Twelve months ago, Elia Viviani walked into the Adelaide Hilton with a point to prove. He had just moved from Team Sky to Quick-Step Floors, and the Tour Down Under would be his first race in the Belgian team's classic blue colours. After a season in which Team Sky had shackled the Italian's sprint ambitions, he was finally free to showcase his undoubted talent on a consistent basis.
We all know what happened next. Viviani would win a stage in Australia and go an almost unstoppable winning romp across Europe that would eventually settle on the final stage of the Vuelta a España in Madrid. By the time he finished his season, he had won seven Grand Tour stages, a national championships on the road and several important one-day races. Argue all you want, but Viviani was the stand-out sprinter of 2018.
A year on from his Quick-Step debut, Viviani struts out of the lift at the same hotel and takes a seat in the lobby. The only discernible difference is that this time he's carrying an Italian national championships jersey with him after finishing up a photo shoot on another floor. He hurt his foot in the late crash that stopped him contesting Sunday's Down Under Classic criterium but it will not stop him chasing more sprint success at the Tour Down Under.
"We came here last year as a team that included Fabio Sabatini and Michael Mørkøv. We started well, and from there we just kept on rolling," he tells Cyclingnews as he leans forward, almost to emphasise that it all started right here.
"We had that momentum all through the year, and always had results. At every race I went to, I was treated like a leader and there was pressure to get results, but it was good pressure. There was a block in the spring when I lacked a win between Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem, but the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta were amazing."
The only question mark over Viviani's 2018 superiority stems from the fact that he didn't race the Tour de France.
The race was never on his programme, although he readily admits that the team considered taking him after he won his national championships road race on a super-tough course. However, the presence of Fernando Gaviria in the squad, and the Colombian's expectation to race in July saw Viviani decline any thought of muscling in on the show. His time at Team Sky, when he was often overlooked or bumped down the order, had clearly taught him that making a rider feel like second-best was never the gentlemanly thing to do.
"There was some doubt after I won the national championships. If we didn't have a sprinter like Fernando on the team, then maybe I would have been put in, but I think the team made the right choice. We couldn't just change the programme because I felt good," he says.
"There was that doubt because I won the Italian championships on a really hard course, and it surprised everyone, but I was the first to say that we should keep on going with the race programme and keep on going and aim for the Vuelta. I did talk to the directors about maybe doing the Tour – as they seemed impressed with the Nationals – but we made the original plan back in December of 2017, and if I had gone to the Tour then I would have needed riders around me, too. It meant changing too much. It was the right choice. Fernando won two stages and he wore the yellow jersey."
The benchmark sprint train
Although he sat out the Tour de France, Viviani wouldn't have to wait long before finding his legs again. He and his lead-out posse went from the Cyclassics Hamburg to the Vuelta in a whirlwind few weeks that saw him pick up four wins. If that was impressive, then the first half to his season had been simply exceptional, with the heartbreaking defeat at Gent-Wevelgem the only real blemish.
Ever modest, Viviani credits his lead-out for the majority of his success. According to the 29-year-old, it's the delivery to the line that made the difference, and while he is cozily protected and ushered to the front with little fatigue or fuss, it's his rivals who are almost on their knees before the sprint even starts.
"I always wanted to prove that my value was higher than it was before 2018. Having that help from the team has allowed me to do that." he says.
"My teammates permit me to compete for the win and every sprint. They put me in the best position. They create the best opportunities, and all the second places I had last year were because either I made a mistake or someone was faster than me. But the team always put me in the right position. It's the concept that Patrick Lefevere talked about when I joined the team. He said that if Elia can win nine races without full support then with full support he can double that number. He was right."
And it's not as though Viviani believes his breakout year made up for lost time. It's sometimes forgotten that his three-year tenure at Team Sky still came with its rewards. In 2015, he won his maiden Grand Tour stage at the Giro in Genoa, and a year later – when his tally on the road was relatively low, with just two wins – he made his season with an Olympic gold medal in the omnium on the track in Rio.
However, by the middle of 2017, it became clearer and clearer that opportunities on the British team would be rare. Their concentration on stage racing saw them leave Viviani off the Giro d'Italia team, and by the summer he was linked with a mid-season move to UAE Team Emirates.
