That Elia Viviani – already considered one of the planet’s most elite sprinters – has set himself the goal of becoming one of the best, says everything about the Italian’s burning ambition.
Then again, despite a decorated career that includes an Olympic gold medal, when he lines up his awards and achievements next to those of fellow sprint kings Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel, perhaps the Quick-Step Floors rider still feels he has some ground to make up before he becomes the true golden boy.
Despite the 29-year-old’s burgeoning reputation, there was some truth behind the words uttered at his press conference following his Dubai Tour victory on Saturday, when he modestly admitted he still doesn’t consider himself among the best.
“I really want to win more than I win until now. I’m not a poor sprinter but I think I need to win bigger races to feel like a really big champion in cycling,” Viviani responded when one journalist scoffed at the suggestion he wasn’t already among the world’s best.
Viviani was sat yards from the finish line where minutes earlier he had plundered his second stage victory of the weekend, the Dubai Tour champion’s trophy resting in front of him.
He was being humble. But also honest. After all, both Kittel and Cavendish’s list of major accomplishments are plentiful, especially when stacked up against his own.
Manx Missile Cavendish has rocketed to a roaring 30 individual stage wins over the last decade at the most prestigious road race on earth – the Tour de France – where he trails the mercurial Eddy Merckx by just four victories. He also won the points classification at Le Tour in 2011.
From that decade he sits a scarcely believable joint third in total Grand Tour stage wins, alongside Italy’s Alessandro Petacchi; both men have 48. Belgian great Merckx predictably tops the list with 64, with another Italian, Mario Cipollini, second on 57.
Cavendish also has form at the other two Grand Tours, winning 15 stages at the Giro d’Italia from 2008-13 and three at the Vuelta a Espana (all in 2010).
Kittel’s penchant for the big stage is no less impressive. The German is 20th on the Grand Tour’s most successful riders list with 19 victories – 14 stage wins at the Tour de France, four at the Giro and one at the Vuelta. His flair for the famous French race puts him sixth for most Le Tour triumphs.
Viviani’s combined Grand Tour stage victories? Just one. A solitary victory on Stage 2 at his home race of the Giro in 2015.
So there was definitely a healthy combination of realism and desire when Viviani spoke of aiming to become “one of the best in the world and maybe one of the best Italian riders”.
In addition to climbing closer to Kittel and Cavendish, iconic compatriots Petacchi and Cipollini are likely in his thoughts too.
And the best way to get closer is by beating the best, as Viviani consistently did during the five days in Dubai. Victory on Stage 2 and 5, third on Stage 1 and sixth on Stage 3 and 4. Stage 3 was the only time he finished lower than the deadly duo, with Cavendish first and Kittel third.
At the start of the new season, there is a sense of change in the air. Viviani’s victory in Dubai halted a three-peat attempt from Kittel, while Cavendish – who he beat to omnium gold in Rio – was champion here in 2015.
The Englishman may be the more successful rider of the three, but Kittel – now with Katusha-Alpecin – has undoubtedly been sultan of the sand, winning eight stages (of 21 total in the Dubai Tour’s five editions) and two overall titles during three appearances here.
That Quick-Step – for whom Cavendish won here three years ago – allowed Kittel to leave during the off-season is telling.
The giant German had essentially been let go due to the emergence of young Colombian, Fernando Gaviria, which jeopardised Kittel’s spot in the team’s Tour de France line-up.
Viviani, while as big a name as his two rivals, perhaps does not possess the alpha male persona of Kittel or Cavendish.
The affable Isola della Scala native is a bona fide world class talent but without the ego. Both Kittel and Cavendish have reputations for being fierce competitors and moody characters.
With Viviani, Quick-Step know they have a superstar rider in their stable, but one more content not being the team’s most high-profile sprinter, happy to play second fiddle to the exciting Gaviria, a man six years his junior.
It’s a role he’s accustomed to. After all, during three years at Team Sky, he lived in the shadow of Chris Froome.
Just because he is content, however, does not mean Viviani is cowering. He is now at a sprint-orientated team considered the best in the business.
Perhaps he is more calculated than you think and just crouched, set to pounce on his best year yet.
Alexander Kristoff’s dreams of a podium finish on his UAE Team Emirates debut were dashed by a crash on the very last bend of the final stage as the Norwegian had to be content with ninth place overall at the Dubai Tour.
Elia Viviani, who had led the General Classification throughout the final three days, cemented overall victory by avoiding the late chaos to win the stage ahead of rivals Nacer Bouhanni, Sonny Colbrelli and Mark Cavendish who all either went down or were held up in the drama.
Cofidis rider Bouhanni slid as he made his move on the final bend, causing the crash which downed Bahrain-Merida’s Colbrelli – winner of Stage 4 on Friday – while Dimension Data’s Cavendish and early Tour pacesetter Dylan Groenewegen (Team Lotto NL-Jumbo) saw their chances of victory come to an end as they were held up.
Kristoff – led excellently all day by the attacking Arab duo of Anass Ait El Abdia and UAE national champion Yousif Mirza who positioned their team nicely at the top of the peloton in the race’s closing stages – was disappointed by the outcome.
