In the first week of the 2018 Tour de France, with Fernando Gaviria winning two stages and pulling on the yellow jersey, the famously raucous Colombian support went into overdrive. Away from the chants of 'Ga-vi-ria' outside the QuickStep bus, there was a full-on social media campaign to grant Colombian nationality to his Argentinian lead-out man, Maximiliano Richeze.
Having piloted Gaviria to victory in his very first sprint as a professional in 2016, Richeze had become such a pivotal part of Gaviria's success that the Colombians felt he was one of their own.
The pair were separated in 2019, as Gaviria moved to UAE Team Emirates and endured his toughest season to date, but they're now reunited as Richeze follows across to UAE Team Emirates for the next two seasons.
"Maximiliano is a great rider and a great friend," Gaviria tells Cyclingnews at a pre-season team training camp in Spain.
"He makes such a difference when it comes to organising a sprint. He has the experience and the mental capacity to set things up for me in the best way. It's a huge advantage for me.
"Off the bike, our relationship is maybe even stronger. We almost never talk about cycling. We talk about life, family, plans, and that's important. We don't just have that bond on the bike – away from it we have a proper friendship."
The pair first met at the Tour de San Luis in 2015. Richeze was leading out Sacha Modolo at Lampre-Merida but it was a 20-year-old Gaviria, little known outside Colombia, who stole the show with two stunning stage wins in a field that featured Mark Cavendish.
A year later, they returned to the race as teammates with Etixx-QuickStep, Gaviria having signed his first professional contract, Richeze, with the language and the experience, having been identified as the perfect lead-out man.
The partnership brought instant success, and their first sprint together is one they still talk about to this day.
"We won the team time trial on the opening day and they let me cross the line first, so I'm in the leader's jersey on the first road stage, and it comes down to a sprint," Richeze recalls.
"It was a pretty complicated sprint because there was a breakaway rider still away and we didn't think we were going to catch him. Our teammates had pulled all day, and we have no one left, so I end up leading him out from practically the final kilometre. He has Sagan and Viviani in his wheel and is a little nervous, because we're going from so far out, but I hang on until 200 metres to go and he finishes it off.
"That one is special to us both, because it was the first time, it was such a long lead-out, and we won having thought it was a lost cause. In that moment, he realised my abilites and was struck by the way I did my job. It really brought us together. Straight away, we had that connection, that feeling."
Gaviria went on to win six more races that year, before striking 14 times the next, putting him level with Marcel Kittel as the most prolific rider in the peloton. That season saw Gaviria mark his Grand Tour debut with four stage wins and the points jersey at the Giro d'Italia, and there was more to come on his Tour de France debut in 2018, as he won two stages and became the first Colombian to wear the maillot jaune.
Richeze was instrumental throughout.
"As well as that first sprint, there are two or three that we always talk about," the 36-year-old says.
"The second stage he won at the Tour [stage 4], that was also a very long lead-out. At the Giro, where I ended up finishing fifth [stage 12], that was a lead-out of arouond 500 metres and I was pretty much sprinting for the line as well. He only came though with less than 100 metres to go and he told me I facilitated it all, because he just used the speed that I was carrying. He didn't really need to accelerate, but just took that speed to the line."
The success, however, dried up in 2019, as Gaviria moved to UAE and struggled to adapt to the new environment. The relative lack of success – he still won six races, including a Giro stage – was largely due to a knee injury sustained in April, but the absence of Richeze – who was guiding Elia Viviani and Fabio Jakobsen to big victories – was still felt.
Plans for a reunion were drawn up pretty early, with little hesitation on either part.
"When he changed teams he asked me to come with him but I had a contract at QuickStep for 2019. During this year, he was always talking to me about it and pretty soon I was talking seriously with the team," Richeze says.
"It's a new challenge. I decided to join back up with him because of the way we work together, on and off the bike. I felt comfortable with Modolo and Viviani but Fernando is the best relationship I've had. Helping him win at the highest level is important to me, something that motivates me a lot. We're working hard to return to the highest level and the success he had in previous years."
The Richeze-Gaviria combination will be back in full flow at the Vuelta a San Juan at the end of January, before the pair hope to land success at the UAE Tour, a race understandably high on the priority list for the team as a whole. There'll be more opportunities at Tirreno-Adriatico before Gaviria's chief objective of the first part of the season: Milan-San Remo, where he placed 5th in 2017 after crashing on the Via Roma on his debut. In the summer, the pair will return to the Tour.
"I'm going to do most of the calendar with Fernando but I'm also here to share my experience with the team and the young riders," says Richeze, and it's a sentiment echoed by Gaviria.
"He's someone who can bring something to the whole team," says the 25-year-old. "He can work for climbers and GC guys in tricky stages, he can lend his experience. He's of great importance to the whole team – not just me.
"Some people are born with the desire to help others, and Maximiliano is one of those people," Gaviria adds.
Even as the star attempts to shed some of the limelight on the unsung hero, it's reflected back the other way.
"It has to be said that I've been flattered slightly in the past few years – I've always been with one of the best sprinters in the world, whether it's Fernando, Viviani, Kittel, Jakobsen," Richeze says.
"Beforehand, I might have done good work but if the sprinter doesn't win then no one talks about it. It's the sprinter that helps you get the plaudits."
Self-deprecating to the last, Maximiliano Richeze was born to help others, and born to help Fernando Gaviria.
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