With a stunning backdrop of the Swiss Alps, Team KATUSHA’s Ilnur Zakarin soared to his first Tour de France stage win in stage 17 on Wednesday, taking on the steep slopes of the HC finishing climb of Finhaut-Emosson. Attacking from the break to bridge across to two leaders with less than 8 km to go, Zakarin, age 26, accelerated again at 6,5 km to go and once more at the 6 km mark to distance all others and earn a solo victory by a gap of 55-seconds. A small fist pump was the most celebration Zakarin could muster on the finish line where the gradient was 12% in the last half kilometer.
– It’s been 3 weeks that I’ve been focused and motivated to win here in the Tour de France. After the crash in the Giro I was so disappointed. First of all because I was aiming for the final podium and to lose all of that in the last few days was very hard. So I began to think of the Tour so perhaps I could win a stage here, – said Ilnur Zakarin. Zakarin was in fifth place with only two stages to go in May’s Giro d’Italia when a high-speed crash sent him home with dashed hopes and a broken collarbone.
Joining Zakarin on the daily podium were Jarlinson Pantano of IAM Cycling at +0.55 and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) at +1.26 for the 184 km stage from Bern to Finhaut-Emosson.
– This is a very important result both for me and for the team. I would like to thank my team and our main sponsor and team owner Igor Makarov, who has made a huge contribution to the team and our results. I am really happy with this victory. It means a lot for me, especially after my crash at the Giro d’Italia. I wanted to build up my form for the last week of the Tour and I did it. I feel good. But also, I wanted to prepare for the Olympics in Rio. Now I am really happy! I know this is the first Russian victory since 2009, so now it is time to renew old records and achievements. I am happy take my place,- continued Zakarin, who was close to a victory two days ago, but missed the possibility to fight for the stage because of contact lens loss.
The first real stage in the Alps saw a change in the time gaps on the general classification. Chris Froome (Team Sky) still wears the yellow jersey, but has widened his gap by 40-seconds to 2:27 to Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo. Third place is held by best young rider Adam Yates (ORICA-BikeExchange) at 2:53.
– My emotions are over the top today, especially for Ilnur and his daughter Kristina, who was born on the first day of the Tour de France. He hasn’t even seen her in person yet, only on Skype. I’m really happy, because Ilnur is the result of the hard work for the last few years of Team KATUSHA. Our owner Mr. Igor Makarov and all of our sponsors are very proud. We’ve been waiting and looking for this day and we did it, – said general manager Viacheslav Ekimov.
– After my crash at the Giro, honestly, mentally, I was ready to come back on the bike after just two days. Such a big motivation I had. So when it was possible I started my training and did my best to build on my form again for the third week of the Tour. I believed I had a chance to win a stage here and the dream came true, – said Ilnur Zakarin.
Asked about the recent scandal in Russian Sports, the story about possible disqualification of the Russian Olympic Team after a report few days ago, Zakarin sees himself removed from the current events while racing at the Tour de France.
– I don’t have any comments about it, since I am at the race, the biggest race in the world and all of my thoughts are only about this race. I just hope everything will be ok, and we will take part in the Olympic Games. All I can do – just to be prepared for the Games and to get a strong result there, – said Ilnur Zakarin.
GM Ekimov did touch on the subject, however.
– Speaking of the Russian scandal and, in particularity, the samples from the sport of cycling – currently no one knows if those samples are from the track, mountain biking, from women’s cycling, from men’s cycling so we can’t really comment on that. Ilnur is Team KATUSHA’s most tested rider. Since last November he has had 12 out-of-competition tests and all of the results were tested by European labs, in particular Lausanne, Paris and Barcelona. We do our own internal testing too. Also he has been tested at least once in every race he has participated in this year – every single race, – explained Ekimov.
Four stages remain to be raced in the 2016 Tour de France. Stage 18 on Thursday brings the second individual time trial, this one a 17 km mountain route beginning in Sallanches. The uphill course includes the climb of the Côte des Chozeaux to a height of 1219 meters before the brief descent into Megève.
Talking about plans of Ilnur Zakarin in the next season, the general manager of Team KATUSHA said:
– The Tour de France is the most important race of the season and Ilnur only had a short time to prepare for this. After this season we will take time to analyze his races to pinpoint where the best part of his season could be and which Grand Tour should be his first as a team favorite. Of course, the Tour de France is the number one race, but that could be for the future for him, – concluded Ekimov.