Despite the Volta ao Algarve passing without Elia Viviani notching up his first victory of the 2020 season, the Italian was still pleased with how his race went, with the five-day sojourn around southern Portugal an ideal outing ahead of his busy spring schedule.
The new Cofidis star switches disciplines to the track this weekend for the World Championships in Berlin before tackling the spring Classics, including a near-full complement of the cobbled races.
Having been forced to rejig his early-season calendar when the Tour of Oman was rescheduled, the move to Algarve was a blessing in disguise, he said at the race's conclusion.
"It was my first time in Algarve, and I think it's one of the best races to approach the upcoming big goals," he explained to Cyclingnews after completing his effort on the final stage 20km time trial in Lagoa.
"The last times I've arrived in Tirreno-Adriatico, it was after doing Australia or Dubai, and it's not really a big week like this. Here, there's a lot of climbing – the sprints are over 2,000 metres every day, and the climbing stages are a proper 3,000 metres.
"It's good quality work, so I think that – at the end of the day – with the Tour of Oman being cancelled, it was good to come here. I discovered another good race for this period of the season."
Viviani will target a medal at the Track Worlds in Berlin, where he'll race the Omnium and Madison alongside trade teammate Simone Consonni. He has plenty of form on the boards, winning Olympic gold in the Omnium at Rio 2016 and at various points holding European titles in both disciplines plus the Points Race and Team Pursuit.
Milan-San Remo, where he took a top ten in 2017, will follow, and then it's off to the cobbled Classics, where Viviani has ambitions to show he's more than a pure sprinter. The 31-year-old has shown his range on various occasions over the past three seasons, taking the European and Italian road race title on tough courses in Alkmaar and Lombardy, also winning the GP Plouay in 2017.
The Tour of Flanders is the race he has in mind, pointing to past successes in the lead-up to De Ronde as proof of the sincerity of his ambitions. In 2015 he was third at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and took second at Gent-Wevelgem two years ago. There have been three starts at Flanders along the way, all DNFs, but after leaving Deceuninck-QuickStep there'll be more of a chance to ride for himself there.
"I always said that in these last few years I've shown I can be there in Gent-Wevelgem. I've won De Panne. San Remo is a big goal, but I think with my characteristics I can win Gent-Wevelgem too," he said.
"Flanders is a dream race. Usually in my career I haven't had any chance to go there and see where I can arrive, so in my head with the best shape ever like I had in European and Italian Championships and Plouay, I can be there.
"Not if riders arrive one by one, but if there's a small bunch sprint for places when I can be there in Flanders. So that is the goal for Flanders if I'm in super good shape. That's what I have in my head.
"For sure, there's a lot of years where I didn't race there, but I really enjoy it – I think it's one of the best races of the year."
An early season reset
Before the cobbles, and after the Track Worlds, will come some racing on home soil – Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo. Viviani will head there in search of win number one with Cofidis, having racked up five and three by the end of February in each of the past two seasons.
An early season 'reset' didn't help the cause, after his stage 2 crash at the Tour Down Under. There, he took fourth on the opening stage, still tuning his new lead-out train of Fabio Sabatini, who has raced alongside him at Deceuninck-QuickStep, and Consonni.
After suffering a sore knee and upper body road rash in the pileup, he wasn't able to compete for wins at the remainder of the race, but third at the Clásica de Almería a fortnight later signalled a fresh start.
"My season had a new start with third at Almería and then second on stage 1 here, where I might've won if I went right and not left," he said. "But sprints are always like that, you can always find something wrong. The shape is already there, though; I just need to have a good day.
"I arrive at Tirreno having already done a big week and I'll be ready for the effort. I'm happy with the shape but not with the results. At the moment we're still building something, so I'm not worried. I know my strengths and how I can approach these next big goals."
Success at any of those big goals will have made all the early-season suffering worth it for Viviani, though. The infamous Mark Cavendish remark about "shit small races" briefly comes to mind, though it's true that any sprinter would rather succeed at San Remo or Wevelgem than be in top form for Algarve or Australia.
"I've had other years in this situation where I was always there, but the win didn't come. But in my head, it's better to have one big win than ten small wins," Viviani said.
"But I'm still waiting for this big win. I'm working for that, for sure, and I know that when I break that ice it'll come easier, and then I could win five or six soon after. I'm still enjoying the start of the season, though, and I'm really happy to be back in good shape after Australia."
Elia Viviani's 2020 schedule
February 29-March 1: UCI Track World Championships, Berlin
March 11-17: Tirreno-Adriatico
March 21: Milan-San Remo
March 25: Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne
March 29: Gent-Wevelgem
April 1: Dwars door Vlaanderen
April 5: Tour of Flanders
April 8: Scheldeprijs (possible)
May 9-31: Giro d'Italia
June 27-July 19: Tour de France