Gaviria feeling the nerves ahead of Tour de France debut

Quick-Step sprinter dealt a blow with absence of Iljo Keisse

It's difficult to imagine Fernando Gaviria being phased by anything, such is the storming, precocious start he has made to life as a professional, but the Colombian has admitted to feeling the nerves ahead of his Tour de France debut.

"Why not? It's the Tour de France, it's a really big race, and so it's difficult not to be nervous," he said as Quick-Step Floors gathered for their pre-Tour press conference on Thursday. 

After winning four stages of last year's Giro d'Italia on his Grand Tour debut, Quick-Step wasted no time in making Gaviria their number one man for the Tour, effectively forcing Marcel Kittel, winner of five stages last year, to move teams just to ensure a spot on the start line of this year's race.

Few are cautious in their estimations of what Gaviria could go on to achieve in his career, and there's a sense that a quality Tour de France palmares may start to take shape here.

"I'm anxious for it to start now, and to know how it's going to go," the 23-year-old continued. "It's the same with any new race: you're a little nervous before the start. It's a new race and a new experience, and you don't know what's going to happen.

"I'm also nervous because all the top sprinters are here, and the first stage is for sprinters. But having a few nerves is good."

Indeed, the 2018 Tour opens on Saturday with a pan-flat stage from Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte, where the Atlantic coastal winds are the only perceivable barrier to a bunch sprint. The winner, as if they needed reminding, will pull on the famous yellow jersey.

"I think all the sprinters here are thinking about that jersey," Gaviria said. And it would hold extra significance for him as he would become only the second Colombian to don the maillot jaune, after Victor Hugo Peña in 2003.

"On that first day, we have a big opportunity, and we're going to try our best. But if we don't manage it, I'll try again the next day, and again the day after."

Gaviria's teammate, Philippe Gilbert, whose vast experience the Colombian has been able to draw on to calm those nerves, suggested that if a win comes early – with another sprint opportunity on stage 2 and more throughout the first week – then momentum could build, and the young sprinter could end up with a haul like that of the Giro.

"Gaviria is someone who gets a lot of confidence when he wins, so if he starts with a win, I can imagine he will keep winning a lot of times. He's the sort of guy who is able to win two, three, four, five times in the same race, like he's done in the past," Gilbert said.

"You have guys who win who then start to brake more, or start losing motivation, but he's not like that. When he wins, he's on track, and he wants to win some more. We hope to get him to his first win as quickly as possible, and then he'll be on his way."

Gaviria himself emphasised the need to learn the ropes at the Tour – a different beast to the Giro or any other stage race – but the hunger and confidence nevertheless shone through.

"I want to win as many stages as possible," he said simply.

Coping without Keisse

One factor that might be contributing, indirectly at least, to Gaviria's nerves is the absence of Iljo Keisse.

The experienced Belgium had become an important part of Gaviria's lead-out train, playing the role of third-to-last man behind Maximiliano Richeze, but Keisse was sidelined last month due to the breathing condition pleurisy.

"It's a big loss for me," Gaviria said.

"It has complicated things because I did the whole season with him, thinking I would be doing the Tour with him. He's someone who I have a huge amount of trust in. He knows how to move on a bike, he knows how to bring me to the front, and he always brings me into the best position. That's the confidence I have in him."

Gaviria gamely insisted that Quick-Step are very strong even without Keisse, but admitted that the Belgian's absence will necessitate a change in approach.

"I don't think you can just swap someone else into that role because what Iljo does, you can't teach in the space of a week.

"I think we'll try to race differently, try to use the strong team we have, but I think putting someone else into Iljo's position is a bit difficult. Alaphilippe can help us in the finales, or Lampaert as well, who is strong and quick. We won't have problems, I don't think."

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