So far, Katusha general manager Viatcheslav Ekimov tells Cyclingnews, he can count the number of journalists have approached him to talk about Ilnur Zakarin in the Giro d’Italia on the fingers of one hand. But that may soon change.
Prior to riding his first ever Giro d’Italia, Zakarin blazed to an almost completely unexpected but emphatic trail to victory in the Tour de Romandie. In the Swiss six-day race, widely viewed as the key top-level warm-up event for Italy, the 26-year-old Russian beat riders as experienced as Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick Step) and Jürgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Soudal) - both, like Zakarin, taking part in the Giro d’Italia. Furthermore, although it has to be remembered that their big season objectives are still two months away, neither Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Chris Froome (Team Sky) were able to dislodge the Katusha rider from Romandie's top position overall, either.
Tenth in the Tour de San Luis, ninth in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco prior to winning in Romandie, Zakarin is currently lying 39 seconds back on race leader Michael Matthews. How far can the Russian go in the Giro d’Italia, racing his first Grand Tour in his first season in the WorldTour?
“We can’t forget that this time last year he was winning the Tour of Azerbajan,” Ekimov told Cyclingnews. “He did more than well in Pais Vasco, won the Tour of Romandie. The only thing he’s missing is experience in a Grand Tour. He might be too explosive in the first week and then pay the price in the third.
“I’m quite confident, in any case, that we’ll see him in this race. He is a warrior, he never gives up.”
Ekimov agrees that Zakarin certainly showed he can keep his head under fire during Romandie - when he had to change bikes mid-way through the final time trial. That was a moment where less battle-hardened riders than the Russian might have cracked, given the biggest win of his career to date risked slipping through his fingers when it was all but his.
Ekimov is less willing to discuss his rider when asked if Zakarin has protected rider status for the GIro. “I wouldn’t show our cards, but definitely we won’t waste him. He is there, he is following the guys [other top contenders], we are waiting for the mountain stages and then we will see how he gets through.”
Either way, the former pro is adamant that Zakarin is “under no pressure in this race from the team. If he puts pressure on himself, that’s his choice. But he needs to learn, get through these things, if the legs are there, he’s going to show up. If he’s got the capability to finish in the top ten, then for sure we are going to support him.”
After winning the 2013 Russian time trial championships on a hilly, testing course in windy conditions, Ekimov says that Zakarin “is good in long time trials.” And should he get through the first two weeks well, the Giro's stage 14 race against the clock, which is 59 kilometres long, could be one point where he shines.
But Ekimov says Katusha's aims with Zakarin are not so defined to the point where the team is asking him to finish in a particular position overall or target a particular stage. As Ekimov puts it, “I just want him to know what this is like.”