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An interview with Mikhail Ignatiev, March 19, 2007
The first of many more to come for Ignatiev
Mikhail Ignatiev blasted onto the road racing scene this year with a stage win in Tour Méditerranéen and victory in the prestigious Trofeo Laigueglia, but the 21 year-old Russian was already marked for greatness when he scored a gold medal on the track in the 2004 Olympic points race. "Misha" detailed his successes to Sergey Kurdyukov and Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown, and described what it will take before he considers himself an accomplished professional.
At the tender age of eighteen, Mikhail Ignatiev took Olympic gold for his country on the track in Athens. The Russian used sheer strength and force of will to follow every attack in the Olympic points race, in the end gaining four laps on the field and bested seasoned trackies like Juan Llaneras and Greg Henderson. Ignatiev has set out to prove that this magical day on August 24 was no fluke, and has continued to build himself on the road.
Ignatiev has used his immense power and huge tolerance for pain to great success in years after the Olympics, taking the 2005 Under 23 Time Trial World Championship title in Madrid, and continuing to pummel the competition with brute force on the track, where he and partner Nikolai Trussov won the Sydney world cup Madison in 2006.
Also in 2006, Ignatiev took his showcase style on the road, riding for Tinkoff Restaurants. He took "two wins and the final classification in [Volta Ciclista Internacional a] Lleida, Spain. Another win near Bilbao. And then I went well at the Under-23 Worlds in Salzburg [taking silver to Dominique Cornu in the time trial -ed.]," the rider from Saint Petersburg noted to La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Ignatiev showed obvious promise, and when Oleg Tinkov invested more money to bump the team from Continental to Professional Continental status, he ensured there was a spot for his young prodigy.
From the beginning of the 2007 season, 'Misha' did not disappoint. In the Tour Méditerranéen he caught the sprinters at the right moment and blasted off the hard-charging peloton with 11 kilometres remaining to Marseille. His track skills came in handy as he put his head down and barreled towards the line, holding off the bunch, lead by Daniele Bennati of Lampre-Fondital, by 14 seconds.
Five days later he proved it was no fluke by taking a similarly-styled win across the border in Italy. The talents of Ignatiev were on display for all to see in the 44th Trofeo Laigueglia. With only four kilometres to go, when the majority of the field had been shelled on the 690-metre Passo Balestrino, he dashed away to arrive solo ahead of a peloton that included the likes of Bennati, Filippo Pozzato, Stefano Garzelli, Gilberto Simoni and Danilo Di Luca.
"Interestingly enough, I had practically the same feelings as last week when I won a stage at the Tour of Med," he noted when interviewed by his team after the race. Misha showed his wisdom by evaluating his rivals, something that is not often seen in a 21 year-old rider.
In fact, the last 21 year-old rider to win the Corsa Ligure was an American named Lance Armstrong. "At the beginning it was really, really hard. We had been racing almost nonstop for a long period of time, accumulating fatigue. But a look at the others told me that most of them didn't feel any better, and some of them were clearly worse.
"Before the start I'd heard a lot of horror stories about the profile of the race, with a couple of killer climbs which were to be the end of me. But when I started pedaling up there, I found them pretty doable. The first one [Passo del Ginestro] didn't split the group, the second time [Passo del Ginestro again - ed.], with a narrow winding road, started to show on some of the riders' legs. Saunier Duval and Liquigas worked at the front trying to create a favourable position for an attack of Simoni and Di Luca; Milram was also there.
"It was the third big hill [Passo Balestrino] that split the pack up; there was a serious gradient and a headwind to overcome. I saw that there were five other Tinkoff riders out of 30 who managed to stay in the first group, and that meant that we had a chance. We didn't have any sprinter on our lineup this time, so our only opportunity was to organize a volley of attacks."
Tinkoff Credit Systems, riding against many ProTour teams, played its cards to perfection. The team put Vasil Kiryienka in an early attack that allowed Ignatiev to "rest" while the others chased. As soon as Kiryienka was reeled in Misha fired his missile.
"Vasil Kiryienka got in a good breakaway, but on the descent they started to bridge the gap, and Di Luca jumped to the front. There were too many people again; and I decided to have my try. I just started gaining some more speed sitting down; I didn't even get out of the saddle on the uphill drag, and got some twenty seconds or even more. It was eight kilometres to go, and I caught powerful tailwind, which is of great help when you're alone. The speed was between 55 and 70 kilometres per hour all the time. They started to roll on me, but I managed to stay ahead."
"I have never been a sprinter," he explained after his second victory of 2007 to La Gazzetta dello Sport. "My tactic? It is easy; to take off and then I defend to death." Teammate Ricardo Serrano jokingly added, "The truth is that when everyone is going all out, at the maximum, he escapes."
Many cycling pundits noticed a similarity between Ignatiev and Viatcheslav Ekimov, both of whom are from Saint Petersburg and both Olympic Gold Medallists on the track. Early in Ekimov's career he would put in similar solo moves in the closing kilometres of races.
"'Slava' took his early wins in a similar fashion," Ignatiev continued. "But I didn't come to think of it when I rode those eight kilometres [of Laigueglia]!"
After his triumphant start to the road season, Ignatiev confirmed that he will race the track World Championships in Palma de Mallorca, and then start to focus on the Giro d'Italia. Misha concluded by noting that he is happy with his two 2007 victories but still does not see himself as an accomplished professional. He believes that at the Giro, riding in the services of teammate Tyler Hamilton, is where he will have his chance to make his name further known.
"I don't feel like overestimating my success," he quipped. "Of course it's a good debut, and luck was on my side, the team has won three times [four with Pavel Brutt in GP Chiasso - ed.] in the first month and posted a couple of good placements too, all of that is pretty encouraging. But it's just the beginning, we aim higher.
"I'll ride a couple of one-days, and then I'm going to Athens mid-March to get ready for the track World's. After the championships I'll give all of myself to the road. Only if I am able to be with the best in, say, the Giro d'Italia, I'll dare think of myself as a more or less accomplished pro."