Monte Grappa, a mammoth 24 kilometres in length, seemed to offer the kind of terrain required to put Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin into difficulty on the final road stage of the Giro d'Italia, but when the onslaught finally came, it arrived from an unexpected source.
Two-thirds of the way up the climb, it was the red Katusha-Alpecin guard of Ilnur Zakarin – and not Nairo Quintana's Movistar teammates or Vincenzo Nibali's Bahrain-Merida men – who took up the reins at the front of the maglia rosa group. Pace-making by Maxim Belkov, who had dropped back from the early break, and Robert Kiserlovski helped to whittle down the GC group down to its bare bones, and seemed to signal the beginning of the denouement.
Although a general regrouping followed over the summit, the show of force from Katusha-Alpecin prefigured what was to come on the final ascent of Foza, where Zakarin himself went on the offensive in the company of Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) with almost ten kilometres of climbing remaining. The Tatarstan native's distinctive climbing style is hardly the most aesthetically pleasing on this Giro, but it has been increasingly effective in the race's third week.
His unzipped jersey flapping in the wind, Zakarin performed the bulk of the heavy lifting with Pozzovivo bobbing on his wheel, and at one point they had 30 seconds in hand on Dumoulin and almost 20 on Quintana, Nibali and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ). Having started the day just 1:21 down in fifth overall, Zakarin was too dangerous to be granted the freedom of the mountainside.
By the time Zakarin and Pozzovivo crested the summit, they had been joined by Pinot, Nibali and Quintana, though the collaboration among the leading quintet was patchy on the plateau that rippled towards the finish in Asiago, 12 kilometres away. In the ensuing sprint, Zakarin had to settle for second place behind Pinot, while the five leaders had to content themselves with a gain of just 15 seconds over Dumoulin.
"The good thing today was that the team rode very well, although we didn't get a lot of time in the finale," Zakarin said at the finish, with Katusha-Alpecin's PR agent, the former professional Serguei Ouchakov, providing the translation from Russian to Italian.
"People might say I didn't work a lot in the finale, but they can say they want. I worked before with Pozzovivo, I recovered a bit when we were caught, and then I still did some work after that. I'm satisfied with how I rode and I'll just give it everything in the time trial tomorrow."
Zakarin remains fifth overall ahead of the final 29.3-kilometre test from Monza to Milan, but he is now just 1:15 behind the maglia rosa of Quintana, and only 32 seconds off third place. Joining Evgeni Berzin, Pavel Tonkov – a visitor the race in the Dolomites – and Denis Menchov as the fourth Russian winner of the Giro seems a stretch, but Zakarin's time trialling pedigree means that he remains a threat to stand on the podium in Piazza Duomo on Sunday afternoon.
"My favourite is Dumoulin, and I hope he wins," Zakarin said. "I hope to get on the podium too."
A bet with Konyshev
When Dumoulin paused for his now-famous toilet stop at the base of the Umbrailpass on Tuesday afternoon, Zakarin was the first to break the confused and uncertain détente that followed by launching a stinging attack. Almost immediately, his earpiece crackled into action with blunt orders to desist from Katusha-Alpecin directeur sportif Dmitry Konyshev, a point stressed in a team press release that evening.
Less publicised was Zakarin's own act of contrition. At the following morning's start in Tirano, Zakarin made it his business to arrive early at the signing-on, and then waited discreetly for more than quarter of an hour until Dumoulin, then in the maglia rosa, had gone through his round of television interviews in the mixed zone. A less patient rider might have interrupted. A more publicity-hungry one might have sought a photo opportunity. Zakarin bided his time for a quiet moment before offering his hand in apology.
His eagerness on the Umbrailpass aside, Zakarin has bided his time on the road on this Giro, too, but after struggling on the Blockhaus and in the Montefalco time trial, he began to impress when he placed second behind Dumoulin on Oropa on stage 14. At the finish that afternoon, Konyshev told Cyclingnews that Zakarin's entire preparation for the Giro had been based around performing at his best in the race's demanding final days in the high mountains. "We've bet everything on the last week of the Giro, and he's showing now that his condition is growing," he said.
Konyshev also revealed that he and Zakarin had placed a novel wager ahead of that day's stage. "We had a bet before the stage: If he finished in the top three, I'd clean his trainers, and if he didn't manage it, he was going to have to clean mine," Konyshev grinned.
The stakes, one imagines, will be a little higher when Zakarin takes aim at another top three finish in Milan on Sunday afternoon.