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By Andrew Hood
Alexander Kolobnev is quickly earning a reputation as a rider who delivers in major international competition.
With his second world championship silver medal in three years, and a fourth-place that could turn into bronze from last summer’s Beijing Summer Olympic Games, the consistent Russia knows how to pack a punch come crunch time.
“They call me the sniper,” Kolobnev told VeloNews. “You have one shot, then you have to wait 364 days until the next chance.”
The 28-year-old was one of the main protagonists in Sunday’s exciting elite men’s road race in Mendrisio, going on the attack on the Acqua Fresca climb on the final lap to help forge the winning, nine-man selection.
“In the Olympic Games, I lost a medal because I was riding only to win. After awhile, I understood that it’s better to get a medal instead of nothing,” Kolobnev said. “I wasn’t sure about myself, because so many great riders were in the front. They were in great shape and had strong teams, so if they would tell me that I would be second, I would be very happy.”
When Cadel Evans attacked ahead of the final climb to power his way to the rainbow jersey, Kolobnev was well-positioned to counter, but found company with Spanish rider Joaquim Rodríguez.
With the Spaniard tired from riding in a decisive, mid-race breakaway and with two team captains chasing from behind, Kolobnev knew the chase would be up to him.
A slight moment of hesitation when Evans attacked, said Kolobnev, cost him a shot at gold.
“I lost a moment because I was talking to Joaquim. I could understand he was in the breakaway and he couldn’t pull anymore, he needed a moment to recuperate. I didn’t know how it would be, if he will wait for his leaders or not. It’s part of cycling,” Kolobnev said. “Honestly, it’s better to lose like this against a strong Cadel, who wins so strong than to lose in a sprint with somebody else. I had possibility, but I couldn’t do it.”
Pro since 2002, Kolobnev is part of a new generation of Russian riders who are too young to remember what it was like to compete under the former Soviet Union, when the central government funded and controlled the powerful national team until the early 1990s.
Born in 1981 in Vyksa, Russia, about 175km east of Moscow, Kolobnev found an entrée into the European peloton in Italy, where most of today’s young Russians cut their teeth on the demanding amateur circuit.
Thanks to his Italian agent, he caught the eye of several teams and turned pro with Acqua & Sapone-Cantina Tollo in 2002. That team morphed into Domina Vacanze with the arrival of reigning world champ Mario Cipollini, but Kolobnev was still finding his way and rarely raced alongside Super Mario.
Consistent results led him to Rabobank in 2005, where his reliability and brute strength made a big impression.
He was already developing into a reliable performer in major, one-day competition, riding to 10th in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games and 7th in the 2005 worlds.
Bjarne Riis tapped him to join CSC (now Saxo Bank) in 2007, and Kolobnev quickly delivered some big results, winning an impressive breakaway victory at Paris-Nice (holding off the entire chasing peloton for 10km to win alone) and another win at the Monte Paschi Eroica.
“He has too much muscle to ever become a GC rider,” Riis said at the time. “He’s very strong, one of the strongest I’ve seen. He can win classics and the world title some day.”
Riis’s predictions didn’t take long to come to fruition. Only the machine-gunning Paolo Bettini could better Kolobnev in the 2007 Stuttgart world championships.
Rough road to Beijing
With silver, Kolobnev became the first Russian to reach the world championship podium in 15 years.
Yet that wasn’t enough to secure him a spot on the Russian Olympic team headed to Beijing on a course ideally suited to his talents.
It was frustrating for Kolobnev, who wasn’t sure he was bound for the Olympics even a month before the Games began. He could never get a straight answer out of the Russian federation, was he going or not?
Despite his success, he was slated as a reserve rider. It was only with the late-date exclusion of Vladimir Gusev from the national team that opened the door for Kolobnev to punch his ticket to Beijing.
The “sniper” was ready to pounce again. In the frenetic final lap, Kolobnev followed the attacks and latched onto the front group just as it was powering toward the line for the gold medal.
Rather to try to regain his breath or hesitate for a moment, Kolobnev barreled straight through the lead group and hammered toward the line. Only the quick response by eventual winner Samuel Sánchez and Davide Rebellin kept out of contention for gold.
Seeing the pair bolt past him to fight for the gold medal, Kolobnev then had nothing left in the tank to fend off pro teammate Fabian Cancellara, who surged past to claim bronze.
After such a tumultuous run up to the Olympics, Kolobnev left Beijing bewildered and frustrated.
“After the race, shock, disappointment, depression,” Kolobnev wrote on his diary. “The general reaction to my performance was ambiguous. Some said it was a successful race … but what success could there be with loss? There was also much critique against me. Other said they expected more of me (despite my participation being in doubted!) and blamed me for such an unsuccessful finish.”
After the disappointment of Beijing, Kolobnev fell flat at the worlds, finishing a distant 43rd in Varese.
Kolobnev still might get that Olympic medal after all.
Silver medalist Rebellin later tested positive for CERA and risks being disqualified from the Olympics. That would mean Cancellara would bump into silver and Kolobnev would nudge up to bronze.
Kolobnev told VeloNews that’s not the way he’d want to win a medal.
“I don’t know anything from the results or what’s going on. No one has contacted me from officially from the IOC, the UCI hasn’t told me anything. I know the story only from the press, on the web sites,” he said. “What do I think? I think it’s bad work of the anti-doping system. They guaranteed that no one goes away from Beijing with medals if there was a problem with anti-doping, but that story came out later. Maybe I have bronze medal or maybe not. It doesn’t change anything in my life.”
Kolobnev returned this spring with more consistency. No wins so far in 2009, but he’s notched four podiums, along with sixth at Amstel Gold Race and ninth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège while helping winning teammate Andy Schleck.
Kolobnev will ride with Saxo Bank in 2010 as part of a two-year contract extension signed in 2008.
“I am very happy with this team,” he said. “I feel at home here and I can focus on the classics and the worlds. I am still motivated. I want to become the world champion.”
The route next year in Melbourne is said to favor the sprinters, something that would work against Kolobnev’s rainbow jersey dreams.
But he promises he’ll be back in time for medal hunting season in September.
“I haven’t seen the parcours yet next year. You never can tell. The worlds are always hard,” he said. “The sniper will be back next year.”
Follow Andrew Hood’s twitter at twitter.com/eurohoody