After securing his first Grand Tour podium, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) said that he had been fighting to honour the memory of his father. Zakarin’s father passed away last year, and his mother-in-law just six months ago. He has been racing the 2017 season with the determination to pay tribute to his dad.
Zakarin has been flirting with a podium spot throughout the Vuelta a Espana, but had to wait until the Alto de l’Angliru to seal his place in the top three, jumping Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and holding off Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) by just 20 seconds.
“I’m very happy and my next goal will be even higher,” Zakarin explained after the stage. “Last year my father died, and this year I have been trying to win for my father. It was a big dream to be able to honour him. My mother-in-law also died six months ago, and it has been a very tough time for the family.”
Zakarin began the stage with a 12-second deficit to Kelderman, who had jumped ahead of the Russian in Tuesday’s time trial. Kelderman held onto the group of favourites for much of the climb, but when Froome accelerated close to the top, neither he or Zakarin could hold on. It became another time trial for the pair as they tried to pace themselves up to the finish line, but this time it was Zakarin who came out triumphant. He finished more than 30 seconds ahead of the Dutchman, more than enough to step onto the podium.
“When you come to stage 20 and third in the general classification, it means that you have quality and you are in good shape," Katusha-Alpecin team manager Jose Azevedo told Cyclingnews. "We knew that it wouldn’t be easy, but we knew that this climb would suit Ilnur better when it is this steep.
“At the start, he tried to stay with him and then he rode his own tempo. He couldn’t follow Froome but he was able to drop Kelderman, and he recovered about 15 seconds to Alberto and he took the podium. It was good, it was our goal from the beginning of the Vuelta and we are super happy.”
Zakarin’s Vuelta a Espana has involved gradually chipping away at the overall classification. It took Zakarin until stage 8 to make his first appearance in the top 10, and he rose to sixth overall on the wet ride to Calar Alto at the start of week two. An impressive ride to Sierra de La Pandera moved him into fourth and podium contention. Azevedo said that they always had the belief that Zakarin could make the top three, and he is expecting more from Zakarin in the coming seasons.
“Honestly, it was not a surprise for us,” Azevedo told Cyclingnews. “He’s a rider that is getting better results every year. This year, he finished fifth in the Giro d’Italia. At the start of the year, the plan was to do the top five in the Giro and the Vuelta, but when he finished fifth in the Giro we believed that something was possible, and in the end it was a great ride. To show how much we believe in him we signed for two years more so we didn’t need the Vuelta to have some proof. He’s our GC rider for the next years.”
After his Vuelta a Espana success, Zakarin will head to Norway for the World Championships before calling time on his season. After a top five at the Giro d’Italia and a podium finish at the Vuelta a Espana, a possible GC ride at the Tour de France is in the cards, but it all depends on the routes. Zakarin has ridden the Tour just once before, after he crashed out of the 2016 Giro d'Italia, but that was only with stage wins in mind.
“Of course, then the big tours will be the main goal,” said Azevedo. “This year, he did the Giro and the Vuelta, so it is a possibility. It’s too early to speak about the programme. For sure we need to know the route and the announcement of the route, but it is clear that we have a lot of confidence in him and he is our GC rider for the future.”