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Fifth in last year’s Giro and then a career-best third overall in the Vuelta a España, Ilnur Zakarin will target the Tour de France in 2018 secure in the belief that he can take on the top Grand Tour riders in the world.
“The Vuelta was very important,” the Russian Katusha-Alpecin rider told CyclingTips in a recent sit-down interview. “I went to the race in a good condition, feeling relaxed, without stress. I rode the whole Vuelta without stress, taking things day by day, and after this big result I became more confident in myself.
“It was the most important result of my career, more important than my Tour de France stage win. Now I am sure that I can fight with the strongest guys in the Grand Tours.”
Zakarin is now 28 years of age. His career got off to a shaky start when the-then 19 year old served a two-year ban, starting in 2009. He returned to competition in 2011 with the Continental team Itera–Katusha, spent two years with the RusVelo Pro Continental squad and then joined the Katusha WorldTour squad prior to the 2015 season.
From that point on he made continuous progression in the big pro races. Winner of the Tour de Romandie in 2015, he then took a stage win in the Giro d’Italia. In 2016 he was fourth in Paris-Nice and Romandie, and was sitting fifth overall in the Giro when he crashed heavily and had to withdraw.
He healed from his fractures in time to ride his first Tour de France, netting 25th overall plus a stage win.
Zakarin missed the French race last year, instead focussing on the Giro and Vuelta. Netting fifth and third respectively showed his consistency, and led to the leap in his self-belief.
Team manager José Azevedo believes it was a turning point.
“He has more confidence,” he told CyclingTips. “Of course for him, two years ago when we were in this period and we planned the season for Ilnur, we were thinking about a top ten [in a Grand Tour]. Last year we started thinking top five. This is why he did two Grand Tours, but with time to recover in between.
“It was the first time he raced two Grand Tours, and we didn’t know how he would react after the first. This is why we decided the Giro and the Vuelta, to give him time to have a break and to prepare for the second.”
Netting third in his second three-week race of the year was good for his morale and also showed Azevedo what Zakarin could do in the future. He’s got increased faith in the rider, but also believes that it is important to keep working hard and progressing.
“The confidence we have in him exists, but it is not the case that because he finished third in the Vuelta that we are happy and we are going to say, ‘yeah, that’s fine’,” he explains. “Third is good, or fourth is good, but the next goal is to win.
“It could be in 2018, it could be in 2019, but this is our goal. It is to win a Grand Tour with him.”
The Tour: ‘In my head I am not ready yet to win’
Talk to Zakarin about the timeframe for victory and he doesn’t want to embrace full pressure this season. He wants to do as well as possible, of course, but he doesn’t believe in making big statements about winning the Tour.
“It is my first Tour for GC. In my head I am not ready yet to win,” he says. “We will see when we are there. But the first time riding the Tour for GC, it is difficult to win. The aim this time is to learn.”
One thing which may help his ambitions – plus those of the other GC riders – is Chris Froome’s aim to target both the Giro and the Tour. That’s of course dependent on the outcome of Froome’s salbutamol case – the Briton could end up being banned and missing both races, after all – but if the Team Sky rider does indeed do the Giro and the Tour, it is quite possible he is fatigued in the second.
Still, Zakarin doesn’t rule him out. “I know that the Giro/Tour is very, very difficult to do. But for me the one and only rider who can do both races at the same level is Froome,” he says. “But I think he is taking a risk doing both races.”
Zakarin isn’t going to ponder how other riders will do. Instead, he wants to build his own form and be in the best possible shape for July. He had an operation during the winter to have a titanium collarbone plate removed, but recovered quickly and declared himself in good shape at the team training camp in December.
He is due to make his 2018 racing debut on February 21 in the Abu Dhabi Tour, then will compete in Paris-Nice, the GP Miguel Induráin and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Following that, his pre-Tour programme should see him ride Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
All going to plan, he’ll line out in the Tour in top condition and chase the GC there for the first time.
“After what he showed in the last few years, I think the next step is [success in] the Tour de France,” said Azevedo. “Taking fifth in the Giro and third place in the Vuelta gave us all the guarantees for him to be our GC rider. We are convinced that he is a rider who can win a Grand Tour, and our goal is to win a Grand Tour with him.
“But, of course, we need to build the group around him in the mountains. One of the reasons we signed Ian Boswell is because it is going to make this group stronger around Ilnur. We want to keep growing the team.”
Boswell and the other climbers aside, Zakarin will be able to count on the strength and experience of riders such as Tony Martin. New teammates such as Marcel Kittel, Nathan Haas and Alex Dowsett also increase the clout of the team, and will help him where necessary.
Riders with their characteristics will likely be a big help on stage nine, when the race takes in over 20 kilometres of cobbles. Asked about his impressions of the 2018 route, that is the day which stands out for Zakarin.
“I really like that there will be pave,” he explained. “I never did it before [in the Tour], but we have a strong team with a lot of experience in these kind of races.
“It is okay, we will try to have fun,” he smiles.
Pushed as to what he can achieve, Azevedo says he has full faith in Zakarin’s abilities over three weeks. He believes he has all the requirements needed of a Grand Tour winner.
“He is a strong climber. He is a rider who rides fast, who does good time trials,” he said. “For example, in the  Tour of Spain in a flat TT with some wind, he was fourth and he lost just 30 or 40 seconds [actually 59]. He is a rider that you see as being suited for a big race, for the Grand Tours.”
As regards when victory in the Tour might be possible, Azevedo doesn’t want to set a date.
“We don’t want to put this pressure on now,” he says. “We are not going to say that Ilnur is going to win the Giro, the Tour of the Vuelta. That is not the point.
“We believe he can win. We are going to work, we are going to support him. This is our goal, it is our dream, and we need to fight, to work hard for this dream and hope this dream comes true.
“I believe he is a rider with all the capacities to win a Grand Tour.”