First year with Astana Pro Team, the very first race…and here you are, with a stage win plus a podium place right away! You were off to a good start indeed!
- The puzzle didn’t miss a single piece for the Tour de la Provence. A solid base built in two training camps, first in Calpe, then in Tenerife, great motivation to make the best of the debut in my new team, and, last but not least, good legs. The team had a strong line-up, I rode with a super strong key rider like Alexey Lutsenko, I felt great – what else could I wish for? There was no alternative for me but to attack.
The start list of the race didn’t lack big names, to put it mildly. Did it feel like baptism of fire?
- Well, I didn’t expect such an impressive field so early in the season, but I was mentally prepared to face it. Last year I rode quite a bit with top guys, the philosophy is simple: if you pin up the number and feel good, just go on and ride your race.
I’m sure you won’t be quick to forget the battle with Nairo Quinatna. Do you share the popular point that changing teams did him a lot of good, and now he can be as strong as never before?
- I’m not the one to compare, but in this race, yes, he gave out a very solid ride. In the Mont Ventoux stage he rode away in a pretty impressive fashion. There were three of us, me, Alexey and the English guy, each of us pulled steadily, I saw the watts afterwards, yet there was no way catching him.
What type of a rider do you see yourself as? And what is your dream race to win in this capacity?
- I am a climber who can ride a good time trial. That’s the formula which, as I hope, makes me a GC specialist. My palmares show it clearly, too: last year I made the top ten in seven stage races on end, finishing on the podium in three of them. As to the big dream to turn one day into the ultimate goal – it’s definitely the Giro! I love the country, love the Italian fans, the type of the route, the legends – everything. I grew up as a pro in Italian races, and my first notable win was two years ago in the U-23 version of this race, a step in the right direction, wasn’t it? Among the monuments Il Lombardia is the most cherished dream too.
Did you have any role models in cycling? Did their influence shape up your riding style? How would you define it?
- When I was younger, I was a big fan of Alberto Contador, like so many, actually. His riding was always a super show to watch. Those blistering repeated attacks out of the saddle… But I’ve got a different body, and it’s important to be aware of this. Now I look more after Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome do the things, my characteristics are more of this type. I climb in the saddle, holding a steady rhythm, not like Froome’s 100+ rpm, mostly around 80- 85 rpm. With good legs, a chunk of ITT kilometers in a stage race can be of great help to me.
Do you race by the numbers or more by the feeling?
- Last year I even didn’t have a power meter in some races. This year it’s always mounted on, but I don’t watch watts while racing. A power meter is a fantastic instrument for training and post-race analysis, and not so much of a helping hand in a race for me, more of a distraction. When I rode my first races as a neo-pro, watching my watts was especially useless, the only thing to do was to hang on for dear life and not to get dropped. I’ve changed a lot since then, yet I don’t know... Perhaps in a three-week tour I’ll have to pay more attention to the numbers in real time, to avoid burning my matches too early.
Having made it to one the best teams in the world, it’s the right moment to look back at the milestones of your career, isn’t it?
It was a logical choice for me to start cycling, as there had been (and there still is) a very good club with a cycling school in Vyborg, the home city of Viacheslav Ekimov. I was lucky to be coached by the specialists who know how to foster young riders. No risk of premature focus on results and ambitions, no risk of a burnout as a consequence. We had lots of fun, learned the skills, various technical tricks, did some different sports for a change and some cross-training.
Meeting Ekimov (he was still an active rider back then) was a highly inspiring episode; it came natural that a fellow townsman with three Olympic titles was an idol for each of us.
Moving to Italy and joining a local club was a huge step to take. I had to mature quickly, to learn the language, to get used to living independently, like the pros do, taking care of yourself, cooking your meal etc. Throw in a quality racing calendar.
The final quality leap I can’t overestimate were turning pro and riding for two years with Gazprom-RusVelo, a highly professionally organized project. It was a huge privilege to work under the guidance of yet another childhood idol, Denis Menchov. I made the best of learning as much as possible from him.
Your first international win in the pro ranks was a milestone in itself, sure enough?
- Well, obviously, as well the way it came. It was the last stage of 2019 Tour of Austria, I felt I got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, having put much effort into my recent win in the Russian champs and the previous stages. I had a decent position in the GC but wasn’t sure at all that I would be up to keeping it. I felt tired, that’s it, I had problems keeping up with the rhythm of the peloton, and the thought of the mighty Kitzbüheler Horn looming on the horizon didn’t help. The rest was a classical mind over matter story, when your team rides like a single whole, puts you back to the front and somehow yourself-believe also comes back, by and by. Right at the start of the main climb I felt so much better that I ventured a nothing-to-lose move, and it worked!
How smoothly did the adaptation in Astana Pro Team go? Did it take time?
- I’d say I felt instantly at home. There is no language barrier here, with most of the riders and staff speaking Russian or Italian, I didn’t run into the barrier of a different mentality either. Finding common tongue, in every sense, with the leaders like Alexey Lutsenko and Miguel Angel Lopez was no problem at all.
Describe your role in the team.
- I’m expected to help the leaders in key moments; when the racing situation allows and the legs are good, I have the right to attack, too.
Has your personal revamped post-lockdown racing calendar taken shape already?
- Not yet. The only thing I keep in mind is to focus on getting ready for the Giro.
Text by Sergey Kurdyukov
Photo credit: © Getty Images