In Peter Sagan’s account of the finale of Gent-Wevelgem, Viacheslav Kuznetsov was simply “the guy from Katusha.” In Fabian Cancellara’s version, he was “the Russian.” No matter who was telling the story, Kuznetsov was the unknown quantity of the winning move at Gent-Wevelgem, where he finished a surprising third.
Normally, the host broadcaster detains the top three finishers for interviews after the podium ceremonies, but when Kuznetsov clambered off the dais on Sunday, he was told that Sporza did not require his services. He slipped through the crowds to anti-doping and then travelled on to his Katusha team’s base in Kortrijk without answering a single question on how he had finished in third place in a major Classic.
When Kuztnetsov sat down with Cyclingnews in the Park Hotel twenty-four hours later, he admitted that he had surprised himself with his performance in Gent-Wevelgem. Even without team leader Alexander Kristoff, forced out through illness, the 26-year-old was not among the three protected riders in Katusha’s line-up. Jacopo Guarnieri, Michael Mørkøv and Marco Haller were the men charged with landing a result on Sunday, and Kuznetsov spent the early part of the race working to bring his captains back up to the front group after they were caught out by the day’s first split.
After eventually latching back on, Kuznetsov received instruction over the radio from directeur sportif Thorsten Schmidt to protect the team’s interests by attacking ahead of the final two climbs, the Baneberg and Kemmelberg. Orders duly followed, Kuznetsov found himself off the front with 50 kilometres remaining, but only when his advantage stretched out to one minute did he realise he might stay out there until the end of the race.
“I attacked because everybody knew the race would be decided on the Kemmelberg and the peloton would be split, so it was important to anticipate that,” said Kuznetsov, who was caught by Sagan, Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) over the other side. “When they caught me, it wasn’t so difficult to stay on the wheels. Or at least, it was easier than it would have been on the climb…”
Kuznetsov’s tactics provoked different reactions from his companions in the winning move, though even without his initial collaboration, they opened a lead of almost a minute over the Etixx-QuickStep-led chasing group.
“Cancellara didn’t say nothing," he laughed. "But Sagan and Vanmarcke were a little bit angry that I stayed on the back of them, always on the wheels. They asked me a few times to work together and I didn’t, but I think they saw too that I didn’t have the same power as them. I was on the front alone for almost one hour and this was after 200km of racing. I am not such a big guy, they didn’t know me.”
As the gap tumbled on the run-in to Wevelgem, Kuznetsov began to offer more than merely cursory turns on the front, and despite the lofty company, he dared to harbour dreams of pulling off the most improbable of victories.
“I thought if I started the sprint first, from the back, it could be a surprise for them, and then I’d have more of a chance than if I’d waited for them to start: I mean, it would have been difficult to pass Peter Sagan,” he said.
The world champion duly came around to claim the win, while Vanmarcke nipped by for second, but Kuznetsov had the considerable consolation of holding off Cancellara for the final spot on the podium.
“This was maybe the best day in my life,” he said.
Who is Viacheslav Kuznetsov?
Kuznetsov was born in Tolyatti, in what was still the Soviet Union, in 1989. The city, named in honour of Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian communist leader, lies on the banks of the Volga in Samara oblast, and is best-known as the home of the Lada car. Kuznetsov’s route from there to the WorldTour team named after a rocket launcher went via the cycling school in Samara city, and the Itera-Katusha Continental team.
“I joined the Continental team in 2010, and I was so happy because before this I rode only in Russia and it’s a different cycling there. You just race on the one road, a 150km race where you go out in one direction and then turn around and ride back,” he said and the paused to think: “But actually it was a good school, too, because it’s very windy and there are bad roads, like cobblestones, and a lot of sprints.”
Kuznetsov’s stand-out result as an Under 23 rider came when he won the Côte Picarde in 2010 and after three years at Itera, he was promoted to the WorldTour Katusha squad ahead of the 2013 season. He marked the occasion by moving from the team’s Italian base on Lake Garda to Spain, first to Vigo, to live near teammate Vladimir Isaychev, and the to Denia, near Calpe, where he now resides with his wife. Trips home to Russia, he cheerfully notes, "take only 12 hours door to door if I start from Alicante."
