Elia Viviani was last to arrive when the Cofidis team gathered for a training ride in Adelaide on Thursday morning, as the days count down to the start of the men's Tour Down Under. But the Italian sprinter is hoping to be first across the line on his season debut in Australia, as he works to lead and inspire his new teammates.
Viviani wears the distinctive white and blue European champion's colours rather than Cofidis' red and white but he stands out as team leader of the French team as they step up to WorldTour level for 2020.
Viviani won 11 races in 2019, including his first ever stage at the Tour de France, in his final season with Deceuninck-QuickStep. Those results and his 18 victories of 2018 led to an offer from Cofidis that was impossible to turn down. He has swapped the support and perfectly drilled lead-out train at Deceuninck-QuickStep for a leadership role and a significantly bigger salary, with the expectation of being just as fast and as successful without the support of the Belgian super team.
Cofidis have signed Viviani's trusted lead-out man, Fabio Sabatini, and track partner Simone Consonni to help build a WorldTour lead-out for Viviani. He won the opening stage at the 2019 Tour Down Under and went on to win the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. Despite all the changes, Viviani continues to aim high and wants to fight for victory in the often hectic early-season sprints in Australia but refutes any suggestion of pressure and expectation.
"My hopes and ambitions are the same as ever. We know the first sprints can go well but that they also might not work out and that we'll have work to do," he told Cyclingnews before heading out for a five-hour ride on day two of his first block of three days of training since arriving in Australia.
"We know it'll take time to be at our very best, for Simone to click with my lead-out man Fabio and even for me to be at my best.
"We've been working on the lead-out train and we've also got sessions on the track planned for it, too. That's where we'll do the best work and nail down the fine details," said Viviani, who'll take part in the Track Down Under evening at the velodrome in Gepps Cross, north of Adelaide, on Friday, along with Consonni and Viviani's former lead-out man at Deceuninck-QuickStep, Michael Mørkøv.
Viviani arrived in Australia at the weekend and was happy to discover warm but not hot weather. The same conditions are expected for next week's race.
"It's not as hot as in the past, with temperatures at about 25-28C, and there's a nice breeze. We've been here a few days now, and been training for four days. We've done two easier days of adaption to the travel and jet lag and then yesterday we started a block of three days' training. We're using the training rides to recon the stages. We've seen the finish in Stirling and we'll see some others. It's always useful to see them," he said.
Stepping up and aiming high
Viviani can count on the support and local knowledge of fellow new signing Nathan Haas at the Tour Down Under. Also in the Cofidis roster for the opening WorldTour race of 2020 are Consonni, Sabatini, Mathias Le Turnier, Marco Mathias and Kenneth Vanbilsen.
Viviani will face Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Sam Bennett, who has filled his shoes at Deceuninck-QuickStep, André Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation), Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates), Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT Pro Cycling) and Kristoffer Halvorsen (EF Pro Cycling) in the expected sprint finishes.
Since the arrival of Cédric Vasseur as team manager last year, Cofidis has been undergoing a transformation. The team has returned to WorldTour level after a decade as a ProTeam, signing French stage race hope Guillaume Martin and Belgium's Julien Vermote, while ending their difficult relation with Nacer Bouhanni.
"Both the team and Elia are making a significant step up this season," Italian directeur sportif Roberto Damiani suggested.
"It's not a new chapter but an important progression along a carefully planned route. We always race 'per vincere', to win, but we don't feel under pressure to win. Of course we want to win here to show just how good we are."
Damiani is an experienced directeur sportif and will play a key role in trying to help Viviani win as soon as possible. He managed the Mapei development team, but is working with Viviani for the first time.
"It's a privilege for us to have a talented and classy rider like him and it's been nice to finally get to known him," he explained to Cyclingnews.
"Elia's considered a team leader and a role model here. He leads by example rather than word. I sense I'm getting to know a great leader."
Viviani also seems happy with the way Cofidis is working to improve for 2020 and beyond.
"Everything has gone well so far. Cofidis is really stepping up and aiming high as a team," he said.
"I hope to share my experience and ability and inspire everyone with my sense of leadership. I want to help them best understand how to target the sprints and how to be one of the best teams in the world."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.