Italian sprint sensation Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli) heralded his arrival in the professional ranks with an explosive sprint victory on the final stage of the Tour of Qatar. The neo-professional had already snapped up five stage wins at the Tour de Langkawi, but admitted that he struggled with the high winds and echelons that characterised the previous days of racing in Qatar.
"I still can't believe it because the riders here are really of the very highest level," Guardini told Cyclingnews after the finish. "Up until yesterday I was a little bit demoralised because I didn't expect to struggle so much in Qatar. I really didn't expect that it would be so difficult to race here. The wind made its presence felt on a number of days, but instead today both the weather and the peloton were quite calm."
Guardini racked up an Italian record 19 wins in the amateur ranks in 2010, all of them in sprints, and expectations surrounding his chances in the professional ranks reached fever pitch after his exhibition in Malaysia.
"I was asked at the start of the week if I would have settled for a couple of placings on stages here," he said. "I don't put limits on myself but I don't expect things either. I'm here to gain experience, and I've done that. I saw what it means to ride in echelons and in the wind.
"I saw that I didn't have the legs to be in front on those stages where the race broke up in the wind, but here after arriving quite fresh on one of the easier stages, I succeeded in sprinting at my best."
Guardini developed as a rider modelling himself on Robbie McEwen, and both the intelligence behind the timing of his effort and the explosiveness of his sprint itself would surely have earned a nod of admiration from the Australian.
"I'd studied the finish well, I knew there was going to be a headwind and I figured it might be the kind of sprint where you need to come from behind," he said. "I found a space in the final 50 metres on the right and I went through and incredibly I crossed the line in first."
Earlier in the week, Guardini's manager Luca Scinto told Cyclingnews that his young protégé had undergone his primary schooling at the Tour de Langkawi and that Qatar marked the beginning of his time in secondary school. When pressed to give himself a grade, Guardini was keen to keep his achievement in perspective.
"I'm not used to giving myself marks, but it was certainly my determination today that got me the win, so I'll give myself a good distinction, let's say," Guardini said. "Before the start of the third and fourth stages I was a bit discouraged because of the wind, but today I knew that it would be a little easier and I knew that it would suit me. I believed right to the end and the result came."
Guardini was adamant that his third-level cycling education will come further down the line. After signing a pre-contract in 2008 with Scinto's team, Guardini has long been groomed for bigger things, but at just 21 years of age, his progress will continue to be gradual.
"I think the university of cycling would be the major tours and a big classic like Milan-San Remo," he said. "I don't know if it'll be this year or in the years to come, but for now we'll continue like this with our feet on the ground, objective by objective.
"I won in Malaysia and now I've won here in Qatar and I still can't believe it. Now we'll look to do well in Oman and concentrate on our next objectives."
Guardini's win came on the eleventh anniversary of his father's death, and he dedicated his victory to the man who first introduced him to cycling at the age of 7.
"On 11 February 2000 my father left us," he said. "It's been eleven years without him and I dedicate this win to him. This morning I thought a lot about him and certainly it gave me something more."