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Ilnur Zakarin’s Swiss surprise

Last week, Chris Froome (Sky), Thibault Pinot (FDJ), Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quick-Step), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) fought for table scraps behind an unknown, 25-year-old rider, just four months into his first season in the UCI WorldTour and two years out of a doping suspension.

Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) stunned the sport’s best stage racers, and nearly beat its most consistent time trialist, on his way to overall victory at the Tour de Romandie, an important tune-up for riders heading into the Giro d’Italia, and a race Froome has won for the last two years.

Zakarin won Romandie without taking a single stage. But he was consistent: second on the penultimate hilltop finish and third in the final time trial.

He put 13 seconds into Froome, Quintana, and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) on the climb to Champex-Lac. Then, despite jamming his chain and swapping bikes, he finished two seconds off teammate Simon Spilak and 13 seconds off three-time world time trial champion Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step) in the final race against the clock.

‘Surprised’ was the adjective of the hour following the Sunday race.

“I am very surprised by his performance today, notably because of his changing bikes,” Martin told AFP. “Already yesterday I was surprised. I didn’t know of him before.”

“I was very surprised to beat Froome,” said Zakarin. “And I finished so close to Tony Martin. In all seriousness, the goal was to finish in the top five, and I did not think I could do so.”

Zakarin has shown glimmers of form already this season. He was ninth overall at Pais Vasco, ahead of Pinot and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC), and tenth at the early season Tour de San Luis in Argentina. But neither result suggested that he had the legs to defeat the world’s best, including riders like Uran, who is in his final preparations for a run at the Giro d’Italia.

Zakarin is not the only young rider to pop out of the woodwork this spring. Julian Alaphilippe‘s (Etixx-Quick-Step) rides in La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, second in both, were equally unanticipated.

But unlike Alaphilippe, Zakarin’s surprise comes with the asterisk that follows those busted for doping. The gap in Zakarin’s palmares was not voluntary. He was banned for two years at age 19, in 2009, for the anabolic steroid methandienone, a drug found more frequently in body building and weight lifting, where its ability to provide bulk and strength are better appreciated.

He returned in 2012, racing briefly as a stagaire for Katusha before dropping down to feeder team RusVelo. In 2014, he won three short stage races: Grand Prix of Sochi (UCI 2.2), Grand Prix of Adygeya (UCI 2.2), and Tour d’Azerbaijan (UCI 2.1). He returned to the WorldTour this season, signing with Katusha.

If physical stature is any indicator, it seems Zakarin has left methandienone to his past. Bulk, specifically a lack thereof, is a factor in Zakarin’s performance, he said. He’s lost 10 kilograms (22 pounds) since returning to racing in 2012, going from 75 (165 pounds) to 65kg (143 pounds). His body today certainly bears closer to resemblance to Froome’s thin appendages than the likes of Tony Martin. He is certainly no body builder.

Zakarin was a strong time-trialist prior to his ban, winning the European junior time trial in 2007. He was Russian time trial champion in 2013, too. Those skills have clearly not been lost as he slimmed down.

“Of course, when you improve in one area, you lose in another, but later there is a chance to find a good balance,” Zakarin said of his weight loss.

Dropping weight is key to stage race success. But Katusha Team director Dmitry Konyshev put the result down to something more: the magic of the yellow jersey Zakarin had on his shoulders for the final stage.

“We already knew that Ilnur was good at the time trial, but you put somebody in a yellow jersey and it changes him,” he said. “For some it makes them worse but for others it makes them better. He switched on for the better.”

In a spring of surprises, the fact that the yellow jersey can give a rider wings, at least, is no surprise at all.