The 27-year-old Italian memorably broke down in tears in Rio as he beat Britain’s Mark Cavendish to claim omnium gold in Brazil – four years after finishing a disappointing sixth in London.
Having won two stages of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour a year ago, there were not too many highlights on the road though in 2016 – one second place on Stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia and a stage win on the Dubai Tour in February were interspersed with unfamiliar finishes of 120th, 162nd, 104th and 117th throughout the year.
Despite his disappointment on the road, Viviani takes great solace in being able to call himself an Olympic champion.
“I know I did a lot of sacrifices for the track but when you do this and win the gold medal it’s all worth it,” said the Team Sky rider at the Abu Dhabi Tour’s riders’ press conference on Wednesday.
“I followed my dream to win the gold medal and it was a big chance on the track, the omnium. I lose in 2012 in London but I followed this dream for four years, I waited four years and now I’ve won it I think about what else I want.
“I can stop track activity now for two years maybe. The omnium was really stressful to do and to prepare for. I will prepare all winter now for the road and I have a big goal for next year on the road.
“When I decided to re-sign with Team Sky for the next two years we spoke about that. I want to come back and win the Giro d’Italia because I was really disappointed this year in that event. For sure for the next two years you will see me more on the road than the track.”
Viviani’s 20th place at the World Championships in Doha last week was something of a return to form and has warned his rivals he will be back to his best on the road in 2017.
“I really want to win again on the road, because it’s been a long time since I won on the road,” said the Isola della Scala native.
“For the preparations for the Olympics I lost a lot of time on the road. I never had a good shape on the road this year.
“I’ve been feeling really good in the last month since the Olympics and prepared well for the World Championships.
“I would have preferred that the World Championships were not in the same year as the Olympics but I can’t change that. I will prepare for the Worlds next year in Norway the best way possible.”
The cycling season may well be winding down, but Viviani insists that does not mean he will be taking it easy in the Emirates as the Tour get underway with the ADNOC stage today.
Viviani has fond memories of Abu Dhabi, having won Stage 2 and 4 of the inaugural event last year, and he wants more glory in order to end the season on a high.
“It’s the second time I’m coming here and I have very good memories after two stage wins last year,” he added.
“I remember my Abu Dhabi experience very well so I’m ready for the next race. Maybe I lose the World Championship a few days ago, I couldn’t do the sprint but I am feeling really good and I’m ready to try and win the same stages as last year and maybe better.
“We have a strong team for the sprint. We have a good leadout and I hope they put me in the best position. I also hope I have the legs for the sprint because it’s more difficult than last year. Last year I was in front of Peter Sagan but now (Mark) Cavendish is here, (Andre) Greipel is here so it’s more difficult, but I feel I am in good shape to win another stage in Abu Dhabi.”
For the second year in a row, the Abu Dhabi Tour will act as the season finale for a host of the world’s top cycling outfits, who will be looking to wrap up 2016 on a high note, closing out the year under the lights of the spectacular Yas Marina Circuit during the final stage on Sunday.
For some, the capital showpiece will see them compete alongside their team-mates for the last time before moving on to new squads next year, which could make this race particularly emotional.
At least that is expected to be the case for the likes of Grand Tour legends Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador, although the latter has implied otherwise.
Nibali bids farewell to his Astana team this weekend after four years of riding for the Kazakh outfit.
The 31-year-old Sicilian joins Bahrain-Merida next season, where he will be at the centre of team founder HH Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa’s vision for the new Kingdom-based project.
“I am very happy to be here in Abu Dhabi. It’s the last race for me with Astana and my mind is already thinking about next year with Bahrain-Merida,” Nibali told reporters on Wednesday at the Abu Dhabi Tour riders’ press conference at the St. Regis Hotel.
“Last year I met Sheikh Nasser and I’m very proud to be part of this team because I believe in this new project. I’d like to be the protagonist, or chief, of this team and it’s a great new adventure for me.
“I like the great passion of Sheikh Nasser and the investment he is making in the sport and in creating this team.”
This is Nibali’s second Abu Dhabi outing, having competed in the inaugural edition last year. The race features three sprint stages and one with a summit finish up Jebel Hafeet, located in Al Ain with parts of it on the borders with Oman.
The climb is 11km long with gradients that peak at 11 per cent in the final three kilometres. It is a finish Nibali would normally salivate over but considering it is the end of the season and how hot the weather is in Abu Dhabi, the reigning Giro d’Italia champion can be forgiven if he is not too confident about his chances on Saturday’s queen stage.
“I like Abu Dhabi, I like the race and I like the location but the conditions are tough. The climb is very hard and the time is very hot so it’s not easy,” said Nibali, who one of just six riders to have won all three Grand Tours.
Not a fond goodbye
Another rider who has accomplished that remarkable feat is Contador, who will be competing in the UAE for the first time this week.
