Slowly but steadily, Ilnur Zakarin is climbing up the Vuelta a Espana standings and ends the second week of the race in third place overall. The Katusha-Alpecin rider was 57th after the opening day Nimes team time trial and 14 stages later, after the conclusion of the challenging Sierra Nevada stage, he sits 2:08 minutes behind Chris Froome (Team Sky).
Zakarin made his Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia in 2015 as a stage hunter, succeeding with victory on a wet Imola race track. He returned the next year, reaching a high of second in the standings after stage 8 before crashing out on stage 19. In May, the 27-year-old finished fifth overall to demonstrate his GC potential, and he is confirming his three-week racing ability in his debut at the Vuelta.
"I am happy and I feel good, but I am so tired. A late attack was the best thing to do. It made no sense to attack Froome on the earlier Alto de Hazallanas as we all still felt the long, hard and windy stage of yesterday," Zakarin said of finishing second on the stage to Miguel Angel Lopez.
"The timing of my attack was perfect in my opinion. I know that climb and I know how dangerous the altitude can be. In the end it proved to be a good move."
Lopez and Alberto Contador made their long-range attack with just under 30km to race and the GC group let the duo ride clear. While it became clear that the Colombian would be claiming his second win in a week, Zakarin was the first rider to jump from the GC group and pulled out an 11-second advantage over Froome at the conclusion of the stage.
"We are very happy. We were waiting for the last moment to attack because of the headwind. Once we saw that (leader) Chris Froome had only one rider with him, I asked Ilnur if he could attack in the last 3 kilometres and he did it, in a very good way," sports director Dmitry Konyshev said. "He got time on his competition for the podium. Kelderman was strong in his response, but Zakarin was stronger."
After the second rest day of the Vuelta on Monday, Zakarin's bid for the overall podium continues on Tuesday with the sole individual time trial of the race. The 40.2km Circuito de Navarra to Logroño test against the clock is likely to suit Zakarin, who is the Russian time trial champion, better than the likes of Lopez, Esteban Chaves, Fabio Aru, Contador who are all within two minutes.
While Zakarin will be aiming to build on his advantage, he has also shown he is climbing well and is confident of finishing the race strongly.
"Now I am third overall. Of course I will try to keep this until the end. In the third week normally I feel even better but there are still hard stages to come," he added. "The third week can change a lot, but I will be very happy if I can start as third in GC after the TT of Tuesday."