Back in 2019 Elia Viviani was one of the most dominant sprinters in the pro peloton. The reigning Italian champion won nine races at WorldTour level including a stage at the Tour de France, as well as the European Championships where he used his wits to out-smart and out-ride both Pascal Ackermann and Yves Lampert.
It wasn’t the first season at the top for Viviani; 2018 was an even more successful year for the Italian. He was the sprinter to beat in every race he entered, winning an incredible four stages of the Giro d’Italia before earning a hat-trick at La Vuelta a España later in the year. Not many riders can say they have won a single Grand Tour stage, let alone seven in one season…
Of course, the Italian was donning the jersey of Deceuninck Quick-Step, the most victorious team in pro cycling across the previous decade. They find a way to win so regularly, and one method they have as good as perfected is the lead-out train. A sprinter is only one piece in the puzzle and they must rely on their teammates placing them in the prime position to sprint for glory in the last few hundred metres. The DQS winning machine was and still is brilliant at this, with the likes of Michael Mørkøv, Maximiliano Richeze and Fabio Sabatini guiding Viviani throughout his spell with the team.
Elia Viviani following his fourth stage win at the 2018 Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Presse Sports / Offside)
But in 2020 Viviani's Quick-Step days were over, and as Sam Bennett came in, Viviani left for Cofidis. Although the Italian was the lead sprinter for DQS, the star-studded team were not categorically based around him. This would be different at Cofidis, where Viviani was a star rider and shouldered the burden of new goals and new pressures.
Fabio Sabatini would also make the move from Quick-Step to Cofidis alongside Viviani — often, sprinters and lead-out men build powerful relationships and jump to different teams together. But Sabatini’s presence wouldn’t help translate Viviani’s results. In 2020, Viviani’s debut season with Cofidis, he led them at both the Tour de France and later the Giro d'Italia in a race calendar that was obliterated by COVID-19. Just two years after winning seven Grand Tour stages in a single season, Elia failed to claim a single place on the podium. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, but Viviani was often not positioned as well as he'd become accustomed to during his Quick-Step days and when he was, he simply didn’t have the legs. It was the most challenging season of Viviani’s career and for the very first time since he turned pro in 2010, he didn’t win a single race.
The challenges for Viviani weren’t over, though. Whilst preparing for the 2021 campaign at a pre-season training camp in Spain, he noticed an anomaly in his heart rate. Reportedly, his heart rate had shot to around 220 beats per minute for a brief spell. “I was afraid”, said Viviani, speaking retrospectively. “I can’t tell you what went through my head in those moments.”
The Italian underwent surgery and was back on his bike three weeks later. Remarkably, Viviani’s race calendar remained unchanged and he would start his season at the UAE Tour just weeks later where he'd compete against almost all of the world’s most revered sprinters. Viviani was feeling positive, too. “My condition was good before this stop, so I’m calm and also determined to have the season of redemption that I need.”
Elia was more than aware that he hadn’t performed as well as he had done previously, and was eager to bounce back to his best. And to the surprise of many, he was very competitive in the UAE. This was no clearer than when he was second on stage six, ahead of Pascal Ackermann, Fernando Gaviria and Giacomo Nizzolo.
Viviani’s renewed signs of promise grew further when he finally won again at Cholet - Pays de la Loire. It had been an 18-month barren spell for Viviani, quite some time for a rider that boasts 79 professional wins to his name. This is a 1.1 category race and not near the calibre of some of his previous wins, but Viviani was back on the top step of the podium.
Now at the 2021 Giro d’Italia, Viviani looks like his old self. In the first chapters of the race his Cofidis team have worked tirelessly to place him in position to sprint for victory on numerous occasions, where he has already accumulated two podium-finishes. It has been a journey packed with struggles, but another Grand Tour stage win for Viviani may not be too far away.
Elia Viviani sprinting to third on stage 2 of the Giro d'Italia 2021 (Image credit: Italy Photo Press / Offside)
Cofidis’ journey as a team shares some parallels with Viviani’s career too. They have only won four races since the start of 2020 and none have been at WorldTour level, despite the team’s promotion to WorldTour status at the start of 2020.
Few wins at the 2021 Giro d’Italia would be as well received as an Elia Viviani victory with Cofidis. For a man that has tasted glory before, and has undergone struggles with both his form and health, this really is a redemption ride.
Cover image: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images