For a week, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) had been hiding in plain sight at this Giro d'Italia, but on the hills of Chianti on stage 9, the Russian was finally showing his hand in earnest. Through the first two time checks of the rolling time trial, Zakarin was on course to take possession of the maglia rosa. The dark horse was announcing himself as a favourite.
That dream would unravel on the roads near Panzano, however, as Zakarin's wheels slid from under him on a rain-soaked corner. He remounted quickly and looked to re-find his rhythm on the final run-in to Greve in Chianti, only to misjudge the final bend and fall for a second time.
A chaperone still waited for Zakarin to the finish line, though not to shepherd him towards the warm embrace of the pink jersey and the podium celebrations, but to usher him towards doping control.
His skinsuit torn and his hip bloodied, Zakarin had initially misunderstood the instructions amid the maelstrom of the finish area and begun to pedal away towards his team bus, only for his press officer to point him in the right direction. As Zakarin freewheeled glumly to the doping truck, he blanked the entreaties of a pursuing television crew.
Four days later, on the eve of the Giro's entry into the high mountains, Zakarin's outlook is rather brighter, particularly as the injuries sustained in the time trial crash proved to be superficial. After matching the best at Sestola and Asolo, he now lies in 7th place overall, 2:25 off maglia rosa Bob Jungels (Etixx-QuickStep).
"I think I'm recovered well and for the next climbing stages, I should be ok," Zakarin told Cyclingnews in Noale on Thursday morning.
"Of course I was a little bit disappointed on Sunday because I wanted to do a really good time trial. I had a couple of crashes although they weren't because I took too many risks on the course. It was because I couldn't hear the radio too well during the time trial, so I didn't have all the information on the corners. That was the problem."
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Top five a target
Despite a tendency to send cheerful tweets in English, Zakarin – who served a two-year ban after testing positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone as a teenager – prefers to stick to his native tongue when speaking to reporters, enlisting the team's press officer as interpreter. Interviews of any description have been rarities on this Giro, however, with Katusha directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev instead serving as something of a spokesman on his behalf.
Since the start in the Netherlands, Konyshev has been coy about Zakarin's prospects, for although his charge won a stage in Imola a year ago and impressed on the final mountain stage over the Colle delle Finestre, he has never before raced day in, day out for the general classification at a Grand Tour.
"It's a difference situation to last year, obviously, but the main thing for the moment is to target the top five on GC. I'll try to do my best for that result," Zakarin said, downplaying the prospect of mounting a challenge for final overall victory.
The Giro changes tack on Friday with the first of a troika of stages in the high mountains, beginning with stage 13 to Cividale del Friuli, before Saturday's mammoth stage in the Dolomites and Sunday's mountain time trial at Alpe di Siusi. After two weeks of phony war, the general classification picture should begin to take shape over the Giro's long weekend.
"It's my first time going into these mountains so I don't know them very well," Zakarin said. "All of my rivals seem very strong so I'll have to keep my eye on everybody because anybody could do a good final week here."
Zakarin, of course, didn't miss a beat when the contenders tested one another at Roccaraso, the Alpe di Poti and Sestola. He hasn't looked out of place when rubbing shoulders with Valverde, Nibali et al, but the coming days will reveal more.
"I'm feeling ok, I'm feeling really very strong," he said. "I don't know if I'm as strong as the others but I'm ok at the moment."
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