You can’t miss Ilnur Zakarin. With his stick-man build, facial hair, Canyon cap and eyes bluer than Lake Baikal, he has the appearance of a Scandinavian professional skateboarder or a Nu metal band frontman. The only giveaway to his profession is those pipe-cleaner arms, which don’t even fill his medium tee-shirt.
In the space of just over a year, the Katusha climber has gone from being a relative nobody to a Tour of Romandie winner and one of the WorldTour’s top stage racers. Yet in this era of 24-hour news and abundant information, nobody knows much about this recognisable rider. He doesn’t speak English, a barrier for him and most journalists, and doesn’t give many interviews. He remains something of an enigma, a Russian riddle.
We sit down with him and directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev, one of Russian cycling’s finest, on the eve of the Grand Départ for a rather unconventional interview. Konyshev serves as translator, so I’m an Englishman speaking Italian to two Russians in a northwestern French hotel. It takes a while to get answers.
Firstly, we rake over this year’s Giro. The defining image of Zakarin was lying like a rag doll tossed onto a Dolomite mountainside after a crash. He lay motionless, metres away from his bicycle and his injuries looked far graver than the broken collarbone which transpired. It was a cruel way to exit, just 48 hours away from the finish in Milan and a probable fifth place overall.
“I was feeling good in that stage where I crashed,” he says. “The first thing that came to mind was the people watching on TV, my wife and friends. I tried to get up to show them I was okay. But I couldn’t,” he says. His legs wouldn’t respond; there was fear that he had damaged his back.
Days later, Zakarin asked his wife and family to not watch his races on TV, considering the fright his crash gave them. Yet he knows it was a futile request. Happily, he has recovered to make it to his debut Tour de France.
He grew up in Naberezhnye Chelny, an industrial hub 1,000 kilometres east of Moscow in the Russian province of Tatarstan. “He had many stomach problems as a one-year-old, he nearly died. It’s difficult to say the illness’s name in Italian, it’s something internal,” Konyshev says.
His parents work as welders in a local factory; Zakarin sends a portion of his salary to them regularly. He took up the sport at the age of 12, starting off on a Russian clunker. “It’s bad, very heavy, I think I had exactly the same bike when I started [35 years earlier]. Five gears on the back and two chainrings,” Konyshev says.
Apparently, it’s about as easy to train around Naberezhnye Chelny as it is to pronounce the place name (“Nab-riz-nit-chil-nee; people just say Chelny,” Konyshev says). Perched by the Kama river, which flows into the giant Volga, roads are few and far between and Russian drivers have a devil-may-care attitude to cyclists. “It’s become very dangerous because of the traffic, which has increased twenty-fold since my time,” Konyshev says.
Zakarin spends the season in the Cypriot city of Limassol, a place he discovered on a training camp with Katusha. Yet he is still unmistakably a product of his birthplace. A non-practising Muslim, he wears a crescent moon pendant, goes to mosque on occasion during the year and listens to “Arabic-sounding” Tatari music to remind him of home.
The 26-year-old is also an ice hockey lover, following the local Ak Bars Kazan team, who play in the Russian top division. A smile crosses his lips when I ask if he’s ever played it. Just look at him: he wouldn’t last two minutes on a roughhouse rink.
Zakarin was disappointed at the reaction to his Tour of Romandie victory in 2015. Seeing it as a bolt from the blue, journalists questioned him on his positive test for methandienone, an anabolic steroid, six years earlier. Is he tired of speaking about it so often? “Last year, yes. He was asked about it so many times. I think, this year, once and then enough,” Konyshev says.
“He explained that he was young, stupid. When you’re young, you do strange things… He trusted a person who was practically cut out of cycling.”
Nagging suspicions of Zakarin can be expected considering that failed test, the fact that his former team RusVelo registered five positive tests between 2013 and 2015, and his rapid rise in an age of shredded credulity.
Yet it’s misleading to say he came from nowhere. He won his first race outside of Russia, beating Michal Kwiatkowski to European junior time-trial gold in 2007. Five years later, he was 48 hours away from beating Fabio Aru and Joe Dombrowski in the Baby Giro before capitulating while in the maglia rosa.
That’s where Russian R-Sport journalist Veronika Gibadieva first met him. Is she surprised by his success? “Not really. Because he always was very talented and confident. Okay, winning Romandie was a surprise. But after that, I don’t think so. He is 26, he’s not a young rider. Maybe it’s just his time.”
Another curious nugget from Gibadieva: Zakarin is a book lover who polished off Une larme m’a sauvée by Angele Lieby, the account of a woman unable to move but fully aware during a two-week coma, whilst racing the Giro.
This year, Zakarin has backed up the Romandie victory with consistent quality. The Schleck-esque climber has been a stage winner at Paris-Nice and fourth overall, fourth at the Tour of Romandie, fifth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and would surely have finished in the top six at the Giro. Importantly, that ride – despite the painful premature end – proved to the Russian that he could be a leader in Grand Tours.
When asked for the best memory of his career, he says: “It’s not a victory, but the Tour of the Basque Country last year, where I started to feel that I could stay with the best [and finished ninth overall]. That gave a spark, for confidence in myself.”
Surprisingly, Zakarin is the only Russian rider at the 2016 Tour de France, using it as preparation for a medal bid at the mountainous Olympic road race in Rio. Success there would have the most currency back home. “There are a few popular sports in Russia: soccer, ice hockey, biathlon, figure skating. Honestly, nobody cares about cycling, maybe only during the Olympics,” Gibadieva says.
As he speaks, Zakarin fiddles with his wedding ring, moving it between fingers. Does he like doing interviews? “I don’t dislike doing them,” he replies after a pause.
There’s one last question directed to his directeur sportif Dimitri Konyshev. Can he see Zakarin following idol Denis Menchov to Grand Tour glory?
“Absolutely. He has the mind and the body,” he says. “Two days after he crashed out of the Giro, he wanted to go to the Tour. And after ten days of not riding, he did four hours in training, then four and a half hours. He gets it from his parents, you can’t teach that.”