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Zakarin sees his way clear to first Tour de France stage win

Ilnur Zakarin's victory at Finhaut-Emosson on stage 17 of the Tour de France posed something of a logistical problem for the race organisation. With no interpreter on hand to translate Zakarin's remarks in the winner's press conference from his native Russian into English and French, Katusha team manager Viacheslav Ekimov was drafted in to perform the task.

With Zakarin's solo win coming just two days after the publication of the McLaren report, which has led WADA to call for Russia's exclusion from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, it was inevitable that he would be asked about allegations of a state cover-up of doping cases, including some from the nation's cyclists.

The question saw an extended deliberation between Zakarin and Ekimov, as the manager provided a translation – and perhaps some advice – to his rider. Zakarin, who is set to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics for Russia, served a two-year doping ban after testing positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone as a teenager in 2009.

"I am participating at the Tour de France, so it's already quite stressful and all of my thoughts are on this race. I'm not following the news. After the stages, I'm reading books and watching movies, trying to be away from stress," Zakarin said, before Ekimov added a comment in his capacity as manager.

"Ok, we are talking about a scandal, about the samples from the sport of cycling but currently nobody knows if those samples are from the track, mountain biking, from women's cycling or from men's cycling, so we can't really comment on that," Ekimov said, going on to offer his tally of the out-of-competition doping tests carried out on Zakarin this season.

"Ilnur is the most tested athlete on Team Katusha. Since last November he has had 12 out-of-competition tests and all of the results were tested by European labs, in particular in Lausanne, Paris and Barcelona. Katusha has its own internal testing too, and Ilnur has also been tested at least once in every race he has participated in this year – every single race."

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Tour debut

A native of Naberezhnye Chelny in Tatarstan, but now a resident of Cyprus, the softly-spoken Zakarin has been one of the most consistent riders in the WorldTour since he made the step up from the Rusvelo team ahead of the 2015 season. Still only 26 years of age, he was on course for a top five finish – or perhaps more – at the Giro d'Italia, only to fall and break his collarbone in a spectacular crash on the descent of the Colle dell'Agnello.

"It was a kind of disappointment to crash in the Giro because I was aiming to finish on the podium, but I had surgery after two days and I didn't lose any time in my recovery," Zakarin said. "We were making plans to come to the Tour all along. I had no objective for the first two weeks, just to help the team when I could, like bringing up water bottles or helping Alexander Kristoff. The plan was to be good in the third week and aim for a stage win, so I'm very happy."

A member of the day's early break, Zakarin made amends for his near miss in the Jura on Sunday, when an errant contact lens on the descent of the Grand Colombier proved costly. After bridging up to Rafal Majka and Jarlinson Pantano at the base of the day's final haul to Finhaut-Emosson, Zakarin forged clear alone with six kilometres remaining to solo to stage victory.

An avid reader, Zakarin told Libération last week that he recently completed Mikhail Bulgakov's 'Heart of a Dog', and he had been praised by Katusha directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev for displaying more devotion to his craft than Russian riders of previous generations, who labels him as one of only ten riders in the world capable of winning a Grand Tour in the coming seasons.

"Of course the Tour de France is the most important race so the dream in the future is to win it," Zakarin said. "After the season we will take a moment and decide which Grand Tour to target next year. But in the future, I want to come back to the Tour for the GC."

Tour de France stage 17 highlights video


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Barry Ryan

Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.