In Colombia, sprinters are often in the shadow of the climbers. The Tour de l'Avenir, which takes place on the French roads until the Alpine finish Saturday, is no exception, as the fast man Fernando Gaviria, a neo-pro with Etixx-Quick Step in 2016, had to give his wheel to the mountain expert Sebastian Henao on the first stage on Sunday.
The undulating course, through Burgundy's vineyards, was designed for a sprinter like Gaviria but the Colombian national team is fully focused on the general classification with Henao, who normally rides with Team Sky and is so much tipped as a favourite that other teams asked the UCI to change the rules and prohibit WorldTour riders in the Under-23 "mini-Tour de France".
Gaviria was only ninth in the bunch sprint at Toucy, where German Jonas Koch took victory after an impressive 130-kilometre solo breakaway. Gaviria, a rising star of sprints who is almost as feared in the bunch finishes as Henao in the summits, will try his luck again on Monday and Tuesday. "I am here to win," he says.
At the Argentinian Tour of San Luis stage race in January, the 21-year-old rider came to fame by defeating Mark Cavendish two times and with a clear gap. It was perhaps the first time a young gun was performing so strongly and growing up so fast since, of course, Cavendish.
"I didn't know I could beat him," Gaviria told Cyclingnews on the Tour de l'Avenir Sunday. "I have great memories of the Tour of San Luis and will never forget these two stages. Especially because Cavendish has always been a role model to me."
This sort of shock in cycling world was a surprise to many but not to Joxean Matxin, a talent scout for Etixx-Quick Step. "I have kept an eye on Gaviria for three years and I wanted him to sign to Lampre, my former team," he tells Cyclingnews. "He was just incredible, able to win each sprint in Colombia by two or three seconds. His accelerations are phenomenal."
Gaviria was linked to Etixx a few days after the Tour of San Luis and the two-year agreement was reached at the end of February. The fast man will therefore be one of the neo-pros of the squad alongside Italy's Davide Martinelli and Laurens De Plus, the Belgian who targets a good performances over the Tour de l'Avenir's climbs.
Despite his shyness towards the public and media and despite his casual look – long brown hair, two-day stubble and, like many countrymen, a denture shining through his smile – Gaviria seems ready to turn pro. Since he switched from skating to cycling, aged 13, all his family have provided technical and mental support; his father is a coach in Medellin's cycling school; his sister Juliana is a Pan-American track and road champion; and his brother-in-law, Fabian Puerta, is the 2014 Keirin vice-world Champion. Like his fellows, Gaviria developed his burst of speed on the track and, as an immediate result, he captured two rainbow jerseys in 2012 as a Junior and another one this year as an Elite, in the Omnium.
"This is not easy to be a sprinter in Colombia but it's not too hard either," he explains. "I started road cycling before track. To avoid long climbs I picked up the flattest races and tried to win. Actually I won quite often."
Apart from his track experience, Gaviria says he doesn't know where his sprinter's skills come from. "His mentality plays a great role", Matxin believes. "Victory is an obsession. That sticks with his brain."
However – and this is perhaps the biggest surprise with him – the Colombian talent doesn't only want to crush bunch sprints. "My dream is Paris-Roubaix," he confides.
He has never ridden on the 'pavé' except at the Czech Republic Tour, early August, where he took a stage win as an Etixx stagiaire. The cobblestones there have little in common with the prominent and cutting edge ones of the 'Hell of North', but Gaviria is convinced he can do well on his "favourite Classic".
At Etixx-Quick Step, he might learn his trade from one of the best sprint teachers, Mark Cavendish (if the Manxman extends his contract), and from Tom Boonen, a four-time Paris-Roubaix victor.
"I think our team can help him to develop both as a sprinter and a Classics rider," says Matxin, now one of his mentors. "Fernando has not only speed but power. This is why he is strong in the Omnium, the most endurance discipline of track cycling. In fact, his potential is astonishing, in the same style as Oscar Freire [the three-time World Champion], but with even more skills..."
Happy of his fate, on his way to some more wins before the season's end, the ever-hungry Colombian has an ultimate favour to ask his new team: to let him race the track events at the Rio Olympics next year. After all, gold is the best medal on which to build a solid career.
Pierre Carrey, the founder and president of DirectVelo, is Cyclingnews' correspondent at the Tour de l'Avenir.