Zakarin's Olympic prep carries on at Tour de France despite calls to bar Russian athletes

Against the backdrop of WADA’s call for the IOC to consider barring all Russian athletes from competing at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) is continuing his preparations for the occasion at the Tour de France.

Zakarin is the sole Russian rider in action at the Tour, and his Katusha directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev was cutting in his assessment of the mounting international pressure over allegations of state manipulation of the anti-doping process at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Russia’s track and field athletes are currently subject to an IAAF ban, and WADA has called for that sanction to be extended across all sports following Monday’s publication of the McLaren report, an investigation led by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren into allegations of state action to hide doping among Russian athletes.

“We’re 100 per cent certain that we do every correctly in cycling, we couldn’t undergo any more controls than we do now, we couldn’t be any cleaner,” Konyshev told Cyclingnews on the eve of the McLaren Report’s publication.

“We know there’s a political war against Russia at the moment, and they’re squeezing us everywhere. It seems strange to me to hear talk about democracy from people who have colonised the whole world. They’re brave to talk about democracy when millions of people have been killed. That seems ridiculous to me.”

Konyshev is pragmatic about the prospect of Zakarin being forced to miss the Olympics in the event of a ban on the participation of all Russian athletes, acknowledging that the 26-year-old’s priorities lie in the WorldTour with Katusha. Zakarin himself served a two-year doping ban after testing positive for the anabolic steroid methandienoneas a teenager in 2009.

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“The Olympics are a special race but he realises that he’s a professional and he earns his money here in the WorldTour. If he wins the Olympics, it’s not as though he’ll go up a level as a result,” Konyshev said.

“For me and for Ilnur, life wouldn’t change if he didn’t go to the Olympics in Rio. But obviously it’s a big deal for people who have prepared for this specific objective for four years. I’m sorry for people like that who’ve devoted four years of their lives to expressly to the Olympics and can’t go even if they’re clean. That’s a shame.”

The Olympics do, however, often hold a higher cachet for riders from the former Soviet Bloc than for their confreres from western Europe, hence Zakarin’s decision to use the Tour almost exclusively as preparation for Rio. Following in the path of men like Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov, Olympic road race winner in Moscow in 1980, would completely alter his profile in his home country.

“Of course in Russia, the Olympics are seen in a different light, it’s the biggest event there is for the public. And obviously up to 1996, it was only open to amateurs and so we grew up with the idea that they were something special – and they are,” Konyshev said. “It’s part of our culture that people care about the Olympics. I don’t know how many people in Russia will watch the Tour but many more will watch the Olympics, that’s for sure. It’s a very important objective.”

After the Giro

Zakarin looked destined to finish in the top five of the Giro d’Italia only to crash and break his collarbone one the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello two days from the finish in Turin, but Konyshev declared himself pleased that the corsa rosa demonstrated the rider’s aptitude over three years. “He’s one of maybe ten riders in the world who can win a Grand Tour in the next few years,” Konyshev said.

Nor did the disappointing end to the Giro seem to have an undue effect on Zakarin’s morale. Within two days, he had called Konyshev to ask when he could resume training. By June 10, after surgery in Germany, he was in full preparation for his Tour debut, where building for Rio and landing a stage win are the aims. A dislodged contact lens hindered Zakarin when he was in the winning break on the road to Culoz on Sunday, but more opportunities await in the final week.

“Every day is good for him here on,” Konyshev said. “We’re very happy with the experience he picked up at the Giro. The first time you do a Giro as a leader is tough, you’re under pressure every day from start to finish. Mentally he managed to survive so we can aim for the classification of a Grand Tour – whether it’s the Giro or the Tour – in the coming years.”

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features 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.