Ilnur Zakarin is hoping to capitalise off his successful, first full season on the WorldTour with better performances at bigger races with Katusha in 2016. The Russian all-rounder made his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia in May, but fast forward a year and the cycling world can expect to see him co-lead the team in Italy alongside Rein Taaramae.
"It is my goal – to be competitive in big races," Zakarin told Cyclingnews via an interview through a Russian translator. "My first year as a WorldTour rider gave me a lot, so next season I expect to be able to fight in some races.
"The Giro d'Italia is one of the biggest aims for me in 2016. I liked this race from this season. It will be a pleasure to go back to Italy. I want to try out what it means to be 'fighting for the general classification' in a Grand Tour. Of course, it means I have to have more tactical-style rather than breakaway-style of racing."
"I was very happy that day," Zakarin said. “You know, in the beginning of the race, after a successful Tour de Romandie, I thought I could fight for the general classification, but it was not the case. The thing is, I wanted to be in top shape for Romandie, so in the Giro my form started to come down. I lost a lot in the first few stages, so together with the sports directors, we decided to concentrate on stage victories.
"I remember that stage was good for a breakaway, so I attacked to be part of it. Of course, I wasn't sure that I could fight for the victory, but at least I wanted to try. Everything worked perfect for me that day. I had great support from Dmitry Konyshev, who followed me in the car. His experience, some good luck and 'my day' together allowed me to win in Imola. It was something special, since I know this place is very famous and important in auto sport.”
Although Zakarin is expected to co-lead the Giro d'Italia with Taaramae, he is cautious not to call himself an overall contender just yet.
"As I said before, it is my goal," Zakarin said. "For the moment it's too early to say if I could be a contender for a Grand Tour, but I know 100 per cent that I will try."
Zakarin is focused on the Giro d'Italia but he didn't rule out a debut at the Tour de France in July, where he said he could take on a domestique role for Joaquim Rodriguez.
"About Tour de France – I can't say it now. Maybe, I could do the Tour in 2016 supporting Joaquim Rodriguez, for example. Why not? Especially, knowing that after the Tour will be the [Olympic] Games in Rio, another big goal for me. And the Vuelta? Maybe in the future… I want to try all the Grand Tours."
Grant Tours aside, Zakarin had ample success in the shorter stage races this year with an overall win at Tour de Romandie along with his stage win at the Giro d'Italia, and he was fourth at the Tour of Poland and third at the Arctic Race of Norway.
His success this season was built off of a strong foundation with RusVelo in 2013 and 2014, when he had strong results at the Tour de Slovenie, GP Sochi and Tour d'Azerbaidjan.
"You know, I spent a good time in RusVelo and gained important experiences," Zakarin said. "But, of course, in Katusha I faced new challenges and new experiences, which I had to accept. In every race I was finding something new, both helping the leaders and being the leader. It was my aim to increase my stage race abilities and I had great support from the side of my team.
"I think it was a great season for me. So I cannot complain. Coming to the WorldTour level, I didn't know what to expect, even knowing I had a very strong base, which I received in RusVelo. So, in the first part of the season I tried to help the team to score as many WorldTour points as possible, helping our leaders like Joaquim Rodriguez. I think it worked well.
"Later, I had my own goals and the team supported me. Of course, I did not expect such a big results, it was like a surprise for me. Analysing the 2015 season, I understood the key points, which helped me to perform well in the races. So, in 2016 I would like to use this experience to get new results."
Asked where he sees his career headed in the future, Zakarin said, "Yeah, I would like to grow as a stage race rider, want to perform well both in weeklong stage races and the Grand Tours. I will continue my work over my climbing skills.
"At the same time I want to pay more attention to the time trial preparation. I know that oftentimes the time trial is the key for general classification, so I have to work more on it. I feel quite comfortable with time trials, but in the last years I've worked more on climbing."
Zakarin's career has not been without controversy. At 19-years-old, he was suspended two years after testing positive for methandienone. As a cyclist who grew up racing bikes in Russia, Cyclingnews asked him to give his perspective on the World Anti-Doping Agency's investigation into doping in Russian athletics (track and field) and about their decision to suspend the Russian Anti-doping Agency, declaring it "non-compliant".
"You know, I read about these things in newspapers and on the Internet, just like about other news," Zakarin said. "I can't say I know all the details of it. Yes, I am sorry to read about such bad things in Russian sports, but I am sure that the head of sports in our country will do everything possible to clear up the situation and to stop all the bad things.
"Everybody can make mistakes in their lives. Nobody can say, 'I will never make a mistake.' The main thing is to correct your mistake and to start everything from the beginning, from a blank page. You don't have to give up and everything will be OK."