“On the Continental team, you spent the whole season with the team. When we weren’t in Italy we could be an altitude training camp in Livigno or Armenia or somewhere. It was not like freedom,” he said. “When I turned professional, I understood I had freedom.”
In his first three years with the team, the Russian did little to garner attention, though he has been delegated to race as part of Katusha’s cobbled classics unit from the outset, where he found a willing mentor in Luca Paolini, currently side-lined after testing positive for cocaine last year.
“Maybe he didn’t speak a lot, but when I rode with him, in these races, he just told me before the start: ‘Look at me, and follow me,” Kuznetsov said. “He showed me where the important corners were for the Kwaremont, Paterberg and Taaienberg, and I learned, learned, learned from him.”
Kuznetsov caught the eye in his opening race of the 2016 season, where he was part of the red guard that piloted Alexander Kristoff to three stage wins at the Tour of Qatar. “After I finished 15th in the Worlds last year, I understood that I could ride with the biggest guys in cycling. It gave me confidence and I had a perfect winter,” he said.
Shortly after returning from the Gulf, however, Kuznetsov was hospitalised for three days in late February with kidney stones. Yet despite that significant setback, he was quickly back in action at the Three Days of West Flanders, and less than a month after that spell in hospital, he delivered his startling performance at Gent-Wevelgem.
“I had some problems with kidney stones. Maybe it’s not so serious but it’s so painful. I don’t know how I had it. I was at home and the pain came on all of a sudden so I went to hospital and I stayed there for three days,” he said. “When the stones were out I went back home and I immediately started to train. I didn’t think I’d lost much condition but I struggled in my first race back.”
Kuznetsov and his Katusha team began their campaign beneath a cloud when Eduard Vorganov returned a positive test for Meldonium. After Paolini, it was the squad’s second doping case in under a year, and they risked a collective suspension under new UCI rules.
While that particular storm has passed for the Katusha team, questions remain over the use of Meldonium among Russian athletes across all sports. Meldonium, which boosts blood flow and increases the amount of oxygen taken in by the body, was only added to the banned list on January 1, with over 100 athletes since reported to have tested positive, including tennis star Maria Sharapova.
“I know what Meldonium is. It’s a medication that you got in the sports schools in Russia years ago. It was a simple thing, like vitamins. The doctors would say it was not to help us, it was just to protect your health because you do a lot of hours on the bike when you’re so young,” Kuznetsov said. “But actually I didn’t take it because I felt good myself. I just took the vitamins, I felt that was enough.”
As a Russian cyclist based in western Europe, Kuznetsov is well aware of how the reputation of athletes from his home country has been sullied abroad in recent months, most notably by the WADA report that recorded allegations of state-sponsored doping within Russian athletics.
“I think it’s not fair, for sure, because every country has problems with doping control – Russia, certainly, but also Italy, Germany and so on,” Kuznetsov said of the emphasis currently placed on Russia’s doping record.
“Meldonium was not on the doping prohibited list but it was on the controlled list last year. I heard about that. They were controlling it to see who was taking it and who wasn’t. Then they decided to add it to the prohibited list. And now there are more than 100 athletes who have been stopped, including Sharapova, but for what? If it’s real doping, if it’s real help to sportsmen, why did they not ban it before now? For sure they knew about it, but now before the Olympic Games they do it and Russia has a lot of problems with this. I hope they make it clear.”
Far from the stereotype of the taciturn Russian rider the television crews at the finish of Gent-Wevelgem perhaps anticipated, Kuznetsov gave the impression of a man who might well have talked all afternoon long were it not for the sight of Kristoff and the rest of his Katusha teammates filing past for lunch.
"We weren’t in the best shape in Harelbeke, but sometimes a race like that happens. We cannot be flying every day,” Kuznetsov said as he got up to join them.
“Now morale is good again after Gent-Wevelgem. We’re waiting for other races, for De Panne and Flanders. For sure we will fight there.”
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