"In 2017, I was coming back from the track and I had a lot of placings, but I was just missing something. I don't think my value as a sprinter has changed since the end of 2017. It's the race programme and the support of the team that's changed," he says.
"It's true that I almost went to UAE in the middle of 2017. At that moment, they were looking at me, but in the end, it wasn't possible. In the end, it worked out for me because I went to Quick-Step. It wasn't actually that close with UAE, and it never got past just talking. They wanted me to move straight away, but it wasn't possible, and then a few days later they signed Alexander Kristoff for the next year."
A new rivalry with Gaviria
With Gaviria now joining Kristoff at UAE Team Emirates, Viviani has another rival to contend with. The Colombian's departure does at least ensure that Viviani will have a clear path towards his main objectives this season. There will be no need to split sprint-duties at a race like Milan-San Remo – a race Viviani dreams of winning in the national champion's kit – while he can go to the Giro d'Italia and then possibly the Tour de France without any consideration for his ex-teammate's race programme.
"It means that we have one more contender, and probably the strongest one. He's moved teams, but he's a phenomenal rider. He's not just talented. He's phenomenal, and probably my main contender for the year," Viviani says.
"For sure, there's not another team like us when it comes to the lead-out. I'm not sure how it will work with Kristoff riding ahead of Fernando. It looks like Kristoff could be super-strong if they can find a good feeling, but, at the same time, everyone knows that Kristoff is a winner and a champion. I don't know if it will work or not. If it does, then it's a big problem for us, but Gaviria also has a super lead-out guy in Roberto Ferrari. He's super-strong."
When asked if would have preferred Gaviria to stay or leave, Viviani considers his answer.
"I think I prefer it without him. It means that I can dream about San Remo from now without any confusion. It means that we don't have to be on the same team and wait until the Poggio to decide who is stronger."
After the Tour Down Under, Viviani and his lead-out train will concentrate on the spring Classics and then the Giro d'Italia. There's still a discussion over the Tour de France, and Viviani will only go if he can ensure that he has a lead-out train built around him. With Enric Mas leading the GC charge and Julian Alaphilippe also in the mix, Deceuninck-QuickStep has an array of weapons, but the scenario of winning the first stage of the Tour in Belgium on a Belgian team, and pulling on the maillot jaune, is one that certainly piques Viviani's interest.
"The Giro is the first one, and then we'll see," he says. "All I ask is that I go to the Tour with full support, so two riders for me is a minimum. I want my guys there. I don't want to go there and have to jump from wheel to wheel. The team knows that. It all still needs to be decided.
"We want to see how the season goes until Gent-Wevelgem," he continues. "Then we'll decide if I do the full Giro or Tour. It also depends on the climbers. Bob [Jungels] will do the Giro, and Mas will do the Tour with Alaphilippe.
"We need to be a team with balance, but we should make a decision before the Giro. If I'm going to the Tour, then I need to be ready. The first stage: flat stage, in Belgium, yellow jersey," he lists.
The best of the best?
If Viviani carries his winning streak into 2019 and pulls on yellow in Brussels in July, will he be considered the best sprinter?
It's impossible to say given that the goal posts for such a subjective term are forever moving. What's clear is that Viviani isn't willing to dwell on his past success. He has seen enough sprinters let their standards slip over the years, and such an option simply isn't tolerated at Quick-Step – a team where there always seems to be a younger, potentially faster option willing to take your place.
"I've won stages at the Giro and the Vuelta, but that has only made me want to join that small club who have won in all three Grand Tours. The Tour is the most important race in cycling, and that's where all the sprinters are in the best condition. That's my dream: to win at the Tour de France, Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem. Those are the races that I dream of winning. If I can reach those goals, then it will demonstrate that I'm more than just a sprinter. That's the rider I want to be."
And what of being the best of the best?
"There are some years when there are a few sprinters on that level, and it's hard to make that decision," Viviani says.
"If you look back to last year, when I missed the Tour de France, there wasn't any one sprinter there at the Tour who excelled. I don't know. This year we'll see. I'm sure that this year Marcel Kittel [Katusha-Alpecin] will be back on track. I have this feeling. I also have the feeling that Caleb Ewan [Lotto Soudal] will be stronger than last year, and that he has new motivation with a new team. And then Fernando is going to be the main contender."