Elia Viviani wasn't meant to be here, but he's making the most of it now that he is. Parachuted into Belgium after Fernando Gaviria fractured his hand at Tirreno-Adriatico, the Italian won the Driedaagse De Panne on Wednesday and made himself Quick-Step Floors' go-to man for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
"I didn't have all these races in the plan before Fernando crashed, because he wanted to do all the Flanders Classics and I was focused on the Giro d'Italia, but a team like us, we need to have a big sprinter here," Viviani told Cyclingnews in Bruges at the start of the race.
With Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, Dwars door Vlaanderen next Wednesday, and potentially Scheldeprijs the following week, all suddenly on the agenda, Viviani sees it less as a drawback for his Giro preparations and more an opportunity to win in Europe for the first time this season after a strong start in Australia and the Middle East.
"It's a really important 10 days, the last 10 days of my first period of the season, and I really want to end it like I started – in a good way," he said.
He duly delivered in De Panne, breezing past Pascal Ackermann to take his season tally to six and quickly banish the disappointment of Saturday's Milan-San Remo, where he finished 19th.
"I was really disappointed with my result in San Remo – not with the performance, because I got over the Cipressa and Poggio and we were well organised, but I didn't have the legs to do a 200-metre sprint on the Via Roma," Viviani said in his winner's press conference in De Panne.
"After that big miss, I'm really focused for Sunday. I really want to do well. I think this is the best way to start this important period for the team."
Viviani is one of the more versatile sprinters out there, not limiting himself to the big bunch gallops in the stage races. An Olympic champion on the track, he has also been involved in finishes at the Classics in the last few years and showcased his one-day credentials with wins at Hamburg and Plouay last autumn.
"When I said I want to win all the Classics for the sprinters, that's what I want to do," he said. "For sure, Gent-Wevelgem is one of the Classics in my head."
Gent-Wevelgem may be – behind Scheldeprijs – the most sprint-friendly of the Spring Classics in Flanders but, with the wind up near the coast and the cobbles and climbs, including the Kemmelberg, it's a far cry from Hamburg and Plouay.
Viviani noted that De Panne acted as a useful recon for Sunday, going over the Kemmelberg before passing De Moeren, the notorious point where crosswinds can cause chaos. That said, he was nonplussed when asked about the 'plugstreets' – the gravel roads introduced to the race last year – and vowed to do his homework this evening.
"We've seen in the past few years, the sprinters do the sprint just for the places, not the victory. Maybe it's more difficult but sometimes I also like that. Maybe I can't stay with four or five guys but if there are more than 10 or 15, I can stay there with good shape," he said.
"I don't want to put all the pressure on my shoulders but when I put one goal I'm really determined to follow that goal until the finish line."
All for one
Viviani is arguably the top sprinter of the opening few months of the season. Dylan Groenewegen has been flying, too, but Viviani now has six victories to the Dutchman's five.
The Italian broke his contract with Team Sky to fill the space at Quick-Step Floors vacated by Marcel Kittel and the move seems to have worked out perfectly, with Kittel only on two wins at Katusha-Alpecin and Viviani already two-thirds of the way to his total from last season – the best of his career.
At the heart of Viviani's decision to leave Sky was his non-selection for the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia last year and, by extension, the lack of opportunities in the Grand Tours and other top-level races. He explained that things are completely different at Quick-Step.
"The other teams, they say 'you're the leader' for this race, but in this team I'm a proper leader," he said. "I have my own programme, my own group, and in the races, we take responsibility as if I'm the best in the world because we have one mentality and that's the winning mentality.
"People ask if it's really like what you see from outside, and I say 'yes'. You see our team is all one unit, all for one. We race every day for the win, we always have a rider in every race who can win. In Paris-Nice the poor guy Tim Declerq worked all day every day because one day I wanted to win, then there was a stage for Alaphilippe, then me again. You can see the spirit - when you see Alaphilippe do a lead-out with 200 metres to go, or me pulling full gas before a climb… you're pulling because you want to give back what all the team do."
After Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and possibly Scheldeprijs, Viviani will take a week off before ramping up to the Giro d'Italia via the Tour de Romandie.
"My target for the season is 10 wins because I've never got to 10," he said. "But if I have one goal this year, it's to have more wins than second places. Last year I was 10 times second and I had nine wins. So that's a good goal to challenge myself."
Viviani only got going in the second half of last season, but by the corresponding point this time around, there's every chance he'll be having to refresh those initial targets.
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.