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"I decided to focus more on my climbing. I worked on my climbing skills and lost some weight to be lighter like a pure climber. With these changes, I became a better stage racer during this period."

Photo: Katusha Team




16.12.2015 @ 06:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Tall and thin with an expression of laughter often on his face, Ilnur Zakarin stands out on Team KATUSHA after a successful 2015 racing season that saw the Russian rider taking the overall victory in the Tour de Romandie and a stage win at the Giro d’ Italia, quality results for the 26-year old in his debut season at the World Tour level. 


“Afterwards I analyzed what I’d done and I realized that prior to these wins I had done a very difficult block of training,” explained Zakarin in his quiet manner during an interview with his team.  “The success in these races made me realize I have the potential to win big races and these first wins were stepping stones in my career.  Now I know how and what to do to earn results. I felt extremely happy with these wins, especially the first one in Romandie because it was so unexpected and that made it special.”


Starting the final stage, a 17,3 km time trial in Lausanne, Switzerland, Zakarin wore the yellow jersey with six seconds ahead of Thibault Pinot and fourteen-seconds to 2-time defending champion Chris Froome. As a former junior and elite Russian national time trial champion, the task ahead was certainly in Zakarin’s comfort zone, but going for the win in a World Tour race was a monumental moment in his career. Like all good dramas, however, some unexpected chaos was thrown into the mix to keep it interesting and stage 6 played out in a most intriguing fashion.


“In the time trial, before I had to make the bike change, my sports director Dmitry Konyshev was telling me in my earpiece that I was on better time than Chris Froome and on the same time as Tony Martin. Of course, I did not believe him, I thought he was lying to me so I was very calm. When I had to change the bike there was no panic because I didn’t think I was putting up a top time and didn’t even really know what my time was. So I just stopped and changed my bike calmly and then started again. I tried to go 100% then, knowing I had lost some time with the bike change but not yet knowing what that meant. Even when I crossed the finish line I didn’t know how I had done.” 


A third place finish on the stage behind Martin and teammate Simon Špilak, but ahead of GC challenger Chris Froome, kept him in the yellow jersey and gave him the overall win in the 2015 Tour de Romandie. He was joined on the final podium by second place finisher Špilak. A soft smile plays at the edge of Zakarin’s mouth at the thought of earning the victory.


Ilnur isn’t the only one in the Zakarin family who loves cycling – his brother Aidar will ride for RusVelo in 2016. As youngsters growing up in the Republic of Tatarstan, the brothers dreamed of being like the Schleck brothers – racing together and tasting victory. For now the duo ride on separate teams with Ilnur’s career currently on an uphill trajectory. As a Russian rider showing great promise and potential to see results, Zakarin knows Team Katusha looks to him as a leader among his fellow countrymen.  But 2015 was his first time on the World Tour team and settling in was not automatic.


“When I first came to the team I was a little uncomfortable. I didn’t know the way the team worked and I didn’t have the language skills to talk with some of the riders, especially the Spanish riders. Plus I didn’t really know many people and I felt a little bit nervous. But as the season went on, I got to know the other riders and the managers and the staff and now I feel very good in the team.


"I do understand that I have a new role among the Russian riders as one of the leaders and that the team looks to me for more results next year. For the moment I am comfortable with this and will prepare to the best of my ability for next season. Perhaps I will be nervous once we get at the races, actually, I probably will be, but I learned from an experience I had last year. I was in position to, perhaps, earn a top five in Vuelta al País Vasco but I felt nervous when it came time to race and I created too much pressure on myself and I did not do well. I think the experience of going through that helped me in the next races and I won’t forget how that felt to me so it won’t happen again. Now I know I have the full support of the team and I accept the responsibility that comes with it.”


Despite being a junior time trial champion, it has long been Ilnur’s goal to be a strong climber for stage races and grand tours. Initially losing 10 kg and beginning long training blocks in the mountains put Zakarin on the path to becoming a well-rounded stage racer.


“I have always liked the time trial but my first year in the RusVelo team as a time trial specialist, I won the Russian national championships and nothing more. That wasn’t enough for me so I knew I would have to change something if I hoped to contest for more victories. I decided to focus more on my climbing. I worked on my climbing skills and lost some weight to be lighter like a pure climber. With these changes, I became a better stage racer during this period.


"It is my plan, however, to retain my time trial abilities because in races today the time trial stage is often the key moment that can decide the race. Next season I will also spend extra time on my time trial bike when I am training. I want to put all of my skills together to be a complete rider.”


Zakarin has a full racing season planned for 2016 including appearing as the defending champion at the Tour of Romandie and looking to add to his stage win haul in the Giro d’Italia, but he especially looks forward to the Olympics in Rio. “It will be my first time to be an Olympian and I’m very proud to represent my country. I feel like a real patriot representing Russia in the Olympics and I hope to do very well there. I will give 100% in Rio.”


For Zakarin and his new bride of less than two months, during the cycling season life as newlyweds in Cyprus is good for the young couple with Viktoriya working as a nutrition specialist. While training and racing take up most of his days, Zakarin is never far from his beloved music. “I am a big fan of music and I listen to music all of the time – before training, during training, after training. Right now, I am listening to the music from the Empire cast on the TV, but I listen to different kinds of music for different situations. Something calm for going to sleep, something fast for motivation on the bike.” 


Perhaps his love of music is helping in another arena of his life as he looks to expand his language skills beyond Russian and Tatarian. “I am also trying to learn English. I know how important it is and I want to be sure I can speak and understand it. It is somewhat difficult, but the structure of it seems logical to me so I will keep working on it.”



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