The best “climber” in the UCI top 100 individual rankings is Ukrainian young gun Yaroslav Popovych. At the start of the season he was in 1,174th position but after a season of solid performances, including an astonishing 12th place in the Giro d’Italia the youngster climbed an amazing 1,100 places to finish in the top 100 at 74th place.
Having joined the Colnago-Landbouwkrediet at the start of the season after an incredible 2001 season with the Zoccorinese Vellutex Casa Selezione team much was expected of the rider and he has not disappointed those who had faith in him.
At the start of the season Earnest Colnago, bike builder and talent spotter extraordinaire said - “Popovych — he will be a great rider. I have always helped the riders from the East since the 1970's. Like Soukoruchenkov, Piasecki, Konyshev — now as for Popovych, he's got a great talent, but he has to realize that he can be a major force in cycling. Popovych needs to go to a team where he has the freedom to develop as a rider without a lot of pressure…”
While Italian National Coach Franco Ballerini is another who is impressed with Popovych. "Popovych is definitely a great talent," he said. "He has done great things as an amateur. He has strength and brains. He also has an optimal power-to-weight ratio and goes well on the flats and does not loose contact on in the hills. Anyone who wins 20 races in one year cannot be an average rider. He has another advantage too: he is totally professional. He trains a lot and knows how to suffer during his training. He is a tough one. In two years he will be a champion."
This sentiment was also echoed by Giuseppe Saronni: “Provided he continues in the same manner we will see a great champion in two years' time."
Talking to U-23-Radbundesliga.de site earlier in the year Yaroslav Popovych gave a unique insight on the dedication that has brought him from Ukraine to a professional rider in the top 100 of the UCI listings after only one season.
Yaroslav, how old were you when when you first became interested in cycling?
YP In 1992 when I was 12 years old I visited a small cycle racing school in my home town. That’s where I had my first race. I had tried boxing, but did not like it that much. My curiosity got the better of me when a friend asked me to try cycle racing. We were very short of racing cycles so had to take it in turns to ride - to this day the bike I used is still in use there.
Later you went to a cycling school in Kiev?
YP Yes, you see I had a good start. It was 600 kilometres away from my parents house so I quickly learnt how to live alone.
What type of rider do you consider yourself to be?
YP I was always a time trialist. In the Ukraine I always specifically trained for the time trial.
How did you come to Italy?
YP In 1999 I took part in the Giro Regioni with the Ukrainian national team. The Sporting Directeur, Olivano Locatelli, of the Vellutex Zoccorinese team offered me a position in the team.
In two seasons with Vellutex Zoccorinese you have 36 victories and have won among other things: 2x giro del Val D'Aosta, the Giro Regioni, the U-23 World Cup , the U-23-World Championship Road Race and Paris Roubaix...which was your most beautiful victory?
YP The world championship and Paris Roubaix were extraordinary. In Lisbon in the World Championships I was in great shape, but I had a lot of pressure because everyone said I was favourite. The hardest part of the race was the mental preparation and toughness required. Paris Roubaix, because it was the first time that I rode on the Pavé.
Do you have a nick name?
Are you superstitious?
YP I like to ride wearing number 13. When that number is on my shirt, I always seem to ride particularly well.
Your family are not particularly well off? Is it correct that you send each month half of your income home?-
YP That is correct. I still have two younger sisters as well as a younger brother do not want them to grow up like I did without any money.
Who is your favourite cyclist?
YP I like all cyclists.
It was to no one's surprise that Yaroslav Popovych adapted to the professional peloton remarkable quickly. He scored his first pro victory in the 1.5 Trophy Porec and continued his good form with a battling 35th place in the Tour de Romandie, Popovych then entered his first major Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia.
Astute riding and getting himself into the break on stage six saw him move up into third place overall.
By the final stage Popovych had managed to just about stay with the leaders and finished in 12th place overall and was the best young rider. Popovych continued his good form with good results in the Tour de la Region Wallonne to take the best young rider prize in that competition followed by his second career victory in the GP De Geneve (1.5) - “Popovych dominated the race“ the race site records.
4th place in the Trofeo Immobiliare Italia di Fred Mengoni (1.3) and 10th place in the Tre Valli Varesine (1.1) on the 20th August was followed by a true fighting display in the Tour de l'Avenir which saw him finish in 9th place overall after an epic effort on the last day to win the race.
A remarkable season for Popovych, and one that proves the experts right in their appraisal of his potential so far. If the young Ukrainian continues to make the same progress in 2003 then indeed we may have a true Champion in 2004. It will certainly be one of the highlights of the season to see how he performs in next year's Giro d’Italia.
Photos thanks to Velomania, Gazzetta dello Sport, T on line.