Like Nibali, the Spaniard is also joining a new team next year, Trek-Segafredo, but he does not seem emotional about saying goodbye to the soon-to-be disbanded Tinkoff marque.
When asked by Sport360 if this could prove an emotional race for him as he bids farewell to Tinkoff, Contador deflected and said: “It’s a new race for me, that’s why it’s special.”
Contador’s relationship with team owner Oleg Tinkov appears to have soured after the Russian criticised him in an interview with Cyclingnews earlier this month, in which he described the rider as a “limping duck” and said he “should stop riding”.
The 33-year-old, who had been with the team since 2011 and throughout his career has won two Tour de France crowns, two Giro d’Italia titles and three at the Vuelta a Espana, reflected on the tough moments he experienced in 2016 and prefers to look ahead to next year rather than dwell on the past.
“I think I had different moments during the season, I’m happy with the first part of the season because my performance was very high, one of the highest in all my career, and that changed my vision for the future and I took the decision of continuing, also together with the support of the people,” said Contador, who contemplated retirement earlier this season but changed his mind.
“I’m not happy with the result in the Tour de France, I trained very hard for this race and in the end I had to go out in the first few days. I tried to continue but I wasn’t in a condition to fight for the victory. In the Vuelta, also it wasn’t the best memory for me. It’s my home race and that’s why it’s special to me. The objective was never to fight for the podium, it was to fight for the win.”
He believes things will be different with Trek-Segafredo.
“I think that the objectives will be more clear in the different races. I think it’s hard to have a very good team around you in all races. I think you need to have a programme that will (guarantee) you’ll have a team at 100 per cent in the Tour (de France). I think next year we’ll look at everything for the overall (classification) and that’s crucial,” added the Spaniard, confirming he is targeting the Tour next year.
The route of the Tour was unveiled on Tuesday and while Contador hasn’t analyzed it properly yet, he is excited about it.
“I didn’t look at the profiles yet, but it’s not bad that they have one flat time trial of 50 or 55km, I like that it’s short and that makes the race more open until the final. We’ll try to take all the opportunities that we have in the race,” he said.
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Tour ambassador Mark Cavendish says he’ll be targeting some stage wins on his debut at the event. The British sprinter, who missed out on the action in the UAE capital last year while nursing a shoulder injury, is particularly keen to race on Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday.
Cavendish is coming off a second-place finish at the World Championships in Doha last Sunday, where he was bested by repeat champion Peter Sagan.
“I’m never satisfied unless I win but I lost to Peter Sagan, he’s a worthy world champion. I know I’ve got good form so obviously it would have been nice to have the rainbow jersey but will have to wait for another time,” said Cavendish, who took his Tour de France tally of stage wins to 30 this year before winning Omnium silver on the track at the Olympics.
Asked if he still had hunger for more next season with Team Dimension Data, he said: “Absolutely. I’m loving my riding this year, I’m loving Team Dimension Data, I love what the team is about so it’s really put a lot of meaning into my riding.”
In its second edition, the Abu Dhabi Tour (October 20-23) has been upgraded from 2.1 to 2.HC and next year, it joins top-flight status as a WorldTour event kicking off the season in February.
Just a few minutes talking to Rio Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet would give you the impression that he feels like he’s on top of the world. Looking back at his 2016 season, it’s easy to understand why.
The 31-year-old Belgian for so long was cycling’s nearly man. His attacking style meant that he would frequently feature in the front of a race but somehow rarely got the win.
A breakthrough 2008 saw him capture a stage at the Vuelta de Espana, where he also snagged the final Points Classification jersey.
But victories eluded him once again until 2011, the year he joined the BMC team. He got his first classics triumph that season at Paris-Tours and emerged as a front-runner in such races moving forward.
Last year, he claimed his first Tour de France individual stage win but nothing could compare to what was to come in 2016.
After taking his first overall victory at a WorldTour stage race by winning the Tirreno-Adriatico in March, Van Avermaet grabbed the prestigious ‘maillot jaune’ at the Tour de France thanks to his stage five triumph. He held the yellow jersey for three days before finally surrendering it, which was huge for a classics specialist.
Then came what he describes as the biggest victory of his career. Van Avermaet pulled off a surprise gold medal performance in the road race at the Rio 2016 Olympics, winning a three-man sprint at the Copacabana beach finish to become one of just two Belgians to top the podium in Brazil last summer.
“Finally people who maybe didn’t believe in me before can see what I can do,” Van Avermaet told Sport360 ahead of his first Abu Dhabi Tour participation.
While the Olympics may not be considered by many as the pinnacle of road race cycling, for Van Avermaet, it meant everything because his father had competed as a cyclist in the 1980 Moscow Games, and regarded it as one of the highlights of his career.
