When an Italian rider is winning sprints seemingly at will in the month of February, it's difficult not to cast the mind forward to that most evocative of finish lines on the Via Roma in March. Elia Viviani duly buttressed his standing as a Milan-San Remo contender by notching up his fifth win of the season on stage 2 of the Abu Dhabi Tour, but he insisted afterwards that he is just one of a number of options at the disposal of Quick-Step Floors for La Classicissima.
With Fernando Gaviria, Philippe Gilbert and Julian Alaphilippe all set to line out for Quick-Step on March 17, there is no shortage of competition for the role of outright leader. Historically, however, Patrick Lefevere's team has tended to view such a surfeit of options in the Monuments as a solution rather than a problem.
"This is the question everyone wants to know, but you'll know that just after the finish of San Remo," Viviani said when asked how he and Gaviria, the team's other sprinter, would divide responsibility in the event of a bunch finish on the Riviera.
"I think we have a strong team for San Remo, with a few solutions. Gilbert is on fire with the five Monuments goal, Alaphilippe finished third last year, and Fernando and finished top five last year. We are a really strong team and we're ready for a few different scenarios."
Perhaps helpfully, Viviani reckons that all possible situations in the finale hinge on the actions of world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who has repeatedly animated Milan-San Remo over the past five years without yet figuring out how to make the most subtly difficult of Classics bend to his will.
A year ago, Sagan produced a prodigious, race-deciding acceleration on the Poggio, but he had to settle for second place after Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) out-kicked him and Alaphilippe on the line. Viviani expects his former teammate will again look to blow the door off the hinges on the Poggio, and Quick-Step's task will be to match him.
"I think Sagan will make the difference every time until he wins Milan-San Remo. We need just to be with him and then try to beat him in the sprint," said Viviani, whose best finish in the race was 9th a year ago.
"He is the only guy who can make the difference on the Poggio in one effort in modern cycling, like he did last year. We will see how we manage this situation in San Remo, we’ll see what happens on the Cipressa and the Poggio. We have a few solutions, and then if we arrive in a bunch sprint, we will listen to the orders from the radio or what we decide the day before. I don't know yet."
Viviani is sanguine, meanwhile, about his co-existence with Gaviria, pointing out that the pair will cross paths only occasionally in 2018. Like the Italian, Gaviria has begun the season with a glut of wins, four in total. Once fierce rivals on the track – Viviani was bemused by the Colombian’s tactics in the final points race of the Omnium at the 2016 Track Worlds in London – their rapport is rather different now that they are both in Quick-Step blue.
"We are in the same team, we are not competitors anymore. We're doing just a few races together but now our relationship is really improved," Viviani said. "In the Track Worlds, we were really battling for the rainbow jersey, and also in the Olympics [which Viviani won – ed.], but I've always had respect for Fernando. He is one of the phenomenal riders we have in the peloton, so I hope we both win more than everyone.
"There isn't pressure or tension between me and him, because we do different races. I know my programme and I want to the best in my programme, and I hope he wins as much as me or more than me in his programme. That's good for the team and for sure Patrick [Lefevere] is happy with that."
Sprinting in Abu Dhabi
Victory at Yas Beach on Thursday was enough to lift Viviani into the red jersey of race leader at the Abu Dhabi Tour. He produced another well-timed sprint to see off the challenge of Danny van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo), who acknowledged afterwards that the Italian is, quite simply, "the fastest sprinter at the moment."
Not for the first time this season, Viviani was piloted adroitly in the closing stages by Fabio Sabatini, who had fulfilled the same role to such good effect for Marcel Kittel over the past two seasons. Viviani paid tribute to the efforts of his team, though he admitted that he had been caught out when the race briefly split into echelons in the crosswind with 46 kilometres remaining.
"I did a mistake to be in the second group when the echelon went, which isn’t usual for a Quick-Step rider," smiled Viviani, who was congratulated in the finish area by Francesco Chicchi, an Italian Quick-Step alumnus who is in Abu Dhabi working for the race organisation.
"We were ready to do something [in the crosswinds], and we made an effort, but then it all came back together. We were a little bit relaxed, and then the gap opened. But I saw some other big sprinters like Kristoff with me, and I knew that all together we could close the gap. It was a really strong wind but we knew there was a headwind in the last part."