Making the transition from the world-conquering outlook of a top amateur to the more restricted horizons of a neo-professional is never straightforward, and Pavel Sivakov’s task was complicated still further when his debut with Team Sky was delayed by injury at the beginning of this season.
The Russian – born in Italy and raised in France – stepped up to WorldTour level this year with high expectations after landing the Ronde de l’Isard, Giro della Valle d’Aosta and under-23 Giro d’Italia in his final year with the now defunct BMC development squad, but a knee injury ruined his winter and kept him out of racing until the Settimana Coppi e Bartali in March.
"At the start, it was a bit difficult to get used to not being up there like when I was an under 23, but you quickly accept that it’s normal. I accepted that I wasn’t there to win straightaway but to learn for a few years before getting to the highest level," Sivakov told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Guangxi.
"The year was a bit mitigated for me because I was injured over the winter and didn’t start training again until the end of January. I only started racing in March, but it went quite well after that. I managed to get some good results."
Sivakov’s stand-out result came at the Tour de Suisse in June, where he rode to 14th place overall and finished the race on an emphatic note with sixth place in the concluding time trial. He proceeded to play a key supporting role as Michal Kwiatkowski claimed overall victory at the Tour de Pologne in August, a display that secured him a berth on the Team Sky squad for the Vuelta a España later that month.
The build-up to Sivakov’s Grand Tour debut would, however, mirror his preparation for his maiden professional season. A seemingly banal cut to his ankle – sustained when he rode over a glass bottle at the Tour de Pologne – became a concern when the wound got infected.
"I didn’t think it was anything serious, but the day after the Tour de Pologne, it swelled up a lot," he said. "I was off the bike for five days and had two days at the hospital, so that made it a bit complicated before the Vuelta."
Despite the hampered preparation, Sivakov took the start of the Vuelta in Malaga, albeit with strict instructions to measure his efforts sparingly during the opening week of the race. Just as he was beginning to find his way, a crash on the road to La Covatilla on stage 9 precipitated a premature end to his Vuelta. Sivakov struggled on as far as stage 14 before withdrawing from the race.
"The team told me to take it as easy as I could in the first week, which is what I did. And then the first day when I could really go full on, I crashed," Sivakov said. "I was at the front in the finale, so that was a real pity. And because I hadn’t had very good preparation beforehand, it was impossible for me to keep going. I was suffering from the crash, I was battered and bruised, so it was difficult."
If the assured displays in Switzerland and Poland marked the high points of Sivakov’s first professional season, the aftermath of that Vuelta seems an obvious low.
"On a personal level, Suisse was maybe my best performance of the season but the Vuelta was a unique experience. Not everybody has the opportunity to do a Grand Tour with Team Sky," he pointed out. "But I was a bit down after I abandoned. The team had taken me to the race when there were certain riders who might have done better than me, so that was hard but, after a while, I was able to put it in perspective."
Comparisons with Egan Bernal
It was inevitable that Sivakov’s debut season at WorldTour level would be compared to that of his contemporary and Team Sky teammate Egan Bernal, who won the Tour de l’Avenir last year.
Bernal was fast-tracked into Team Sky’s Tour de France team this season and recently agreed a five-year contract extension with the squad, but the 21-year-old Sivakov recognises that the Colombian – who had already spent two years at Pro Continental level with Androni-Sidermec – is simply at a more advanced stage in his development.
"I’m not at the same phase as Bernal, he’s a lot better than me right now. He’s an exceptional rider. We’re the same age but he’s further ahead. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that level myself but I’ll work to try," said Sivakov. "I’m just focused on my own development, but it’s always motivating to have a guy like that on the team too, because it raises everybody’s level."
As an amateur, Sivakov’s talents as a rouleur were matched by an ability to set an imposing tempo on the climbs, qualities that perhaps make him an ideal fit for Team Sky’s brand of racing in the high mountains. Adapting to their tactical approach, he said, has not been difficult at all.
"Taking things in hand is the way the team goes about things, and I think that’s normal, maybe even easier to manage," he said.
On the climbs, there is one obvious but crucial difference between the amateur and professional ranks and despite some early setbacks, Sivakov shows signs of getting up to speed.
"It goes a quicker, it goes a lot quicker," laughed Sivakov.
"Tactically, I don’t think it’s very different, although in the espoirs, you don’t really have teams who take control on the climb. But above all, it’s a question of level. It goes quicker."