Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) has ridden just beneath the media radar for much of the Vuelta a España but with two days remaining the Russian's fourth place overall cannot be ignored. Could he push onto the podium on the Vuelta’s final summit finish or even take the stage win?
Fifth in Los Machucos and second in Sierra Nevada in the last week alone, Zakarin's mountain performances in his debut Vuelta a España, not to mention his extensive and impressive track record in Grand Tours in general, would suggest that's the case. Finhaut-Emosson in the Tour, where he won in 2016, was one of the steepest climbs in that year's race, after all. Certainly his team have a lot of faith in him, to judge by the way Katusha-Alpecin also attempted a mass attack on Thursday's hilly stage through Cantabria and on Friday Zakarin was the one GC racer who attempted to follow Alberto Contador's late attack, although he was quickly hoovered up by Team Sky.
But as Katusha-Alpecin sports director Jose Azevedo tells Cyclingnews, Saturday's ascent of the Angliru represents a different kind of sporting arena to anything seen in the Vuelta so far, and it will be the crunch test for all the GC candidates no matter their past performances.
"For us we want the podium with Ilnur, and every day there's a chance. We tried it on Thursday [with the collective attack on Collada de la Hoz], you never know if a rider's not going well. But Saturday's the day that will decide everything," Azevedo says.
"Ilnur's done climbs as hard as the Angliru before, like the Mortirolo, but very few riders really have that knowledge of such difficult ascents. Either you do it in the Mortirolo or in the Angliru, one or the other. Nowhere else is it so hard.
"Basically he's good on longer harder climbs rather than the really short, punchy ones, the short ones like Santo Toribio [where Zakarin lost four seconds to Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Contador] don't suit him.
"But tomorrow [Saturday] is a completely different affair, there's no team, no individual rider or teammate that can support you on a climb that hard. You do it all alone, and that's all there is to it, it's an uphill time trial. You just have take it at your own speed."
During his lengthy professional career, Azevedo tackled the Angliru on various occasions but he agrees that of all the climbs he did, it richly deserves the title of the hardest, both of the Vuelta and of Spain.
Los Machucos is similarly steep, he says, but the crucial, telling difference is in the length. "It's basically 4.5 kilometres, on the Angliru when you reach those last four or five really hard kilometres, you've already had four or five really steep ones before.
"On top of that there are two really difficult prior climbs, the Cobertoria and the Cordal. So all that tension and suffering on those climbs make the Angliru even more difficult."
He is cautious about identifying which of the five leading GC riders could still make it onto the final Vuelta podium. Wilco Kelderman (Giant-Alpecin) is the least experienced of the quintet and is just 12 seconds ahead of Zakarin, but as Azevedo puts it with a wry grin, "if you're lying third after 19 stages, you must have done something right.
"Froome is the favourite to win, but the rest of the podium is wide open and you can't rule out Contador for it either. It's still a very open war."
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