Ilnur Zakarin, the man who goes up hills like a goat but comes down like a glacier


So, what do we know with absolute certainty about Ilnur Zakarin?

Well, two things immediately spring to mind:

  1. He is a very good climber. We know this because he has proven it repeatedly.
  2. He is a very bad descender. We know this because he has also proven it repeatedly.

Going down a mountain next to his fellow pros, Zakarin looks like an amateur. Going down a mountain next to an amateur, you get the feeling he wouldn’t necessarily look like a pro. It’s a rare thing when a weekend warrior can witness a professional in action and think, “Do you know what, pal? I could show you a thing or two.”

Sure, this could be nothing more than a misguided assertion brought about by seeing a person who is merely good at something set alongside people who are exceptional at that thing. Or, you know, maybe Zakarin really is a Cat 4-level descender who just happens to possess an elite-level power-to-weight ratio. Sadly, unless he decides to pitch up at the next edition of the Étape du Tour sportive, it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out.

Still, how is it possible for someone who has won three grand tour stages – and a mountainous stage-race like the Tour de Romandie – to have such a yawning gap in their arsenal? Perhaps it all goes back to (or was exacerbated by) that horrific crash on the Colle dell’Agnello at the 2016 Giro? Perhaps he just never learned the skills in the first place – but, then again, how do you get through an entire professional cycling career without being taught them?

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Leaving aside the technical attributes required to be a competent WorldTour descender, what makes Zakarin stand out even more as a mortal among the pros is that his anxiety is palpable. That’s something with which nearly every “normal” cyclist can identify. Who hasn’t been rattled by a moment of primal fear while returning earthwards head-first from a point of elevation? Caution is a natural response to danger – it’s just that some people are able to silence the internal voice that says, “Whoa! Hold up, is that a 50-foot drop I see on the other side of that flimsy guardrail? Feather those brakes with a bit more conviction, please.”

You get the impression Zakarin would be nervous descending an escalator. If you were riding with him and went over a speed bump or sleeping policeman, you wouldn’t be surprised if you looked back and saw that you’d distanced him on the way back down. At the beginning of a TT, you half expect him to walk down the start ramp and jump on his bike at the bottom.

Daredevil descending probably isn’t something to be fetishised any more, and it can be hard to shut out the doubts while moving downhill fast on a 7kg piece of carbon. What if there’s oil on the road and I slide out? What if I come into this hairpin a tiny bit too hot? What if there’s an angry sheep with a pulsating hatred for lycra lurking in a roadside thicket, ready to pounce? What if, around the next blind corner, there’s a troupe of Rapha-clad financial analysts on Cervélos* fanned-out six-abreast across the road with their heads down, each one going deeper than deep in a ferocious battle to break the top 500 on the Strava KOM?

These are all very real concerns when descending, and you can only assume Zakarin is vibrantly aware of every single calamitous possibility. Every imaginable negative consequence of plummeting down a minus gradient is making itself known to him, his brain cells urgently pinging worst-case scenarios back-and-forth between one another.

“Hey Ilnur, don’t you want to slow down?”, they’re saying. “What’s the rush? It’ll be fine if you get dropped, you can just chase back on over the next climb.”

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But, look, descending is a treacherous art. In recent months, we’ve seen far too many cyclists injured and there’s no longer any cause – if there ever was – to exult in athletes putting their bodies at risk for our entertainment. Safety is paramount and if Zakarin feels unsafe, then you can hardly blame him. The right thing for him to do is prioritise his welfare – ultimately, sporting results are a secondary concern to life. This is a given, especially when there’s a family whose support depends on income earned from an exceptionally dangerous game.

Zakarin’s fears are nothing to be ashamed of, they just make him human. Judge not lest ye be destined to break your collarbone on an Alpine mountain pass.

And yet, empathy aside, he really should be better at this. There’s risk-aversion and then there’s Ilnur Zakarin. On rolling parcours, he yo-yos out of the peloton on descents and fights to get back in on the uphill; quite a unique reversal of the way that scenario usually goes. Yeah, this is all very endearing, but there must surely come a point when he is forced to do something to resolve the problem. His career may depend on it.

In the meantime, we salute grande Ilnur, a rare cyclist who’s most at ease when gravity conspires to hinder rather than help. For most people the summit is a relief, the end of the torture and a chance to recover. For Ilnur it’s a portent of doom: the descent awaits and the real hell begins.

*No offence to Rapha or Cervélo, which are wonderful bike brands. Or indeed to financial analysts.


Featured image: Filip Bossuyt/Wikimedia Commons, edited by KONM

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