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Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Zakarin faces Olympic headwinds, new challenges in CCC move

The Russian climber hopes 2020 will see him return to highest level of peloton, with targets on the Giro and Tokyo.

A change of colors is just want Ilnur Zakarin needed for 2020. The Russian climber joins CCC Team following the closure of Katusha-Alpecin, and rides into the next phase of his career renewed and ambitious.

Now 30, Zakarin emerged as the best Russian prospect out of the Katusha-Alpecin project. After winning stages in the 2015 Giro d’Italia and the 2016 Tour de France, he rode to top-5’s in both the Giro and Vuelta a España in 2017, with third in the latter.

His progress plateaued, but a stage win at the 2019 Giro put Zakarin back in the winner’s column, and a move to CCC Team gives the Russian fresh motivation.

“I feel good about coming to this team,” Zakarin said at a recent team camp. “I have fire and desire inside and I cannot wait to race.”

CCC Team is raising its ambitions in its second season, with new arrivals such as Zakarin, Fausto Masnada and Matteo Trentin.

For 2020, Zakarin has confirmed he will put the Giro at the center of his ambitions, with one eye on a possible Tour de France start as well as a run at the Olympics in Toyko.

Zakarin will return to the Giro with CCC-Team in 2020 having won a stage in 2019 and placed 5th overall in 2017. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

“All the roles are clear and it’s very organized here,” Zakarin said. “I want to be competitive in the first part of the season. I want to get back to the top level that I was, and I hope to show that during the one-week tours. If that goes well, then I should be racing for a top placing and winning stages at the Giro. The idea is to race the Giro and Tour later, but it’s a long way to the Tour. I am focused on the first part of the season, and then it depends on how it goes.”

Zakarin’s Olympic hopes were clouded last month when the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia from all international competition for four years, including the 2020 Olympics, following more revelations of corruption and blatant rule-breaking inside the Russian anti-doping agencies. Individual athletes, however, could be allowed to compete under a “neutral flag” if they have not been implicated in doping scandals.

Zakarin missed a chance to race the 2016 Olympics under similar intrigue between the international federations. In the run-up to Rio de Janeiro, officials initially tried to ban athletes from competing who had previously had an anti-doping sanction, but that ruling was overturned, opening the door for athletes who might have served a previous ban but had no current anti-doping issues.

Zakarin, who had served a two-year ban in 2009 for a banned steroid early in his racing career, was initially sidelined from starting in Rio de Janeiro. When a late-hour reversal came, Zakarin said it was too late for him to prepare paperwork, arrange travel and hone his training to be able to start the Olympic road race.

“I missed the Olympics the last time due to political issues, and they should not mix both politics and sports,” Zakarin said. “I was a victim of that situation, and the decision to allow us to race in Rio, it came only a few days before the competition, and I had no time to arrange everything to go to Rio.”

Zakarin is determined to race at the Olympics, pointing out that his drug testing is controlled by WADA rather than Russian authorities. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Zakarin has tried to distance himself from some of the controversy surrounding the Russian Olympic movement, pointing out that he’s been living seven years in Cyprus and that his anti-doping controls are handled directly by WADA, not via the Russia anti-doping agency.

“All my tests are done directly by WADA, not by the Russian authorities, so it is not a problem for me. Many of us are very angry about the political situation, all athletes are suffering,” he said. “I would like to compete. If Russia cannot go, then I would try to race under any flag. I am ready to bring any documents that they may need. I haven’t done anything yet because the decision was recent, but I am prepared to do what will be necessary to race.

“I am very fair with the doping controls,” he continued. “I am controlled in and out of races, more than 100 tests, and everything is clear. I have nothing to hide. I would like to compete in the Olympics this year, and if I am qualified, I will have a chance to check out the course.”

The 2020 season, Zakarin hopes to be in Tokyo and back in the front row in the peloton.

“The past few years haven’t been great for me,” Zakarin said. “I want to show that I can still improve. I have changed my coach, my bike and I have a new training program, so I will do more altitude, so there are a lot of changes for me this year.”

— Nicolas Van Looy contributed to this report