If his Swiss victory was a total surprise and raised eyebrows in the peloton by the way he climbed and time trialed better than established WorldTour riders, his stage win in Imola indicated that there is far more to the blonde-haired and blue eyed Russian than his palmares indicates. Russian cycling and the Katusha team are quietly confident they have finally found a homegrown rider for Grand Tours.
Zakarin only speaks Russian but produced plenty of smiles in the post-stage press conference in Imola, however Katusha factotum and former professional Sergei Ouchakov had the biggest smile in the room. Ouchakov is officially part of the Katusha team's press office but also drives VIP guests on the race, mans the finish area with dedication and helps the riders, all while wearing white shoes and enjoying an occasional secret cigarette before the riders arrive.
He described Zakarin as 'his' rider to Cyclingnews after he carefully translated his answers from Russian to Italian. "It's a big day for Ilnur, for the Katusha team, for our sponsors and for our team owner Igor Makarov," Ouchakov told Cyclingnews patriotically.
"I'm not a coach and I don't follow Zakarin's training but I've worked closely with him, helping him mentally, encouraging him and advising him how to be a quality rider. He's got huge potential. He's got so much potential that even he doesn't know how good he can become. He's starting to realise it now and especially after this win. He's also learning about the responsibility of being a team leader and protected rider."
"He's not like a lot of Russian riders. He enjoys a joke and a laugh with the team but when its time to get serious, he is serious."
Taking Russian cycling back to the top level
The stage in Imola was officially Zakarin's third win as a professional rider, coming after his overall success at the Tour de Romandie and overall victory at the 2014 Tour d'Azerbaïdjan, when he was still riding for the Rusvelo professional Continental team. He also won the smaller 2.2 category Grand Prix of Sochi and the Grand Prix of Adygeya.
He was also the European junior time-trial champion in 2007 but a black hole stands out in his palmares after was banned for doping for two years when he was just 19. He tested positive for the body building drug methandienone. Zakarin faced further questions about his doping after his win in Imola. He did not shy away from answering but made it clear he consider it part of his past.
"It remains a bad mistake. I hope to forget about and start a new career as a great rider," he said. "I'm not affected when people talk or write about it. I'm a different rider now. I try not to think what people might say about me. For me it's all forgotten."
Ouchakov won stages in all three Grand Tours during his own career. He was also part of the TVM team that fled the 1998 Tour de France after police searched and held riders as part of the Festina doping investigation. Zakarin considers Outchakov, team manager Viatcheslav Ekimov and directeur sportif Dimitri Konychev as role models. All raced in the nineties, when Russian riders enjoyed their best success.
"They were great examples for us when we were young in the nineties," Zakarin said. "In recent times Russian cycling has not had big results like in the past. But I think now could be the time that Russian cycling comes back to the top level. I hope I can be part of it and other riders can bring nice victories for Russia."
Zakarin has already dropped out of the overall classification at the Giro d'Italia but is making his first Grand Tour in one of the toughest editions of the Cora Rosa for young debutants. Despite his past as a time trialist, Zakarin seems himself as a stage race rider. He has slimmed down, Bradley Wiggins style, losing 10kg of body mass to become a lean climber built more like Chris Froome that Tony Martin.
"I'd prefer to develop as a stage race rider and hope to improve in the future," he said. "After the Tour de Romandie we thought I could fight for GC and we came with this goal but in the first few days I didn't feel good, so we talked with the directeur sportif and changed our strategy to fight for stages."