Win one and the rest will follow. That is the mantra Tom Steels has for Quick-Step Floors’ Tour de France debutant sprinter, Fernando Gaviria. The Colombian heads towards July’s main event with some large shoes to fill after the team’s former lead sprinter, Marcel Kittel, won five stages in 2017. However, Steels has stressed that Gaviria must remain cool under pressure and believe in his ability, even if a first win doesn’t come in the opening batch of sprint-friendly stages.
Steels won nine stages in a three-year period at the Tour de France between 1998 and 1999, but his first Tour de France in 1997 was memorable for all the wrong reasons after he was ejected from the race on stage 7 for hurling a bidon at sprint rival Frederic Moncassin (Gan). A year later Steels returned to the infamous 1998 Tour and won four stages. At the recent Tour de Suisse, the Belgian looked back at his debut in the race.
“I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. But you learn, and you figure out how to turn the switch, especially in the final 20 kilometres, and then you find your calmness back,” Steels told Cyclingnews.
Gaviria is no stranger to Grand Tour success, having won four stages in last year’s Giro d’Italia. Those performances in Italy effectively convinced Quick-Step to build a team around the Colombian, while Kittel moved to Katusha-Alpecin. Steels was adamant that Quick-Step would have a team able to support Gaviria in the sprints, but the Tour de France is a race burdened with a level of pressure Gaviria will not have experienced until now.
“There is a big difference but it’s so difficult to explain,” Steels said.
“It’s a race, and the competitors and the courses are similar but it’s still a different race. The biggest difference is the stress in the group because you’re riding with all the spectators always around you, and then you’ve got the teams for GC on the front, kilometre after kilometre, handlebar to handlebar. So, the concentration needs to be at 100 per cent and the fight is so much more intense when you’re going towards the finish line. If you’ve never experienced it then it’s hard to explain but he will learn. He’s a good bike rider, and he has a good team around him. The best thing to do is to stay calm.”
Even the likes of Kittel and Mark Cavendish struggled in their debuts at the Tour de France before finding success in later editions. Gaviria, though, is a more experienced rider than the Cavendish that rocked up at the Tour de France in 2007, for example, and with Steels calling the shots from the team car, he will have a voice in his ear when the race situation inevitably becomes hectic.
“Sometimes at the Tour, you see the irrational. In stage races, you know where you can go but sometimes in the Tour, they start to sprint at 400 meters to go, and then you end up getting boxed in. Just being in the picture at the Tour is very important, so some riders just do something if they have a one per cent chance of victory. You won’t see that at any other race but the Tour. Everyone takes more risks.”
A mixed season
Gaviria’s season has blown hot and cold. He had won four races by mid-February but the majority of his spring was ruined due to injury. He returned to form at the Tour of California in May, winning three stages, and although he was beaten three times at the Tour de Suisse, Steels believes that the Colombian can get it right in July.
“So far, he’s had some back luck, crashes and an injury but since he came back he’s done California. From what I saw at Suisse, he’s done okay. If he can go to the Tour and win a first stage then he will be liberated and can then go on to win more.”
Quick-Step’s Tour de France team has yet to be announced but the perception is that Gaviria will enjoy a similar level of support Kittel used so effectively in 2017. Steels explained, however, that it’s not just about having numbers around their sprinter but having the right riders to guide him through sprint situations and conditions he has yet to experience. And at the end of the day, it will be up to Gaviria to learn, adapt, and ultimately win.
“You have to build in a lot of experience and guidance so that he just needs to focus on following the wheel in front of him. You don’t want distractions and then you hope that he can adapt as quickly as possible to the Tour. You’ve got all the media attention, which adds extra pressure but he will learn. I think that he can cope with it. The team around him is experienced, so if needed, they’ll take him and guide him to the finish,” Steels said.
Of course, Quick-Step’s record at winning stages in Grand Tours is second to none in recent years. Kittel, Matteo Trentin [ed. now at Mitchelton-Scott], and Elia Viviani have all won multiple stages in Grand Tours while in Quick-Step blue, but Steels is aware that past success will count for little when the Tour rolls out.
“We just want to win stages at the Tour. There will be a point when we win less but we hope that it’s not this year. The biggest thing is that the rider doesn’t start to ride against himself. He shouldn’t think about winning six or seven stages. First, you have to focus on winning one stage and that’s the biggest fight for the rider. If you win one stage then you can win a second one. Sometimes it can take a week but you need remain relaxed.”