Team KATUSHA’s 26-year old Ilnur Zakarin climbed with the peloton’s best in Saturday’s 74th Paris-Nice, biding his time and showing patience before giving one last effort to win atop La Madone d’Utelle for stage 6. It is the sixth career win for Zakarin and first in the 2016 cycling season, an accomplishment that looks good for his upcoming goals for May’s Giro d’Italia. Last year the young Russian won the Tour of Romandy and a hilly stage in the Giro in his first participation of a grand tour.

– I am really happy with this victory. I was preparing for this race at altitude, so I was able to get a good form. I wanted to fight for a good result in this race. Today I knew it would be hard, but I felt really good today. The team was super and I felt the support in every moment. Especially from Pavel Kochetkov, who helped me a lot, and Michael Mørkøv and Simon Špilak in the final. I knew there were two hard moments in this climb at 6 km to go and 500 meters to go. So I just did my best to pass it and to save the energy for last few hundred meters, where I gave my best. Tomorrow is another hard day. I am third now and I want to save my podium place. We will do our best tomorrow! – vowed Ilnur Zakarin.

On the upper slopes of the climb, Zakarin was able to respond to all the moves from the elite group of climbers, including Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte of BMC. Under the 1 km to go banner, Porte attacked first but Zakarin was right on the wheel, and when the group came back together and Contador showed his hand with 400 meters to ride, Ilnur Zakarin once again followed the move. Coming around the last corner he moved wide to the left of Geraint Thomas and passed the Sky rider to earn victory by just over a bike length with a time of 4:45.11. Thomas was on the same time with Zakarin, with Contador at 1-second behind.

– We knew Contador, Porte and Thomas would attack and our plan was to follow them and to see what would happen in the final. Ilnur did an amazing race – he did everything he had to do to get the maximum result. I am happy for him and for the whole team; the guys did a great job today. Tomorrow we will do our best to hold our place on the podium, – said team sports director Dmitry Konyshev.

With seven climbs on the profile, it was a difficult day on narrow roads for stage 6. At the base of the final climb of La Madone d’Utelle, all the favorites rode together on the lower slopes before both Contador and then Thomas tested their legs with strong attacks. But Zakarin never faltered, always able to respond and bring the group back together before finally launching his own winning move to claim the victory.

With one stage to go the general classification is currently held by Geraint Thomas by 15-seconds to Contador and another five to Zakarin. With only 1-second separating him to fourth place Richie Porte, Team KATUSHA’s plan will be to fight to stay on the podium on Sunday’s seventh and final stage. The stage at 134 km is in Nice with six rated climbs, the last topping out with 15 km to go before a quick plunge to the finish line.

Photo credit © Tim De Waele