The following interview was first published as part of the Cyclingnews podcast. Listen to the episode here.
When Marcel Kittel informed Patrick Lefevere of his decision to leave Quick-Step Floors at the end of 2017 the Belgian team boss moved swiftly to replace him.
Finding a like-for-like substitute was always going to be nigh-on impossible, but Lefevere is nothing but shrewd when it comes to the rider market, and when he realised there was a sniff of a chance of securing Elia Viviani from Team Sky, he pounced and landed one of the transfer coups of the year.
After all, Viviani had a year remaining on his contract at Team Sky, and although there had been rumblings of discontent after his non-selection for the Giro d’Italia in May, and speculative reports of a mid-season move to UAE Emirates, the Italian looked set to remain a Sky rider for another year.
Fast forward to January and Viviani struts through the lobby of the Hilton hotel in downtown Adelaide in his blue and black Quick-Step kit. His broad smile says it all. Free from Team Sky’s obsession with stage races, he has everything he needs around him to thrive – including Kittel’s old leadout train.
Yet those quick to assume that Viviani can or will attempt to replicate the stature and position Kittel held at Quick-Step are mistaken. Both riders possess impressive turns of speed but there the similarities end. Kittel is a battering ram of a sprinter, Viviani a deft artist who wins through guile, and as Cyclingnews finds out, a rider who just wants to win beautiful races in as many beautiful ways as possible.
“In my head it’s all about the quality of the win. If I can win one race in the season, and it’s Milan-San Remo, then it’s not a problem. If I can win with quality then the rest will follow,” Viviani tells Cyclingnews as he puts the finishing touches to his Tour Down Under preparation here in Adelaide.
“Kittel and I are different. He’s the best powerful sprinter in the world and if we start on the same line, with a standing start then he probably has around 400 watts more than me. I can’t compete with that physically but my main goals are the Classics and the stages of the Grand Tours like the Giro and maybe the Tour in the next few years.”
“Marcel and I we have different qualities. On my side, I feel lucky because his train is still here. I can have [Fabio] Sabatini and another good guy like [Michael] Morkov has come. That’s two guys who will follow me in every race this season and they’ll make a difference. Then at Tour Down Under we have Florian Sénéchal, who I think can do a really good job. All the guys at Quick-Step can do a good job. We saw that at the Vuelta last year with Trentin, at the Tour with Kittel or at the Giro with Gaviria. Maybe 80 per cent of the riders on the team can do leadouts.”
Turning adversity into triumph
Viviani deserves much credit for the way in which he hunkered down during the second half of the 2017 season. After learning that he was miss out of the Giro, any number of riders would have thrown their toys out of the pram and squandered the year away to a backdrop of resentment. Viviani’s response was emphatically positive. During the Tour de Romandie, when the press were sent Team Sky’s Giro roster and Viviani was among those to miss out he provided the perfect repost, winning the stage on the same day and providing measured responses when peppered with questions over Sky’s decision to leave him on the sidelines.
The Tour de France was never on the cards for the Italian but when Viviani was then left at home for the Vuelta he must have wondered what he had to do to get his chance at a three-week race. And it wasn’t just about the Vuelta. Missing a Grand Tour also robbed the Italian of the chance to prepare properly for an assault at the Worlds. Once more he rallied, picking up a string of wins that culminated in victories at the Hamburg Classic and then Bretagne Classic - Ouest-France a week later. While Team Sky were panting and puffing their way around Spain, Viviani centred the second half of his year on the European Championships and was a relentless force in every race Sky sent him to. He may have missed out to Alexander Kristoff at the Euros, but his sheer determination paid off.
“Missing the Giro, that wasn’t actually the moment I knew I had to move,” Viviani says.
