Fernando Gaviria lost his bracelet at training camp in December. Not a big deal on the face of it, but it was a gift from his girlfriend – "the woman who gets me out of bed in the morning to train". He would raise his right arm and kiss it every time he won a race, which ended up being quite often in 2016.
The loss of the bracelet has not been followed by a loss of fortune, however, and the Colombian has already racked up two victories – having to kiss a bare wrist – in the first week of racing of his 2017 season at the Vuelta a San Juan. His meteoric rise to the top of the sport shows no sign of abating.
Gaviria burst into the mainstream cycling conscience at the Tour de San Luis two years ago when, racing for a Colombian national team, he beat none other than Mark Cavendish on two occasions. Quick-Step were so impressed they gave him a stagiaire deal later that year – during which he won a stage at the Tour of Britain – and then handed him his first pro contract.
He did not disappoint, with his 2016 being one of the most staggering neo-pro campaigns in recent memory. There were no fewer than seven wins, three of which came at WorldTour level and one of which featured one of the most memorable feats of the year as he did a smash and grab job in the final kilometre of Paris-Tours.
"I believe in Colombia there's the mindset that you have to have an adaption period when you go to Europe. But that doesn't seem to good to me because if we want to win we have to do it from the first season we arrive in Europe," says Gaviria, sitting down with Cyclingnews and a small group of Spanish journalists at the Vuelta a San Juan.
"So, I focused much of my preparation on being able to win from the off. And since San Luis, two years ago, I came with the intention of winning. There I won twice, so already beating one of the greats motivated me even more to arrive in Europe to try and win there too."
Paris-Tours was Gaviria's first one-day success as a pro – and almost certainly not his last. Arguably just as impressive as any of his wins last year was his performance at Milan-San Remo. A momentary lapse of concentration caused him to crash on the Via Roma, but the fact that an 21-year-old neo-pro was there at all, in a position to win after nearly 300km, would suggest La Primavera – and many other Classics – will adorn his palmares before too long.
His teammate Tom Boonen, one of the most richly decorated Classics riders in history, certainly thinks so.
"He has an immense potential. I think personally he will not become better as a sprinter – he's already one of the fastest – but I think he will improve a lot in these kind of races. His heart is also there," said the Belgian earlier in the week.
"He has the possibility to become on the of the great riders of the Classics – I'm sure of it."
Praise indeed – and what a privilege for a youngster to be able to mine the experience of a rider with well over 100 wins and tens of Classics to his name.
"[I speak to Tom] quite little, because of the language barrier, but in the races I try to learn a lot from him, the way you move, how you position yourself and move up. There's lots to learn," says Gaviria, who does indeed see the Classics as a big part of his future.
"I prefer one-day races because they're a bit more intense, they require a lot more sacrifice. They have everything that I like and am passionate about in cycling.
"In the Classics I still have to develop a lot. Intelligence is so important – knowing the races – so I need to gain a bit more experience before the day a team like Quick-Step gives me opportunity."
It's no secret I want to wear the pink jersey
As was the case last year, Gaviria will be sent out for a handful of outings this spring but the most important race on his calendar will not take place not over one day – but across three weeks.
The Giro d'Italia will be the first Grand Tour of his career, and he is building his season around it, with the Tour of Algarve next up, followed by time at home in Colombia and also at a new base in Europe, where Alessandro Petacchi is renting him one of his apartments in Tuscany.
"We're on the right track. We've been doing things well and building good form for the season in Europe," said Gaviria, who picked up two wins in Argentina and led out Boonen for one of his own.
"At this moment the Giro is the most important race for me. It's going to mark the path I take when it comes to three weeks races and how I prepare. If the team gave me the opportunity this year it's because they believe in me, they feel I'm capable of delivering, and that gives me confidence."
For most, a first Grand Tour is seen primarily as a learning experience, where the accrual of experience matters much more than results. But as he mentioned, Gaviria is not like other riders.
Asked if he has thought about winning a stage, he quickly replies: "The first one and the eighth one."
When asked to expand, he continues: "I always want to win, so it's no secret that I want to be the first wearer of the pink jersey this year. The other stage I want to win is stage 8 because it's on May 13, which is my girlfriend's birthday."
Leaving a mark
Gaviria, without being impolite or insincere, is hardly the most expansive rider in an interview. His answers are concise, to the point, and delivered in all seriousness – short bursts of South American Spanish blurting out with the speed and intensity of one of his injections of pace on the bike.
What are your hopes for this year? He is asked.
"Many races," he responds immediately.
Many races won?
When asked about his precociousness and how much room it leaves for continued improvement in years to come, he is similarly matter of fact.
"Everyone can improve. With hard work we could improve at anything. It's not a case of improving rapidly but getting better step by step.
There is more introspection, however, when it is recalled that Quick-Step director Brian Holm once described him as a mix between Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan.
"They are very different riders," he begins. "I prefer to make my own mark, then they will say I'm a different rider. They are great riders – one is probably the most complete rider in the world at the moment, and the other is the most successful at the Tour, so it's impossible to compare.
"One day, though, I want to leave an imprint like they have."
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