Can Team Sky develop a Grand Tour rider from an early age? Bradley Wiggins was 29 when he joined the British brigade in its maiden season and Chris Froome, not yet rated as a big stage race contender, was already 25. That was at a time Sky needed results in the short term. But seven years later, the team's core of riders is ageing and it is high time to develop the next leaders, who could be Colombia's Egan Bernal and Pavel Sivakov. Bernal, who will arrive from Androni Gioccatoli in 2018, was the overall winner of the recent Tour de l'Avenir. Sivakov, who signs from BMC Development, won the final stage. Both riders are just 20-years-old.
May 2017, in the Pyrenees. This is where Sivakov ignited his incredible season and paved the way to his professional contract with Sky. At the Ronde de l'Isard, he attacked on stage 1 (later cancelled due to crashes and severe weather conditions), tried again the next day and won stage 2, offered stage 3 to Belgium's Bjorg Lambrecht (a neo-pro at Lotto-Soudal from the summer of 2018) at the top of Plateau de Beille, and then crushed stage 4 on a solo raid through the mountains, securing, of course, first place on the final general classification.
June 2017, in Italy. Sivakov dominated the Baby Giro, now named Giro Ciclistica d'Italia, 9 seconds ahead of Lucas Hamilton and 17 seconds up on Jai Hindley, two Australian riders who will move to Sunweb next year. He sealed the triple crown in July at the Giro della Valle d'Aosta, the most demanding under-23 race held between France and Italy, defeating Lambrecht one more time. Winning the three major events for 'Espoir' riders was a unique feat. In a word: unbeatable.
That was Sivakov this summer: a rider whom everybody feared. He is powerful in the time trial, solid in the mountains in the style of a 'rouleur' – no sharp accelerations, but lays down a very consistent pace – technically adept on descents and, for good measure, pretty fast in small group sprints. His range extends beyond stage races to the Classics. He captured the Junior Tour of Flanders in 2015, finished second in the under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2016 and even 15th in that year's under-23 Paris-Roubaix.
As a junior, Sivakov was already widely praised and many teams dreamed of signing him, including Chambéry Cyclisme Formation, the feeder squad of AG2R La Mondiale. The Russian talent turned down that offer and moved to BMC Development, where he raced very little and won a lot.
This year, Sivakov only failed once, in August, when he lost 6:43 on the first mountain day of the Tour de l'Avenir. "I don't know what happened," he said. "It's simply that I am not a robot!" This statement reflected his humble personality but not his engine. Two stages later, Sivakov broke away over the Col de la Madeleine and took a solo victory. "That was surge of pride," he said, taking the polka-dot jersey as a consolation prize.
A day later came Team Sky's press release confirming his transfer. Pavel Sivakov is just one of the young talents picked up by David Brailsford for next year, alongside Egan Bernal, the Norwegian sprinter and reigning under-23 world champion Kristoffer Halvorsen (Team Joker-Icopal), and British Classics rider and sprinter Chris Lawless (Axeon Hagens Berman). "I believe the group of home grown and international young talent we are building represents the brightest future we have ever had at Team Sky," said Brailsford in a press release.
Sivakov, who has a three-year contract, told Cyclingnews he is "delighted" because he believes "Team Sky is the best team to develop." And, he said, "contrary to the other neo-pros who have experienced pro races, including WorldTour events for Egan Bernal, I never raced in a professional race. This is why I consider 2018 like a year of learning."
Asked about his cohabitation with Bernal, who might target the same goals as him in the future, in particular the Grand Tours, Sivakov is succinct: "There will be a room for everyone!"
Although he doesn't know the key points of his racing calendar yet, Pavel Sivakov knows 2018 will mark a major change in his career, and not only because of his WorldTour debut. "Next year I will be French," he says. "I don't know if I will wear a French or Russian jersey at the World Championships, but I will definitely get a French passport next year."
This is the colourful part of Sivakov: he was born in Italy and raised in Soueich, a one-hour drive from Toulouse. His parents come from the former Soviet Union and he is of cycling stock. His father Andrei raced the Tour de France three times at BigMat-Auber 93, and his mother Aleksandra Kolisseva placed second in the Women's Giro and was twice a world champion in the team time trial.
Not surprisingly he speaks both French and Russian – not to mention perfect English, some Italian, and even a little Dutch. "I perhaps feel I am more French than Russian but the two countries are part of my culture," Sivakov says in an accent from southwestern France, a bright smile and the sunglasses that he wears when he stands the podium, before crowds that already bear "Allez Pavel!" banners.