Cycling can be a cruel sport and Italian sprinter Elia Viviani couldn't hide his emotions after missing out on a unique chance to win at the most prestigious Belgian spring classic for sprinters: Gent-Wevelgem.
For 250 kilometres, Viviani seemed on course to win but a split-second decision in the sprint turned against him and cost him dearly. Viviani finished runner-up behind world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), with Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) in third.
"I'm disappointed because it was a chance to win one of my career goals. I missed it. For sure we come back but today we lost to the world champion," Viviani said.
Many iconic sprinters have won Gent-Wevelgem. Among them, John Degenkolb, Tom Boonen, Oscar Freire and Thor Hushovd. Viviani likely knows that his compatriot Mario Cipollini was a triple winner of Gent-Wevelgem.
Coming into this race, Viviani was confident despite a disappointing outcome at Milan-San Remo where he only finished nineteenth. At the start of the race in Deinze he told Cyclingnews that he was eager to take the twentieth win of the season for the Belgian team. The Quick-Step Floors team had been unbeaten on Belgian soil for six races in a row. The 29-year-old Italian rider showed off the splendid form that is needed for a sprinter to win in Wevelgem, on Wednesday in the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne.
One of the key moments for sprinters in Gent-Wevelgem is to make the selection after the passage over the cobbled Kemmelberg climb. In this edition, the riders had to make it over the climb twice. Viviani featured in the group of 23 riders that powered away from the peloton roughly 30 kilometres from the finish.
“I was focused throughout the race. I was always in front at the key moments of the race. I received tremendous support from my teammates, like Niki Terpstra at the Kemmelberg. I just tried to follow my experienced teammates,” Viviani said.
The final kilometres towards finish town Wevelgem were next. The Olympic track champion had the support of three Quick-Step Floors teammates in the lead group of 23 riders. Former world champion Philippe Gilbert, Czech champion Zdenek Stybar and in-form Yves Lampaert all worked hard to deliver their sprinter in the perfect position. Viviani was positioned on the wheel of compatriot Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ).
"I'm just focused on Démare's wheel because I know that after 250 kilometres he can do a good sprint, really clear and he normally also does a long sprint ... Sep Vanmarcke comes back from his attack and we have just some small space on the right. There was only space for one guy. First Démare passes. I close my eyes and I pass him too along the barrier but just missed the two seconds when Sagan goes on the left. When Démare opened the door, I could go straight to the line. By that time Sagan already had ten metres. You can’t do a mistake against the world champion," Viviani said.
Viviani easily passed Démare but Sagan was too far ahead. Viviani started hammering his handlebars as he crossed the finish line in second place. Shortly after that, he slumped to the floor and burst into tears.
Later, at the Quick-Step Floors team bus, Viviani sat down in the doorway to look back on what happened. "I'm not interested in what the people are thinking. It's just a natural emotion because the sadness is so high, because I think I can win, because the guys did an amazing job.
"If you see how Gilbert was pulling in front, Yves, how he pulls and Stybar, how he puts me in position. Niki [Terpstra] protected me all race long. I like to have the responsibility to have the results but I’m really disappointed when I lose and the guys did a perfect job. There's nothing to [regret] but just the sadness that comes out," Viviani said.
"If I sprint side-by-side, and I lose then I have nothing to think about, and I say chapeau but [this way], I have the feeling I came faster," Viviani said.
Clearly, he regretted that he wasn't able to defend his chances properly against Sagan. "I know that my form at the start of the season is so high. I'm really disappointed about the result I got in San Remo. I really wanted to come back and win an important race. It looks like I always miss something. Today, it was about one sprint. Potentially I can win. It's about a choice I make. I'm convinced that I took the right decision to follow Démare. You can't make mistakes against Peter Sagan. We all know that he’s also fast after 250 kilometres. Today I felt faster."
The next chance for most sprinters to win a race during the spring classics arrives at the Scheldeprijs, on the Wednesday between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. That will not be the case for Viviani. He'll race Dwars door Vlaanderen, a mini-Ronde with several pavé sections and small hills that seems less suited to his characteristics.
"I race Wednesday and that's the end of the first part of my season. I'll try to continue in this way and for sure the big win will come."