

Some might not like him, but Katusha’s Ilnur Zakarin could well be the stage racer Russia has been waiting for.

Russians have won grand tours before — with Evgeni Berzin, Pavel Tonkov, and Denis Menchov winning one Vuelta a España and three Giro d’Italia titles between them — but none has ever won the Tour de France. It’s still too early to say how far Zakarin could go, but Katusha is betting its found Russia’s next big winner in the 6-foot-2, blond-haired 26-year-old.

“He has big potential in the grand tours,” Katusha general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov said last year. “In 2016, he will try for the Giro. If he can make improvements, maybe the Tour can be possible in a few years. Let’s see what he can do.”

Despite carrying an asterisk for a two-year doping ban after testing positive for an anabolic steroid at age 19, Zakarin’s been a surprise at every turn since joining the WorldTour in 2015. In his first full season in the bigs, he won the Tour de Romandie, claimed a stage at the Giro d’Italia, and notched a handful of top-10s.

And he’s going just as strong in 2016, with a stage win at Paris-Nice and fifth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as well as top-10s at both Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya, results that bode well for his assault on the Giro next month.

“I am putting a big focus on the Giro this year,” Zakarin said in March. “It’s a good race to start with. I need to make more improvements, but I hope one day to become a true grand tour contender. Who knows, maybe the Tour as well.”

Tall and lean, Zakarin looks to be the complete package. He can time trial well, winning the 2013 Russian elite national title, and it was his strong performance in last year’s closing-day race against the clock, including a mid-stage bike change, that delivered his upset win against Chris Froome (Sky) and teammate Simon Spilak at the 2015 Romandie. And he clearly has the racing chops, punctuated by his stage victory in a rain-soaked breakaway on a hilly day into Imola in stage 11 in last year’s Giro. He still needs to prove he can climb with the best deep in a grand tour, something he’s working toward in this year’s Italian tour.

Nagging questions remain about what happened when he tested positive as a teenager in 2009. Speaking last year after winning the Giro stage, Zakarin said, “It was a bad mistake, and I hope to forget about it, and start my career anew. I don’t care what people say about it. I am a different rider now, and for me, it’s all in the past.”

Lost in Thursday’s finish line polemics following his relegation was yet another impressive display by Zakarin. Midway up the first-category summit, he gapped an elite group, including many of the peloton’s best Tour de France riders, bridged to the attacking Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and then out-sprinted the Colombian.

Zakarin will have a chance Friday to put himself in the pole position and defend his Romandie title in a time trial showdown against Quintana on a 15km course featuring a stiff climb halfway through. The Colombian star starts with an 18-second lead, and with such strong TT riders as Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Giant – Alpecin) languishing at nearly a minute back, it could be Quintana and Zakarin battling all the way to Sunday.

Zakarin is a boon for the sometimes-beleaguered Katusha franchise. Team backer Igor Makarov has spent tens of millions of euros since Katusha’s formation in 2009, with a major mandate to develop Russian cycling and bring it back to its Soviet-era heyday. While the team has enjoyed successes with such riders as Joaquim Rodríguez and Alexander Kristoff, there has been little to cheer about among its Russian riders.

Katusha is firmly backing Zakarin, and will continue to groom him throughout the season with the hope that he can develop into the grand tour rider the team’s been looking for nearly a decade.