Elia Viviani described his stage 2 sprint victory at the Dubai Tour as the best cycling birthday present he has ever received. The confidence he gained from holding off Mark Cavendish and Alexander Kristoff boosted his own self-belief and the belief that the Quick-Step Floors team have in him.
Viviani perhaps received one birthday present a few months early when his agent Giovanni Lombardi suggested last summer that he end his contract with Team Sky and move to Quick-Step Floors for 2018. With Marcel Kittel heading to Katusha-Alpecin, the Belgian team needed a second sprinter that would not clash with Fernando Gaviria's ambitions at the Tour de France.
Viviani is happy to ride the Giro d'Italia, while the road will decide who leads in Milan-San Remo and the other spring Classics.
At Team Sky, Viviani often had to rely on his track skills to fight for his chances in the sprints. Now Quick-Step Floors lead him out with experience and precision, which he is discovering is invaluable.
"When I lose, the day after I'm really hungry and motivated to do better. Cav (Cavendish) put me on the limit in the sprint but thanks to a great lead-out I could win," Viviani explained, savouring a television replay on his stage 2 sprint.
"This year there's no excuse. I have a really strong team. Nine times out of ten they bring me in a good position with the open road ahead of me. I was scared of being trapped in like yesterday. I really wanted to do my sprint and so thought that if someone passed me, then good for him. But nobody arrived.
"Cav was the only guy I could see close to me. He came up and I saw him coming closer and closer but I wasn't at my top speed. I saw there were 100 metres to go but I had something more to give. I saw Dylan [Groenewegen] come fast with 20m to go but fortunately, the line came before he passed me."
Viviani combined racing on the road and the track until the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. He was rewarded with gold in the multi-event Omnium, beating Cavendish and Denmark's Lasse Norman Hansen but promised to focus 100 per cent on road racing going forward. He fit in well at Team Sky and was a personal favourite with Italian bike sponsor Pinarello. However, after being snubbed for a place at the 100th Giro d'Italia, he did not hesitate when Quick-Step Floors offered him a contract. It was a new challenge and new responsibility but offered huge opportunities.
"After the Olympics, I think I'm mentally and physically at the top of my ability. I'm focusing on the road now and in the second part of last season I proved it," he says not needing to list his wins at the Cyclassics Hamburg and Bretagne Classic-Ouest France.
"Of course I needed to change my sprint and even my sprint training. In the past, I've tried to do short sprints and increase my peak power. Now the goal is to be strong in the last 250 metres because that is where Saba (lead-out man Fabio Sabatini) needs to drop me off. That not's a 10-second sprint, it's an 18 or 20-second sprint. It's not about peak power but average power for 20 seconds," he explained.
"When I get to 200 metres to go, it still seems a long way out for me but I go for it. I've broken the barrier in my mind about being beaten and so if someone does come past me, it's because they're faster that time."
While Viviani was enjoying his victory on the podium, his new Quick-Step Floors teammates were celebrating together in the shade of a tree as they recovered and changed clothes.
Holm welcomes Viviani into the Quick-Step Floors 'wolf pack'
Directeur Sportif Brian Holm was happy that the self-styled Wolf Pack had struck again, just as it did so many times in 2017. A few hours earlier Fernando Gaviria had won the sprint in Colombia. Now Viviani had bounced back from his stage 1 defeat.
Holm had been quietly impressed with his new sprinter after getting the measure of Viviani via his reaction to defeat.
"After the stage, he admitted that he screwed up but also said that he had the legs to win. We were confident today. The finish here is a madhouse, with the turns and then all the sprint trains coming up as if they were on a suicide mission but they did it again and Elia won," Holm said, happy to describe Viviani's rear disc-wheel change with 29km as "the slowest wheel change in history".
"Elia is new to the team but we still won. That shows our team works, which is nice," Holm said with satisfaction
"Some sprinters, when they don't win for a while, they go mental. But Sabatini assured us that Viviani has got a strong head and can keep it under pressure. He got some placings in Australia and his head could have dropped but he moved on from defeat because he knew he could win. I like that."