Russian cycling backers spent millions over the past decade to develop a homegrown potential grand-tour winner.
Many are starting to believe they’ve found one with Aleksandr Vlasov.
In just a few short weeks in the revived WorldTour calendar, Vlasov is knocking out one impressive ride after another.
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“I am really happy with my results after [the] restart of the season,” Vlasov told VeloNews. “I was able to save my form from the start of the year and I trained really well and productively during the lockdown. So, now I am quite confident about this second part of the season and I am looking forward to my next races.”
A few Russian prodigies few have come and gone, but no one really rose to the challenge over the past 10 years or so.
And just as Russian billionaire supporter Igor Makarov stepped away from backing the Katusha project at the end of 2019, a promising, 24-year-old Russian is suddenly pushing into the frame. The Astana neo-pro is quickly emerging as one of the most promising Russian talents in a long time.
Consistent climbing success post-COVID race stop
Without question, the 6-foot-1, 24-year-old has been one of the revelations of the stop-and-start 2020 racing season.
On Tuesday, Vlasov won his second race win within the past two weeks at the Giro dell’Emilia in Italy. In France, he was first up the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge on August 8 after finishing third at the Route d’Occitanie. Over the past week, he was fourth at Gran Piemonte and third at Il Lombardia before kicking to victory Tuesday.
His season debut with Astana started off with a bang in February, with a stage win and second overall at the Tour de Provence behind Nairo Quintana. And he’s been one of the most consistent climbers coming out of the long coronavirus race stoppage.
In fact, all season long, he’s been posting Peter Sagan-like numbers, winning or finishing in the top-5 in eight of his 12 race days so far in 2020.
“Already at the training camp in July with the team, I felt very good,” Vlasov said in an interview. “I could see by road tests that I am in good shape, so my results are not really surprising for me.”
Following a long break due to the coronavirus, Vlasov stormed back into the frame with third overall at the Route d’Occitanie behind the Ineos duo of Egan Bernal and compatriot Pavel Sivakov. Some of the peloton’s biggest names could not match the pair’s explosiveness, but Vlasov was right there.
“The rhythm was very high and the only thing I was aiming for was just to stay on their wheel, trying not to lose contact,” Vlasov said of the climbing speed at Occitanie. “It was not easy at all to compete against the best climbers in the world, but I can say that it was not impossible.”
Just two days later, Vlasov kept his momentum in motion with a dramatic win up the “Giant of Provence” at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge.
At the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, Team Astana put its full weight behind its neo-pro, who did not falter when going up against the likes of Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) or Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) on the bare slopes of the legendary climb.
“We were not surprised by this victory,” Astana sport director Dmitri Sedoun said. “We planned to fight for the win today, and we made everything for it. We expected this result today.”
Those comments reveal just how much the Astana brass believe in their young Russian prospect.
Russia’s new home-grown hope
Anyone who follows the junior and U23 ranks will be familiar with his name.
Based in Andorra during the racing season, he’s been competing regularly in Europe since 2013, and joined the Pro-Conti Gazprom-Rusvelo team in 2018. That year finished fourth at the Tour de l’Avenir behind Tadej Pogaçar, and won the “Baby Giro” that summer ahead of another rising star, Joāo Almeida, a neo-pro also lighting things up at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, whom he beat back Tuesday at Giro dell’Emilia.
Riding with Gazprom in 2019, he raced a full European calendar, with 59 race days in a mix of one-week stage races and one-day classics, capped by winning the national Russian road title and the “queen stage” summit finale at Kitzbüheler Horn in the final day of the Tour of Austria.
Team Astana officials confirmed to VeloNews that Vlasov is set to make his grand tour debut later this season at the Giro d’Italia.
Vlasov is one of the best Russian prospects to come out of the sprawling nation in quite some time. Makarov founded the Katusha franchise in 2009 with the stated purpose of delivering Russia’s first Tour de France winner. Former Giro and Vuelta a España winner Denis Menchov, who had come up through the ranks before Makarov entered the scene, never won the Tour, and didn’t join Katusha until his last two seasons in the peloton.
Many hoped that Ilnur Zakarin could have been the chosen one, yet despite a promising third at the 2017 Vuelta a España, his GC promise seems to have morphed into stage-hunter mode. Now riding with CCC Team, Zakarin is penciled in to race the Tour and Vuelta this season.
It’s Sivakov, whose Russian parents were both former racers, who is quickly emerging as Russia’s best grand tour hope among today’s newest generation.
Yet Sivakov was born in Italy, raised in France, raced on BMC’s former development team, and is firmly part of the Team Ineos structure. And though he speaks Russian and holds a Russian racing license, Sivakov did not come up through the rank-and-file of the Russian development program like Vlasov.
It’s Vlasov who is getting home fans excited. He grew up in Vyborg, the same hometown of Viatcheslav Ekimov, near the Russian-Finnish border. He raced at a local academy before linking up with the Russian national team, and shipping off to race as a junior in Italy.
Vlasov grew up idolizing the likes of Ekimov and Menchov, and was inspired by the attacking style of Alberto Contador. With a bit of a larger build, Vlasov said he’s modeling himself after riders like Tom Dumoulin.
His ambitions? To win a grand tour, ideally the Giro.
“I am a climber who can ride a good time trial,” he said on the team website. “That’s the formula that I hope makes me a GC specialist. My palmarès show it clearly, too. Last year, I made the top 10 in seven stage races, finishing on the podium in three of them. As to the big dream to turn one day into the ultimate goal, it’s definitely the Giro.”
He’ll get his chance in 2020, if the coronavirus stays tamped down and the race can go off as planned in October. Astana will be backing the GC candidacy of Jakob Fuglsang while Miguel Ángel López will be making his Tour debut this summer. Before the Giro, he’ll take a short break and race Tirreno-Adriatico (September 7-13).
There’s no talk of bringing Vlasov into the Tour de France, at least not yet.