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Katusha has seen the future, and its name is Ilnur Zakarin. The tall, stringy 26-year-old is just what the Russian franchise has been waiting for.
Despite a hiccup midway through the Giro d’Italia, with a crash in the Chianti time trial that stalled his GC aspirations, Katusha is very pleased with how its budding star from Tatarstan is riding into the Giro’s final decisive weekend.
“This Giro is the first time he is playing the captaincy role on the team, and we want to see if he can hold this kind of pressure,” said Katusha general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov. “This is his big exam, and so far, we are happy.”
Katusha is a team without a franchise player, or at least, not one of its own. Spaniard Joaquim Rodríguez and Norwegian Alexander Kristoff have carried team colors the past several years, but Katusha is a Russian team, backed by Russian money, and up until now, a team that never had a Russian star to fly the flag.
That could change with Zakarin, who won the Tour de Romandie in 2015 as well as a stage in his Giro debut last year. With the podium still within reach going into the final weekend of the Giro, Ekimov sees leadership potential in Zakarin. Now fifth overall, he is just seven seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and 1:50 behind second-place Esteban Chaves (Orica – GreenEdge).
“He has his own character, and he has qualities to be a team captain,” Ekimov said. “He is a guy you can talk with, and he will listen to you, but he also has his own mind and vision. I like this, because he is not like a puppet.”
Evidence of that strength of character and ambition was revealed during the Chianti time trial in stage 9. A strong ride would have put him into the pink jersey, but he took too many risks on wet roads, and crashed heavily. He was left bleeding for 20 minutes from a deep gash while waiting for doping control before a doctor was allowed to attend him. Zakarin didn’t complain, and he’s clawed his way back into contention, now fifth at 4:50 back.
“I don’t want to say to be conservative, but he needs to be smart. He was being too risky, and that’s what caused his crash. That was not necessary,” Ekimov said. “It’s also good, because that shows his courage and his character, but that was a good lesson to be more realistic for the future.”
Zakarin is an interesting character. La Gazzetta dello Sport revealed this week he is a non-practicing Muslim, and lives and trains on Cyprus. With solid time trialing skills and improving climbing chops, Zakarin could develop into a Tour de France contender.
“It’s important that he continues on this line,” Ekimov said. “This Giro is important test to see his capacity.”
New look, new structure for Katusha
Zakarin’s rise comes as Katusha is making some interesting changes behind the scenes. Russian magnate Igor Makarov is still backing the squad, but Ekimov confirmed the team is also looking for international sponsors to step up. The team has also undergone an dramatic facelift, with a distinctive new color scheme and kit design.
“The future of team is very bright. We have switched to international professional team with commercial interest, so we are open to international sponsors. We are very busy on this,” he said. “We are working with a professional marketing team and designer, and they helped us with our new look.”
Ekimov said the team is also developing its own clothing line, team-sponsored cycling events, as well as a Katusha Café, what he described as a “pit stop where cyclists can stop, have a coffee, and talk about the sport.”
Team Katusha was born in 2009 as part of the Russian Global Cycling Project, with an aim of developing new stars in a post-Soviet world. Ekimov was part of a generation of riders in the early 1990s that came out of the former Soviet Union to break into the European peloton. Others included Pavel Tonkov, Evgeni Berzin, and Dmitri Konyshev (who now works as a sport director at Katusha).
New wave of Russian riders
Zakarin marks a third wave of riders who grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Other promising Russians include Matvey Mamykin, 21, third in the 2015 Tour de l’Avenir, and Alexander Foliforov, 24, winner of the climbing time trial at Alpe di Susi.
“There was a gap, but now we are seeing a new generation of Russian riders coming up,” Ekimov said. “It’s a different generation, and they are connected to technologies today, iPhone, Twitter, and Facebook. They are open to world. It’s not like when we were growing up [in the Soviet Union]. We were open, too, but we were limited, and we spent all of our time on the bike.”
Any advice from a man who used to train 40,000km a year when he was a professional cyclist?
“The most important thing is that they want to join this life of being a professional cyclist, if they want to make money doing this, they have to be 100 percent, and dedicate everything to cycling,” he said. “That has never changed.”