But he will look to make up for his Middle East misery at next week’s Tour of Oman or when the team return to the Emirates at the end of the month for the Abu Dhabi Tour – where they are defending champions after Rui Costa’s triumph last year.
“I approached the final right-handed bend in a great position ready to make my move, but unfortunately the riders in front of me crashed,” said Kristoff, the reigning European road race champion.
“I managed to avoid them, but I was forced to stop which meant I missed out on the sprint. We’ll now look to the next races in Oman and the UAE where we hope to achieve better results and showcase our talent to the fans – their support has been amazing.”
Kristoff had to settle for 58th place on the stage, which was a blot on an otherwise impressive debut for both his new team and his own season.
He finished outside the top 10 for the first time on the final day having secured two fourth place and two seventh place finishes on the previous four stages.
Mirza, who attempted an early break away, eventually dropped back into the peloton and worked tactically with his team-mates to set the pace and control the blue jersey bunch for a large portion of the race.
And the 29-year-old was adamant team-mate Kristoff would have been in a position to gain a podium place had it not been for the final kilometre’s late calamity.
“The win, it will come for our team, for sure,” said the Ras Al Khaimah native.
“If not Oman then Abu Dhabi. Our supporters and fans should feel proud about the team and its performance at this year’s Dubai Tour. We approached each stage with the right attitude and, despite not getting the win, I feel we honoured our home race.
“I think we did a great job today for Alex to put him in the sprint position. Before 500m there was a big crash between some teams. Alex stayed in the bunch so he could do nothing, and it definitely affected him.”
UAE Team Emirates were celebrating a podium place as they claimed third in the team standings behind BMC Racing and Katusha-Alpecin.
And Mirza added: “But it was two or three good places for Alex (over the five days) and we are third in the GC for teams so overall it has been a successful Tour.
“It was the first race for some of our riders in the Middle East and they are trying to start the season well. We will continue until we arrive at our goal.”
Mirza talked before the Tour of his improvement personally having got a full season of WorldTour racing under his belt in 2017. And he now feels his development is helping him contribute more overall to his team.
“This is my second season with the team and I can feel that I have improved, my fitness and shape,” he said.
“If you followed the results from last year, you can see I’ve been improving and contributing to the team’s results. I am also improving my experience and that also helps me to help the team improve.
“I do my job in the races and I know now more what I need to do and in each race I am improving.”
The team now depart for the Tour of Oman (February 13-18) before returning home for the Abu Dhabi Tour (February 21-25).
Victory may have been the biggest thing on his mind during his visit to the Emirates this week, but Elia Viviani was also delighted to see the amount of people riding their bikes in Dubai.
The Italian won Stage 2 and 5 of the Dubai Tour to take overall victory, avoiding a pile-up on the final corner on Saturday to sprint to stage victory ahead of Marco Haller and Adam Blythe and overall victory too, finishing 12 seconds in front of Astana’s Magnus Cort Nielsen in second and 14 ahead of third-placed Bahrain-Merida man Sonny Colbrelli.
Viviani had spent longer in the UAE than his fellow Quick-Step Floors colleagues, arriving 10 days before the race. And part of his preparations for the Tour was spent riding along the Al Qudra Cycle Track on the outskirts of the city, where he pleasantly surprised by the amount of fellow enthusiasts joining him.
“I spent a good week here in Dubai and I also enjoyed the city, so I can understand how many tourists are around and also how many cyclists are around,” said the 29-year-old sprint king following his victory.
“I’m pretty surprised when last Saturday we went to the bike track in Al Qudra, it was a full crowd at 08:00 in the morning. So it was amazing to see how many people go on the bike.”
Although winning is of paramount importance to the teams and riders, part of the legacy of the event – and the Abu Dhabi Tour which takes place at the end of this month – is to encourage and invest in the sport outside these races.
And Enrico Fili, of race organisers RCS Sport, was delighted by the support for the fifth edition of the race.
“I would like to underline the main thing we noticed about this year is that we saw a lot of people around the race,” said Fili.
“For us it’s a big success. It means the Dubai Tour has made the culture of cycling grow in this country so normal people are starting to watch the Dubai Tour.
“This was the fifth edition and we see how many people attended all five stages and this is something that’s very important to us.”
And, as the dust settled on the event, joint race organisers, the Dubai Sports Council, insist arrangements are already under way to plan the sixth edition next year.
“The event is in its fifth year and we are now looking forward to the sixth edition,” said DSC secretary general Saeed Hareb.
“Spectator-wise today we saw how many people were at the finish line. There were more this year and we hope next year there will be more again.
“We are waiting for the feedback from the teams and whether they are happy with it. It’s a growing project. It’s the first time we covered two ports, Jebel Ali Port and Rashid Port. I’m sure they enjoyed it. Old Dubai and new Dubai, and we will see what the next step is.
“We will have a meeting immediately after the race to see what is going to happen. We will keep going and working on it. We will work together with RCS. We work as one family, one team, just an agreement is to be signed.”