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An interview with Mikhail Ignatiev, October 5, 2007
Winning and developing
Mikhail Ignatiev came just nine seconds shy of claming another gold medal in the Under 23 Time Trial World Championships. The 22 year-old Russian could not match the time of Dutchman Lars Boom, and he had to settle for silver. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews visited the promising talent at the Russian team's headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, to review the season and look ahead to 2008.
The Waldhorn hotel in Stuttgart was an unassuming place near the site of the 2007 Road Worlds, but walking inside we were greeted immediately by the man in charge of some of the most promising riders coming out of the land of ballet and caviar, Oleg Tinkov. The 39 year-old Russian businessman is the owner of Tinkoff Credit Systems and the motivator to many of the young Russians who were racing in Stuttgart, like Ignatiev, but also Nikolai Trusov and Ivan Rovny. The latter went on to animate the finale of the Under 23 road race.
Tinkov flew in specifically from Moscow for Ignatiev's time trial, arriving just minutes before the rider rolled out. Immediately after the run, he was zipping back to his home country. "I arrived five minutes before his start," said Tinkov, who was looking over the team's season's winnings on the internet, which was currently at 16. "He had already taken his place in the start house. I said 'go Misha,' and he looked down and saw me, and said 'cool, you are here!'"
The 38.1-kilometre race was hard-fought two-man duel between Boom and Ignatiev, with third place going to Jerome Coppel of France at 46 seconds out. Boom posted the quickest times through all the checks (14'18" at km 11.7, 23'28" at 19.3 and 39'29" at 31.1), but he was forced to sit down and wait as Ignatiev tried to better his time.
Ignatiev's first time check must have scared Boom as he was watching on television; Ignatiev was eight seconds up. But he could not hold, and faded by six and ten seconds at the following two checks (km 19.3 and 31.1). He had made up two more seconds by the finish, but that was not enough to add to his gold of 2005.
Ending the season in Stuttgart
"Two times I finished second, and both times there were with big problems," explained Ignatiev as we sat inside the warm hotel while a drizzle came down outside. The year before he had finished as runner-up, but it was not as close; he came only as close as 37 seconds to winner Dominique Cornu of Belgium.
"Last year I had changed teams, and that was not good for me [in the lead-up]. This year I had a problem with my left leg. The muscle right above my knee, on my thigh. I changed cleats on my shoes, and I did it in a bad way. I did a lot of training in the mountains afterwards; at first it was a small problem, and then it became bigger and bigger. I stopped training, and only racing. I thought that I would not even race the Worlds, but in the end I did."
Ignatiev indicated his form was there with a win in the 26-kilometre individual event of the Regio Tour. However, over the following month the man who won the Trofeo Laigueglia in February lost the edge to his form. "I had good form in the Regio Tour in August, but now my form is not so good," he reckoned.
He is a rising star, but has a cool head. "Oleg said, 'You are a loser, I came here for you. Loser!'" The two have a good understanding, and it was obvious they were prodding each other. "'It is not possible that I can win all year,' I said to him. He said 'No, loser.' He was only joking; I try to win the big races, but not all the time."
It was a good point to remember; Paolo Bettini, who won the men's road race title, had only won twice before in 2007, a stage in the Tour of California and a stage in the Vuelta a España. Ignatiev plans to continue in the same manner as 2007 through 2008, but he is doubtful of racing the World Championships in Varese.
"Next year is the Olympic year, and after the Olympic Games it will not be a good idea to go to the Worlds. If I have to start, then I will. Maybe I will have to because it is in Italy [his trade team is backed by Colnago - ed.]. Next year, I want to ride the Giro d'Italia again; like in 2007. Also, we have to return to Eindhoven to better our second place. We have to win next year."
The Eindhoven Team Trial is a sore spot for Team Tinkoff. Tinkov had indicated before the race that "if we do not win this one it would be... It would be for me... a huge disaster." When we spoke with him in Stuttgart three months later he was still ranting about the fraction of a second. "How do you time a half second?" Tinkov pondered.
The known rider
Even with the near miss in Holland, Ignatiev is satisfied with his 2007 season that includes four wins. He realizes it will be harder for him to win now that he is known.
"In this year I have had good results in the big professional races. In 2006, I had four wins but they were not in the big races, mostly in Spain. This year, in the races I am along side Bettini, [Filippo] Pozzato, [Oscar] Freire, [Alejandro] Valverde... I looked at them, thinking 'Wow!'