“It was cool already when I did the Olympics in London but now it’s even cooler because if you come back with a gold medal, it’s something unreal I think for a sportsman. I think it’s the highest thing you can get, across all sports. So it’s something really special and I think my parents are just extremely proud that I brought it so far and that, with their DNA, I can be on top of cycling,” he said.
Being one of Belgium’s two Rio gold medallists, Van Avermaet admits that the reaction to his success back home was “crazy”. With football and cycling as the top two sports in his nation, he was already quite famous in Belgium but his Olympics victory took things to a whole other level.
“In Belgium sometimes it’s like more important than the king, being an Olympic medallist,” is how he explains it.
“It’s cool that people have so many reactions, they show me videos of them going crazy when I crossed the finish line first. It’s something special.
“If someone asked me what I remember from previous Olympics, I’d say I still remember Frédérik Deburghgraeve who won gold in Atlanta (1996) in swimming. For me that image that comes up as soon as I’m asked that question.
“Hopefully it will be the same with a lot of kids who are at the same age as I was then, when they’re asked what they’d remember about Rio 2016 they’d say my name in 30 or 40 years. That’s what makes the Olympics so special I think. It’s different from a world title or a Belgian title, it’s incomparable.”
Van Avermaet always believed he had it in him to pull off such major wins, even when he was going through all those near-misses.
But now that he has shown the world what he is capable of, he feels his life will be a bit less difficult on the road moving forward. While his season seems like a real game-changer for him, he insists his goals remain the same as they’ve always been – going for the classics and the biggest races.
“For me it (his season) makes it easier because you’re finally at the level, and you get also extra confidence. I’m just training and doing what I was doing before but it comes a bit easier when you get the confidence, from a lot of people, also your team-mates can see what you can do and it’s easier to work for a guy who wins a lot than for a guy who’s just not there. So I think everything has come together and when you start rolling, it keeps on going,” he said.
“The Olympic title was something unreachable, I was never thinking about it. But wearing yellow, you dream about it. You dream about winning Classics, winning a stage at the Tour, wearing the yellow jersey, so it was really special for me to have three days wearing it, because it’s pretty hard for the type of rider that I am to have for such a long time. Olympics maybe puts everything in the shadow but I had a great year overall.
“I always had the feeling that I had it in me and finally it came out. I’m so happy I finally showed that I can bring better performances.”
Have there been any specific reasons behind Van Avermaet’s magical year?
“It was a gradual progress I think. More experience, taking better decisions in the race, that’s what made the biggest difference. The power compared to other years is almost the same, it’s more reading the race, doing the right efforts at the right moment and that comes with years of experience I think,” he replied.
Van Avermaet was initially a football goalkeeper when he was young but “the goalkeeper is only one spot in the team, so I lost a few times my place and that’s why I switched,” he recalls.
With cycling deep-rooted in his family – both his father and grandfather were riders – he says the switch was an almost seamless one, even though he did it when he was 18, which is quite late for a cyclist. Nonetheless, he turned professional three years later and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.
He’ll be competing in Abu Dhabi for the first time but is very familiar with the region having participated in the Tours of Qatar and Oman multiple times. He’s also coming off a 10th-place showing at the World Championships in Doha last Sunday, where he helped his compatriot Tom Boonen clinch bronze in the road race.
A relaxed-looking Van Avermaet appeared thrilled to be closing his season in the UAE capital, enjoying the perks of staying at the swanky St. Regis hotel overlooking the stunning Corniche, and he admits he wishes there were more stops on the calendar that provided such comfortable accommodation.
There are a lot of ups and downs throughout the year when it comes to quality of lodgings?
“A lot of downs, it’s good to have a few extra ups,” he responds with a smile. “It’s really nice to come to these kind of hotels, it gives a better level to cycling.”
Quizzed on what he would change about his sport if he could, Van Avermaet said: “I think we have to race more attractively, so it would be good to decrease a little bit the number of riders (per team) to make it a little bit less boring and less predictable.
“Raising the standard of hotels as well, quality like here for example would be nice, quality of food, the accommodation around the race, sometimes we’re almost like camping, so that’s a thing that needs to change.
“It’s not normal that we have to change our clothes on the street, cleaning ourselves on the street, so accommodation has to be better.”
AWAY FROM THE BIKE
What would you be if you weren’t a cyclist?
I would be a sportsman for sure. Football player would be nice.
Any hobbies outside your sport?
With a baby at home, I don’t have time to do much, I just take care of my daughter and I enjoy family time. That’s what I enjoy the most.
Who are your sporting idols?
I have a lot of idols in football, I think the Belgian team is playing really well, so I look up to them. (Thibaut) Courtois is a good goalkeeper, Kevin de Bruyne is great. I have a little bit of a connection with them so it’s nice when they send you a congrats message.
Have you gotten used to being an Olympic champion?
I enjoy it every day. It’s not the attention you get, for me that’s not important, I don’t like to be too much in the picture. Just in my heart I reached something that I wanted to reach in my life.