The wind may have tempered the attacking ambitions of the general classification contenders on the Giro d'Italia's first summit finish at Mount Etna, but Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) had the guile to poke out one of the few opportunities that arose and claw back much of the time he lost in Sardinia in the process.
Vincenzo Nibali's earlier acceleration had been rebuffed by the stiff breeze, but when the road briefly swung into a section of tailwind two kilometres from the finish, Zakarin didn't need to think twice when his radio earpiece crackled into life with the suggestion to land a dig of his own.
"We decided to attack on a little section where there was a tailwind because you know that when you take 10 seconds on a climb like that, nobody wants to pull behind and they start to look at one another," Katusha-Alpecin directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev told Cyclingnews past the finish line at Rifugio Sapienza. "We tried that and it worked out. It was worth trying something, otherwise we were just going to have 20 riders finishing together."
Although early escapee Jan Polanc (UAE-Team Emirates) was unreachable, Zakarin came home in second place on the stage, 19 seconds behind the Slovenian and ten seconds clear of the group containing Nibali, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and the new maglia rosa Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors). Zakarin also picked up a six-second time bonus for second place on the stage, and his total haul of 16 seconds almost excised the 20 seconds he coughed up in Sardinia. The Naberezhnye Chelny native now lies 14 seconds off Jungels in 14th place overall.
Zakarin's afternoon had not begun auspiciously. He was among the riders to come down in a crash on the run-in to the base of the final haul up Mount Etna, but he was unhurt in the incident and quickly rejoined the group of favourites.
"He's good. Everybody saw that he's well. Unfortunately, we didn't take the jersey. If it wasn't for the 20 seconds he'd lost in Sardinia…" Konyshev said. "It's good for the morale, certainly. Now he can believe in the legs that he has. He will be surer of himself."
A year ago, Zakarin was poised to finish the Giro in the top five – or higher – only for his race to come to abrupt halt when he crashed on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello, two days from the finish in Turin. He resumed training on the rollers within days and returned in July to win a stage of the Tour de France at Finhaut–Emosson. Konyshev labelled him then among the ten or so riders in the world with the ability to win a Grand Tour, and Zakarin has built his 2017 campaign around a tilt at the Giro.
"It was hard to see today who was good out of the GC contenders because there was a headwind most of the way up and they all stayed together," Konyshev said. "It wasn't a real climb where you could make the difference. But for the head, it was good."
The podium contenders will face a sterner test of their credentials on the race's second summit finish at Blockhaus on Sunday, though Konyshev warned that the stages that bring the Giro from Sicily through Italy's deep south to Abruzzo will not be short of potential pitfalls.
"Above all, I think the big risk between now and the Blockhaus stage is crashing," Konyshev said. "The roads are all narrow and twisting, and everybody's still fresh and strong and wants to be at the front. We'll try to keep Ilnur in front and out of trouble."
Indeed, it was a trying day for Katusha-Alpecin on that front on stage four. Pavel Kochetov was forced to abandon the Giro after breaking his collarbone in a crash, while Alberto Losada somehow made it to the finish – in last place, almost 40 minutes down on Polanc – despite dislocating his right shoulder in a crash with 60 kilometres to go. The Spaniard looked destined to abandon when he climbed aboard an ambulance, but after his shoulder was snapped back into place, he managed to complete the stage.
The official medical bulletin reported that Losada had sustained no fractures in the incident but sustained some tendon damage. It remains to be seen how well he will be able to continue on Wednesday.
"We lost Kochetov today, he fractured his clavicle and Losada dislocated his arm. We put it back in, but it was an ugly fall," Konyshev said. "But Zakarin is good and that's the important thing."