"It was a stressing spring," he continued; two of his big wins came early on with Laigueglia and a stage in the Tour Méditerranéen. "Now, at the finish of the season I am in the gruppo, in my place. Like in the Paris-Brussels, I was with the best riders. I had tried with 20 kilometres to go, on the last little riser I attacked. I was away for five kilometres, solo."
The Ignatiev blast in the final kilometres of any demanding race has become his trademark. Usually the lead-out men are sitting up their sprinters for the final showdown when he will use his turn-of-speed to knock the sprinter's train off its rails.
"At the end of last year, I did not have a big rest. I trained on my mountain bike in Russia. There was no snow this last year, so there was a lot of time to ride. I did a lot of hard riding on my mountain bike. In the spring I was in good shape."
However, his attacking style has made him known by the very same riders he admires. "This is always a big problem," Ignatiev noted. "When you are an unknown rider the others will let you go. After you win one, two or three races, they begin to watch you.
"In the last Olympics, on the track, the unknown factor helped me, but next year I don't know. I was able to go solo for one, two or three laps, and then win."
He knows he has to re-think his tactics to achieve wins in the future. "I would not attack in the first kilometre! I need to attack in a small group. In four it would be difficult; in ten it would be better." How can you win the Milano-Sanremo? "Sanremo is difficult for me. The last descent [Poggio, 5.7km to go - ed.] is very, very hard. I am not so good on the descents. This is a big problem for me. I will work on my descending, and I have worked on it a lot. In Sanremo you have to be good on the descents."
After a short five day visit to Russia following the Worlds, Ignatiev will be back in Italy for one last road rendezvous and then he will focus on the track. "After the five days [in Saint Petersburg] I will travel to Italy for the last race, Giro del Lombardia. After Lombardia, I will focus on the track. One race in Moscow, and then two World Cups one in Australia and one in Beijing. After that I will have a happy new year with two weeks in Saint Petersburg."
He will see his loved-ones, but only for a short period. "I have a girlfriend there. However, I will only be there for two weeks before returning to racing. My first race will likely be in Australia with the Tour Down Under.
Building for 2008
Tinkoff Credit Systems is set to undergo a restructuring before the start of the 2008. When Cyclingnews talked to Oleg Tinkov in Moscow earlier this year he indicated that he wanted to get rid of some riders, making way for younger talent. This was spurred on in light of Operación Puerto, and the alleged links with his riders, Tyler Hamilton and Jörg Jaksche.
"I want to get rid of them," said Tinkov of implicated riders like Hamilton and Jaksche. "Just have young Russians for next year, and maybe two or three more Italians... we don't want to continue with this situation."
"Misha" believes that the team could use more powerful sprinters to bump up the win tally and to help the younger riders, like sprinter Trusov, learn the trade.
"We need to add more Russian riders, and we have to talk with the big named riders now. Ideally, we could use more sprinters. This year we only had one sprinter, Nikolai Trusov, and he is young. At the Giro, against Petacchi, it was tough for him. We have signed Alberto Loddo [with Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni-Selle Italia in 2007 - ed.], the Italian sprinter who has won about 10 times this year. And then Bernardo Riccio, who started as a stagiaire for the team in the Tour of Britain.
"All of the great sprinters have started by working for other great sprinters. Cipollini, Petacchi and Zabel. Petacchi worked with [Tinkoff Directeur Sportif Dimitri] Konyshev. Trusov is not able to be a great sprinter right away; he needs to work for a great sprinter."
Russians in Italy
Ignatiev makes his home with many of the other team's Russians in Forte dei Marmi (Tuscany), near Tinkov's Italian home. During this year's Giro the team made aggressive attacks when the race was passing the front door step of the villa.
In Forte dei Marmi he eats, breathes and trains for racing. "I train all day: In the morning I eat, and I think how will I race or train; I visualize how I will ride tomorrow. I like long training rides of five or six hours in the mountains.
"One year ago, my first time in Italy, the first of September, I only spoke one word: 'ciao,'" he says with a laugh. He has a basic grasp on both Italian and English that allows him to cut his way through the international peloton. "I always used this word. It was very hard to be in Italy, learning the language, how to pronounce 'chi' like in the word 'Bianchi,' and 'che.' The language has a lot of words, like in Russian."
The language adjustments were made easier by having his compatriots near by for dinners and training. "The Italian food is good. I am the cook where I live. In the morning it is easy. In the evening it is meat or fish. [room-mate] Trusov will also cook.
"Next door to us are [Sergey] Klimov and Serov. It is good for camaraderie. It is good for training rides, and convenient for going to the races. We take the same car, and will travel together. There are eight Russian riders that live near by, by less than two kilometres.
For more on Ignatiev read The first of many more to come for Ignatiev.