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Weekly Wibble: Zak Attack

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

As a testing ground for Vladimir Putin’s hegemonic ambitions, channelled through sport, the verdant mountain meadows of western Switzerland might seem a strange choice.

Surely the forbidding industrial landscape of Donetsk is a better bet; perhaps the cities of northern Poland that still bear the scars of the Soviet Union to which Russia’s leader wants a return.

Yet it was at the Tour de Romandie this week that Russia sat the West down on its knee and gave it a stern, paternalistic talking-to.

Ilnur Zakarin of Katusha rocketed – no lazy Sputnik references here – to victory in the prestigious stage race, ending three years of Team Sky dominance in the land of Nigel Farage’s most fevered dreams.

Russian Global Bid for World Domination through Lycra 1, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire 0.

Simon Spilak grabbed second overall, too, adding to the Katusha control and continuing his downright bizarre, if you ask me (and no-one did or should) trend of peaking for a warm-up race, then riding like unmitigated rubbish thereafter.

Only slightly outdone, Maxim Belkov claimed the points and mountains competition – meaning only Thibaut Pinot provided French resistance against the Russians.

The problem is, just as with Mr Putin’s not-so-stealthy demolishing of his neighbours’ borders, all is not quite well with young Ilnur.

In 2009, at the rosy-cheeked age of 19, he was boomed and busted for methandienone.

For those without the time for regular visits to Mr Olympia or Muscle Beach, it’s an anabolic steroid that gives you bursting biceps rather than the cadaverous calves more useful in road cycling.

Zakarin was banned for two years, cast out into cycling’s equivalent of the geopolitical wilderness.

When he returned, he dropped down to ride with RusVelo – lightly-armed heavies compared to Katusha’s slick dictatorial machine.

Three years later and around ten kilograms lighter, he’s dropping his chain in a time-trial and losing out to Tony Martin by 11 poxy seconds.

It’s a meteoric rise not so dissimilar to Vlad’s ascension from zero to megalo-anti-hero, through the ranks of the KGB.

For all his shadiness, at least Zakarin was using a drug meant for human consumption. Last year’s Tour de Romandie winner, Chris Froome, received a late therapeutic use exemption for Prednisolone, an anti-inflammatory used to widen horses’ airways.

But as with life as a geopolitical megalomaniac, it’s not how you reach the top, it’s whether you reach it.

Next stop for Zakarian and Katusha is the Giro d’Italia, which he says he’s using as a learning experience.

Judging by events in Switzerland this week, Europe’s boot could be under the same kind of control as eastern Ukraine by the end of May… 


36 – Different nationalities set to race the 2015 Giro d’Italia

0 – Number of British riders at the 2015 Giro d’Italia: one less than cycling luminaries such as Albania, Bulgaria and Panama


The Giro is starting in Sanremo this year; last time it happened in 1987, they had a crazy time-trial down the Poggio.

Happy 42nd birthday to Paolo Savoldelli, one of the best descenders in modern cycling.

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