“When I missed out on the Giro, Dave Brailsford made the situation really clear. He told me that the team were going to ride completely for the GC, and that they had two leaders. The tactic wasn’t to go there and wins stages but to go there and win the Giro. I was disappointed but I understood. They’ve won the last four Tours but the problem was after. I did a lot of races but I missed the Vuelta because Froome did the double. The main thing was down to my future prospects. If I didn’t do a Grand Tour in 2017 then maybe it would be the same in 2018. When a small door opened with Quick-Step then I knew it was a chance.
“In the second half of the season I just prepared well for the Europeans, and only just lost on the line to Kristoff. That was my main motivation. Sometimes though if you prepare for one goal and you win, then you go on holiday. I really worked hard for that race because lost my chance at the Giro, and thinking about the Worlds was impossible because I wasn’t down for the Vuelta. The Euros were flat so it gave me a really good chance to try to save my 2017. Losing on the line, it made me realise that I couldn’t just end the season like that.”
Holding his form during his purple patch in August all the way until Worlds proved a stretch too far for the Italian but his second half of the season was rewarded with a move away from Sky. Dave Brailsford could have kept the Italian and forced his rider to honour his 2018 contract but the Team Sky boss agreed with Lefevere and Viviani’s agent and a deal was struck. Viviani could move on and Lefevere could now fit the 28-year-old into one of his free sprint spots.
There was, of course, talk of a mid-season move from Team Sky to UAE Emirates. What really happened in those weeks between the Tour and the Worlds is still unclear but there were many factors at play. UAE were keen on Kristoff but the deal wasn’t finalised as quickly as many people expected. Viviani’s agent was tentatively looking around but Lefevere was yet to make his play, having given Kittel almost an eternity to decide his future. Either way Viviani did not put too much stock on a move to UAE.
“There was some talk, when I understood I couldn’t do the Vuelta,” he admits.
“I was disappointed about not doing a Grand Tour in a year so I thought about it. My manager spoke about it but there was never a real chance of going there. I had a contract for next year and for sure moving in the middle of the season is hard. Sky knew I was in good shape for the second half of the season as well,” he says, alluding to the fact that QuickStep and Team Sky were battling it out for WorldTour supremacy.
“It was hard to leave Team Sky but I think that this is a really good chance for me to keep my goals in Quick-Step. They’re focused on the sprinters and I feel really lucky. I have to say thanks to Dave and to Team Sky because if he had said I had to stay then that’s what would have happened. Now was the time to move though because if I missed the train then maybe Lefevere would have signed another sprinter.”
The winter has been kind to Viviani. He trained at home in peace and arrived for the Santos Tour Under over a week ago. He will test himself against local favourite Caleb Ewan and Andre Greipel in the sprints but these early skirmishes are not where the Italian will be truly judged. His real aims come later in the year with the Classics a major goal. Again, Viviani is not a like-for-like replacement for Kittel but more of a Kittel-Matteo Trentin hybrid, if you will. The quality of the win is uppermost in the Italian’s mind and if he can find the form that served him so well in the final months of the 2017 season, then races like Milan-San Remo become genuine possibilities rather than dreams.
“Races like San-Remo, you can’t just say ‘I can win it’. It’s a very tactical race and you need to always be ready. It’s a difficult race and think you can divide it into four parts, then there’s the flat part before the Turchino, and then downhill. Then I have another finish line at the top of the Cipressa but then another race starts at the top of the Poggio. From that point every attack can go to the line. No team has more than two riders but physically I think I’m quite ready. I know that ninth place last year was nothing but I’m going closer.
“You know I got nine wins but ten-second places in 2017. Hopefully, I can transfer some of those [misses] into wins and that’s a good goal for a sprinter. Winning breeds confidence but I’m really focused on the quality of the win. From there I’m sure that the numbers will come with the quality.
“I’m in my best years as a rider so it as the perfect moment to move.”
Only time will tell if Viviani will thrive at Quick-Step. What’s clear, however, is that he has everything he needs to succeed, and after fighting tooth and nail at Team Sky just to leave, he finally deserves his chance to shine.