At least Aleksandr Vlasov didn’t have much time to dwell on the disappointment. Illness meant his 2020 Giro d’Italia debut lasted less than 100 kilometres, but last autumn’s condensed calendar ensured he was back in action at a Grand Tour before the corsa rosa had even reached Milan.
In the days immediately after returning home from Sicily, Vlasov watched on television as Deceuninck-QuickStep's João Almeida, the man he had beaten to the under-23 Giro in 2018, began his lengthy tenure in the pink jersey. Overall victory would be contested by men of Vlasov’s generation, but rather than ponder what might have been if he didn't have to pull out of stage 2 due to a stomach illness, the Russian was able to offset some of the frustration when he was drafted to ride the Vuelta a España at short notice.
“I watched the Giro a little, and I thought about how well riders around my age were doing, but then I put it to one side and I went to the Vuelta. I just thought about doing well there and I didn’t think about the Giro anymore,” Vlasov told Cyclingnews on the eve of his return to the Giro as the lone leader of Astana-Premier Tech.
Vlasov’s ad hoc Vuelta debut went about as smoothly as the rushed circumstances allowed. It was hardly a surprise that he lost four minutes on the opening day, but he quickly found his feet, placing second on the Angliru. His eventual 11th place finish in Madrid confirmed a certain aptitude for three-week racing.
“I discovered what it is to ride a Grand Tour and I saw how my body reacted. In the third week, I was still quite good and I was recovering well,” said Vlasov. “Everybody says that you’re stronger after doing your first Grand Tour, and that might be the case. It was my first time doing such a long effort, and I think I managed it well and then recovered. Maybe now I’m stronger as a result, and I certainly know what it is to make an effort like that for three weeks.”
Vlasov was already an outsider for the podium before last year’s Giro after triumphs at the Giro dell’Emilia and atop Mont Ventoux, and a string of displays that reportedly drew interest from Ineos Grenadiers in acquiring his services for 2022. (“When the Giro is finished, we’ll think about decisions for the future,” Vlasov said carefully.)
His assured performances through the opening months of 2021 have only underlined his credentials still further ahead of this year’s edition. After taking second behind Max Schachmann at Paris-Nice, Vlasov was a consistent third at the Tour of the Alps last month.
“Everything has gone like we had planned, so I’m happy. My form is growing and I could see in the races that I was going better and better,” Vlasov said.
“At Paris-Nice, I was a bit surprised that I was up there already with [Primož] Roglič, Schachmann and the best riders. Then the Tour of the Alps gave me a bit of morale, because it confirmed to me that I was going well and that my form was almost perfect.”
Vyborg to the Giro
Now resident in Andorra, Vlasov still speaks in precise Italian, a legacy of five years spent living in the country from his late teens. In the three decades since the best Soviet talent turned professional at Alfa Lum, Italy has remained a staging post for promising young Russian talent, and Vlasov followed the familiar pathway. After impressing at underage level in Russia, he was dispatched to a finishing school at the Viris Vigevano squad near Pavia in his first year out of the junior ranks.
“Renat Khamidulin, the general manager of Gazprom-RusVelo, placed me there. He had raced there as an amateur and he asked me if I wanted to go there and try,” said Vlasov. “It was my first time living alone, there in Vigevano, and I had to learn Italian quickly to be able to communicate with the others on the team, but it was a beautiful experience.”
Following three seasons in Vigevano, Vlasov signed for Gazprom-RusVelo in 2018, where he was able to toggle between the professional and under-23 pelotons.
“I learned about professionalism there, and I was able to develop steadily,” he said. Indeed, he didn’t make the step up to the WorldTour until the (nowadays) relatively advanced age of 23. “I never made any big jumps, I was always going step by step and just improving a little bit every year.”
Vlasov’s progression through the under-23 grade came as Russia’s presence at WorldTour level was beginning to recede. Tinkoff and Katusha have both left the sport since he arrived in Italy in 2015, and the supply line of Russian riders to the top level has slowed to a trickle. Like fellow Vyborg natives Evgeni Berzin and Viatcheslav Ekimov, Vlasov began his life on two wheels at the local cycling school, but while the bottom of the pyramid remains in place, gaps have appeared higher up.
“There are two cycling schools in Vyborg. The budget isn’t very big but at least they’re still there. They’re surviving. There are always young riders from there who get results at national level in Russia. A few came up with me, but I think they’ve all stopped by now,” Vlasov said.
“There are a lot of races for youth riders in Russia, but there are fewer for juniors and even fewer again at under-23 level. There aren’t the sponsors and there aren’t a lot of races, so it’s a bit difficult to emerge.”
It was 27 years ago that another young rider from Vyborg in a light blue jersey won the Giro at his second attempt, but although Berzin still lives in Broni, barely an hour from Vigevano, Vlasov never crossed his path during his time in Italy. “I know of him, of course, but I’ve never met him,” said Vlasov, though he might yet end up following in Berzin’s wheel tracks this May.
“I don’t know how it will go but I just want to do well,” he said. “I’ll be focused for the whole three weeks, but I don’t want to think too far ahead now. The final result will come by itself if I do well day by day.”
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