Cedric Vasseur's Cofidis evolution has taken its biggest step yet with the announcement this week that Elia Viviani will join the team for 2020. The Italian signed a two-year contract with Vasseur's team and will bring lead-out man Fabio Sabatini with him, while his younger brother Attilo joins as a stagiaire for the remainder of 2019, with a view to signing a pro contract for the following season.
For Vasseur, the recruitment of Viviani represents his most significant signing since taking over the management of the team in 2018. The Frenchman has tried and failed to kick-start Nacer Bouhanni’s career, but in Viviani he has signed a consistent winner and marquee rider to fit with the squad’s plans of joining the WorldTour in 2020.
The recruitment process goes back to last year. By then, Vasseur was already scouting for a replacement for Bouhanni, but his hands were tied until the Frenchman’s expensive contract expired.
As the 2019 season wore on, Vasseur pinpointed Viviani has his top pick. At the same time, Viviani and his agent, Giovanni Lombardi, were aware that few teams would be able to provide the Italian with the structure in place at Deceuninck-QuickStep and the salary he believed he deserved. Cofidis, at the very least, had a ready-made spot for a sprinter and would allow for Viviani to pick and choose his targets. There would be few discussions on shared leadership, while Viviani could also bring with him his tried and trusted lead-out man, Sabatini.
"Everything started at the start of the season and at the Giro we realised that QuickStep were not going to be able to keep all their roster for next year. Alaphilippe was out of contract and I got in touch with Elia’s agent," Vasseur told Cyclingnews.
"Then everything went really fast. We had a meeting before the Dauphine in Nice, close to where he lives in Monaco. I had a one-hour talk with Elia and explained to him where I wanted to go with things next year. The first meeting we had was a really good one. We had the same philosophy on cycling and the same objectives like Milan-San Remo, the Tour de France with the start in Nice and then the Olympic Games in Tokyo as Elia would like to defend his [Omnium] title. Everything was done by the Tour de France but we just had some details to finalise.
"The first profile we were looking at was Elia. If you look at my strategy since I came to the team, I asked Roberto Damiani to come to the team. He gave us an Italian accent and he helped us with the structure. I can speak Italian but this really helped because it made no sense to welcome a rider just because he has the skills. What you really need is provide him with the right tools. Elia was our first option. Elia requested that we have Fabio, too. He knows him as a person but as a lead-out rider too. We wanted Elia to keep some of his habits from the last seasons. They worked together on several teams and I think it was key to make sure that Elia didn’t have to change everything from his traditions."
End of the line for Bouhanni
The signing of Viviani brings to an end Bouhanni’s tenure at the squad, although the writing was on the wall back in 2018 when, despite a promising start under Vasseur, the relationship quickly deteriorated.
Christophe Laporte – not as fast as Bouhanni in a straight line – was given pole position and selected for the last two Tours, while Bouhanni was left to feed off scraps. There was the Vuelta a España stage win in San Javier but his 2019 campaign quickly descended into farce, with an embarrassing outing in Tirreno-Adriatico that ended in the Frenchman missing the time cut in the team time trial.
Vasseur has remained diplomatic over the Bouhanni episodes, and not all the fault can be shouldered by the rider, but going separate ways in 2020 certainly suits all parties.
"We can’t have two top sprinters. We already have Christophe Laporte and I think that we’ll have a winning combination with Elia, Christophe and Fabio," Vasseur argued.
"We’ll have a really strong lead-out but what I want to build is a team that works together. With all the difficulties we’ve had in the past with Nacer, over communication, it’s better for us and for him that we separate.
"Cofidis in the future will not look like the Cofidis from the past. We still have a lot to do but, as you saw in the Tour, we’re riding aggressively. We have what’s needed to support a sprinter, although we have to admit the results were not good with Nacer. What we were missing was a winning sprinter and for me we have one in Viviani."
Vasseur's rebuilding will not stop with the signing of Viviani. The arrival of 26-year-old Frenchman Guillaume Martin, who finished inside the top 12 in this year’s Tour de France, from Wanty-Gobert was announced on Wednesday.
Vasseur's squad are on course to join the WorldTour in 2020 and in Viviani they have their most potent weapon yet. The question for the 2020 Cofidis team is if they have the combined strength and team structure to keep up with the Italian’s ambitions.