The Elia Viviani who clocks out at Deceuninck Quick Step for the last time this month is different to the one who clocked in at their training camp in Calpe, just over two years ago. Less in his own eyes, perhaps, than in those of the wider cycling world. Back then he was seen as a good sprinter but, in talent terms, unproven. No longer.
Were his abilities boosted by the Belgian superteam or merely ushered onto the stage, given the opportunities to show themselves off? It was probably a bit of both.
The transformation was almost immediate. Normally when a rider joins a new team it takes a takes a while before everything settles down and the results start coming – if they ever do. Viviani took a win in only his third race in Quick Step colours. “We jumped the adaption period,” he agrees.
He partly puts that down to his close relationship with Fabio Sabatini, and with Michael Mørkøv, who he knew from his time on the track. Mostly, however, it was something more nebulous, “a good feeling, straight away” with all his team-mates.
Deceuninck Quick Step cultivate the confidence that a top finisher needs to be able to deliver, he says: “We go down from the bus and we have a clear plan. We go to pull. We go to work. Because we believe in our sprinter.”
Viviani has no doubt that will continue long after he has gone.
He would have liked to have re-signed for the Belgian superteam but, as has happened numerous times before, that option ultimately dropped off the table. One unspoken is that Patrick Lefevere would not meet Viviani’s increased asking price and Cofidis could; another is that Quick Step are never so dependent on a single rider that they are forced to break the bank to keep him. Viviani is humble enough to accept that Quick Step will win races, regardless of who is leading the line.
“The winning mentality they have is the point of this team,” he says. “The support they give to the sprinters, the support they give to the classics riders, creates success.” The Italian expects Dutch champion Fabio Jakobsen, who won a stage of last year’s Vuelta to “take another step up”, along with 23 year-old Colombian Álvaro Hodeg. [This interview took place before it was announced that Sam Bennett would be joining the team.]
The Cofidis team that Viviani is joining has also been ringing the changes. Long the butt of jokes – lord knows we’ve made enough of them ourselves – the French outfit have have noticeably grown up over the last few seasons. Long viewed as an also-ran team that gets into fruitless breaks, just for a bit of TV time, stage victories in both the last two editions of the Vuelta, and time spent in the same race’s leader’s jersey in 2018, have demonstrated real ambitions as well as the know-how and organisation to deliver on them.
The successful application for World Tour status, bolstered by a raft of new international signings – Nathan Haas, Julien Vermote, Viviani and his lead-out man Sabatini among them – cements that impression.
Still, they haven’t won a Tour de France stage since 2008. Sylvain Chavanel and Samuel Dumoulin took one-apiece in that race. Elia Viviani, who finally got one on the board in July, has been brought in with the expectation that he can end the drought. Although riding for Quick Step came with certain expectations of delivering wins, there were plenty of other shoulders for that pressure to be distributed across.
In contrast, he acknowledges, at his new team, “I am the plan B.”
That additional weight is not something he’s concerned about. Not any more, at least. If there’s one thing he’s learned in the last two seasons, it’s that “if you want to win the race, you must want to be the leader. Pressure is something a leader needs to do a better job on the bike. For everything.”
One of the few current sprinters who works with a small group of team-mates to take him all the way to the finish, Viviani is comfortable with needing a reliable lead-out:
“I need two or three riders in front of me, they make the difference.” he says. “Sabbatini, Mørkøv and [Max] Richeze, they really changed my career. That is what I’ve seen in the past few years… I really need to create the same or similar situation.”
Although not untypical of sprinters, and other A-listers, to have something of an entourage around them, in taking Sabatini with him to Cofidis, Viviani is showing a level of clout and self-confidence he didn’t have last time he transferred teams.
He assures me, however, that “my group is not something closed in the team, because that is shit, in one team. We need to be one team of thirty riders.”
“Peter Sagan, okay he never wore it [because he was already World Champion] but he won. Then [Alexander] Kristoff, then [Matteo] Trentin. That really makes the jersey something important, you know?”
“If we see my palmares all that’s missing is a big classic. That means Milan-Sanremo, which is the only Monument I can win, and Gent Wevelgem. I always say I don’t want to just be a sprinter. I want to be a classics rider.”
He came close to the latter in 2018, with only the aforementioned Sagan in the way. At Milan-Sanremo this year he might have had more of a chance had it not been for his own unstoppable team-mate. In 2020 he’ll be his team’s one and only. Nowhere to hide and plenty of pressure. He can handle it.