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Giro d'Italia

Russian Zakarin primed for greatness

Ilnur Zakarin, 26, holds the reins as Katusha's Giro team leader, and team brass is confident in their first-time grand tour leader.

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SESTOLA, Italy (VN) — Little is known about 26-year-old Russian Ilnur Zakarin except for his results. The team Katusha cyclist took on Movistar’s Nairo Quintana in the Tour de Romandie this May and won the Swiss race last year. In the Giro d’Italia, he scored in Imola in 2015, and when stage 10 finished in Sestola Tuesday, sat ninth overall just one minute away from the favorites.

Zakarin would explain more, but he shies away from speaking the limited English he knows. Instead, he speaks with his legs. He rode alongside 2013 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde for the last week and rode toward the pink jersey in the time trial Sunday, until he crashed twice in the final kilometers.

“His weakness? It’s not a weakness, but it’s that desire to win,” Katusha sports director Dmitry Konyshev said. “He raced the time trial like a prologue — in every curve he was risking it. I was not able to stop him in time, to tell him to go slow and regular. He races with his heart. When he learns to race more with his head, he’ll be able to win what he wants.”

That desire to win comes with a dark past. In 2009, at age 19, he was handed a two-year ban after testing positive for anabolic steroids.

Konyshev likened his tall Russian star to Chris Froome: powerful, but “ugly” on the bike. The more Froome increases his speed, it seems, the more he twists his head and thrusts his elbows out. Froome, in his favor, has won the Tour de France twice.

“That’s my dream with Zakarin, to take him to the Tour and win it next year,” said Konyshev. “Not just to go to podium, but to go to win. Of course, what comes, comes.”

Zakarin comes from the Republic of Tatarstan, “about 1,500 miles from Moscow, to the east,” said Konyshev as he drove toward the start of stage 10. “I’m not asking about where they are from, though. I’m concerned about what they can do now.”

Now, after losing one and a half minutes to the favorites and missing a chance to wear the pink jersey Sunday, Zakarin must make up time in the coming mountains.

“I hope he can still win this Giro,” Konyshev added. “This is going to be good for him, it’s the first time for him to ride a grand tour for the overall. It’s easier to ride a grand tour just aiming for stages like he did last year, because you are not concentrated 21 days out of 21 days.

“He has never seen the climbs up north, just the ones he rode last year, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to preview the climbs, we know them, and he trusts us.”

To win the Giro d’Italia, he needs to climb as he did in the Tour de Romandie, but show more experience. In Romandie, he initially won a stage, but irregular sprinting against Quintana — perhaps being over-excited — saw him relegated to second place. “Yeah, for sure, he needs to learn, but this Giro is still his to win.”