Alexander Kolobnev’s return to racing this February in the Vuelta a Murcia with the Gazprom-RusVelo squad saw the 34-year-old, who was teetering towards retirement, open up a new and somewhat unexpected chapter in his career – but one in which he is determined to make an impact.
The Russian had been all but written off as retiring after an injury last spring in the Vuelta al País Vasco saw him out of action for a lengthy period, finally stretching into the entire season. But that’s actually not the case.
Although no longer with Katusha, his squad since 2010, the former Russian national champion, Paris-Nice stage winner and World Championships silver medallist in 2007 has now moved on to a team captain’s role in another Russian squad, ProContinental outfit Gazprom-RusVelo. But apart from showing the younger riders the ropes, Kolobnev, who turned pro in 2002 with Mario Cipollini’s Acqua e Sapone-Cantina Tollo team, will also be chasing wins in his own right.
Looking back on the injury sustained at the Vuelta al País Vasco last April, caused by a big crash on the second to last stage, he tells Cyclingnews that it was one of a string of factors that led him to take time away from the sport.
“I fractured one of my ribs and one of my feet. I don’t know exactly how I got through that last stage – a time trial – at all. I came second last. There was really bad bruising, too, in front of one of my tibia, and it didn’t stop swelling up for another six weeks. We thought it could be really serious, but finally it didn’t prove so bad.
“It was not the first crash and injury of last year, either, and as a combination of them all, I had to stop. On top of that my third child, a girl, was due to be born soon afterwards, so it was time to stop racing for a while.”
Kolobnev was convinced, he says, that his career was over. “I really was, I was tired mentally as well as physically. These things [like retirement] it’s never one factor that decides you one way or another; it’s several, and they were all pushing me towards the door.
“But after a time, I noticed that I was missing cycling. I began training again because I felt better that way. Your body is used to that. So I did some swimming, some riding – I have a lot of friends in triathlon – and around September the idea of Gazprom-RusVelo came up again. And it was clear they needed someone with more experience. So we started talking.
“There were a lot of factors that all came together which led to me signing for them. So I’m pleased to be back. I never was recommended by a doctor that I should stop permanently, although even if they had, sometimes riders have been told by medics they shouldn’t race and eventually they overcome those injuries and manage to do so.”
Three years ago, he recalls, Kolobnev tore a muscle badly and it could have been serious long-term, but he managed to recover relatively quickly. He says his form is “actually a little bit better than it was at this time last year” and he hopes to reach top condition by March.
“Now my biggest worry is to have another injury that could really be the end.”
One way in which Kolobnev has made the headlines in recent years has been rather controversial, and concerns the Belgian legal investigation into Alexander Vinokourov and allegations that Kolobnev supposedly sold the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to the Kazakh. Asked about the case, Kolobnev refused to comment, saying: “I only know what has been written in the media, nothing more.” He has, in previous occasions, denied the allegations were true.
For now, in any case, Kolobnev is concentrating on what he can achieve with his new team, currently participating in the Volta ao Algarve then heading onto the Gran Premio Cittá di Lugano, as well as some one-day races in Belgium and Italy and the Settimana Coppi e Bartali and the Giro del Trentino in March and April. Then Gazprom-RusVelo will be heading for the Giro d’Italia, unquestionably its high point of the year.
“I think I have to help inspire the younger riders, to show them that racing aggressively can bring its rewards, what you can achieve for yourself.”
His first race in Murcia last weekend, where he finished in the main group in 53rd, he defines as a success, and he has now gone to the Volta ao Algarve.
“I wasn’t sprinting for the win in Murcia, but it was good to feel that my body could respond well after such a long spell without racing and I was producing the watts I wanted to. I’m on a good track.”