Three years have passed since Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) was last on a mountain straddling the Franco-Italian border during the Giro d'Italia, but it was a different kind of experience this time around as he claimed the stage 13 victory at Ceresole Reale to move into third place overall.
Zakarin's podium challenge on the 2016 Giro ended when he sustained a broken collarbone in a heavy crash shortly after crossing from Italy into France atop the Colle dell'Agnello. This time out, the Giro scaled the Colle del Nivolet, where the road peters out somewhere shy of the border, but after taking the stage honours, Zakarin gently dismissed the idea that he had been in some way inspired by the events of three years ago in this corner of the Alps.
"No, why do I need to think about that?" Zakarin said. "I don't think about this."
Zakarin admitted that he had few thoughts, too, about claiming stage victory when the gruppo had set out from Pinerolo on Friday, but he was eyeing an opportunity to move up in the general classification after a subdued display in last weekend's time trial in San Marino. When a break of 25 riders forged clear on the Colle del Lys, Zakarin opted to ad lib and seize the moment.
With Bauke Mollema part of the move, Trek-Segafredo's Giulio Ciccone and Gianluca Brambilla worked to keep the group two minutes clear of the group of favourites ahead of the 20km haul up the Nivolet to Ceresole Reale, where the strongmen gradually came to the fore as the road climbed inexorably above 2,000 metres.
Zakarin had been able to preserve himself as best he could for the Nivolet, and he had only Mollema and Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott) for company by the time they scaled its upper reaches. With a little under 5km remaining, Zakarin launched an initial acceleration that saw off Mollema, but Nieve continued to put up fierce resistance. It was only in the last 2km that Zakarin finally managed to inch his way clear of the Basque, claiming the stage by 35 seconds.
"I didn't have thoughts about winning this stage beforehand," Zakarin said. "I went in the breakaway to try to come back a little bit on GC. This win is a little bit of a surprise for me because I was riding for GC. But I kept my energy for this last climb and that helped me."
Zakarin's victory was a timely one for Katusha-Alpecin, who have endured a trying season to this point. The 29-year-old's win was just the team's third of 2019 and their first at WorldTour level. It was also Zakarin's first road race triumph since stage 17 of the 2016 Tour de France, which might explain why he forgot to zip up his jersey before making his victory salute at the finish.
"I'm very happy with this win," Zakarin said. "I didn't follow a precise strategy. My two attacks weren't planned, and it wasn't the plan to get in the break in the first place."
Zakarin is the fourth Russian rider to win a mountaintop finish at the Giro, and his three predecessors all went on to win the race overall in the same year that they first achieved the feat. Evgeni Berzin triumphed at Campitello Matese en route to overall victory in 1994, while Pavel Tonkov won at Pratonevoso two years later as he claimed the maglia rosa. Ten years ago, meanwhile, Denis Menchov was first at Alpe di Siusi before going on to win the centenary Giro.
As the Giro reaches its third weekend, Zakarin is now lying third overall, 2:56 behind pink jersey Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) but only 31 seconds down on Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma). 5th overall at the 2017 Giro and third at that year's Vuelta a España, Zakarin has a solid pedigree over three weeks, but he downplayed his chances of contending for overall victory in Verona.
"For this moment, I don't have plans because now I need to enjoy this result and this win," Zakarin said. "Of course, I will try to take the pink jersey but for the GC, I think Roglic is really strong and is the number one favourite for me."