Ilnur Zakarin is confident he can finish on the podium of the Giro d'Italia this year, with his Katusha-Alpecin sports director Dimitri Konyshev convinced the Russian will win a Grand Tour before his career is out.
And after an inconspicuous start at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, considerable weight was added to those hopes on the queen stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour on Saturday, where Zakarin rode away from what was pretty much the entire cast of this year's Giro favourites, though he was just pipped for the stage win by Rui Costa.
"I felt very good today and I'm happy with this results as I have recently trained hard at Mount Teide," said Zakarin, who distanced Nairo Quintana, Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, Bauke Mollema, Tom Dumoulin, and Steven Kruijswijk – who will all feature in Italy in May. "This is the fruit of that hard work and I'm happy."
The Russian, who was banned for two years in 2009 for using anabolic steroids, was in a strong position at last year's Giro until two crashes on the Chianti time trial dented his push for the podium. Still lying fifth overall, his race ended when he crashed dramatically on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello two days from Milan.
"At the Giro he had a very bad experience last year," Konyshev told Cyclingnews in Al Ain on the morning of the Abu Dhabi queen stage. "Talking about the podium is always difficult and in the last five days everything can change, but I think [without the crash] top five we could have done easily.
"The only thing he missed last year was experience. Now we have some. I cannot say he has a lot of experience but he has some. So this year we are thinking about the first three places, I think he's able to do that. He's much more experienced than last year. It was really the first three-week race as a leader. So he gained a lot of experience. Also with how to program the race. We made a couple of mistakes last year in terms of preparation for the Giro. He was too good at the beginning, and worse towards the end. We've changed his calendar and training a bit to try to organize it better."
Zakarin's English and Cyclingnews' Russian weren't good enough to have a proper conversation that morning but he nevertheless confirmed he wouldn't be truly satisfied with anything other than a podium at the Giro.
Konyshev certainly has no doubts, saying Zakarin has everything in his locker to do so. In his eyes "for sure" Zakarin is capable of winning a Grand Tour – if not this season then the few that follow.
"We don't have a problem with TTs and we don't have a problem with climbs," he said, encapsulating the all-round ability that will make Zakarin a real threat on a Giro route that features almost 70km against the clock and a feast of mountains in the final week.
"In the time trials he's really strong. Really strong. Especially the up and down time trials. He is usually good with the turns, which is why it was a surprise at the Giro. I think he would have been top three on that stage."
One area of weakness, however, could be his descending, with Konyshev revealing that Zakarin has struggled with nerves since that crash on the Agnello.
It was a mightily scary one, after all, with the 27-year-old laid strewn across a craggy hillside an alarming distance from the road – though remarkably he avoided injuries more serious than a broken collarbone and shoulder blade. "After the crash, yes, he lost a lot of confidence. You can see he pays a little bit more attention and takes it a bit easier," said Konyshev.
"We've been working on it, and already we see in training camp he was already much much better than last year, so I think he'll recover all his confidence on the downhill by the time of the Giro."
If he can recover that confidence he will represent a big headache for the other GC favourites, who will have to keep a watchful eye on him throughout.
"He will attack always," said Konyshsev. "He's the kind of rider who's not…you cannot program him. You can't say 'attack here, attack there'. He has the feeling in his legs and in his head, and when he wants to attack he attacks.
"You don't have to talk too much to him on the radio – only maybe to stop him a little bit. Most of the time I need to try and stop him attacking too much. I have to say 'take it easy, wait wait, wait.' So it will be fun at the Giro."
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