Italian sprinter Elia Viviani is clear when he talks about the biggest dreams he hopes to fulfil in his sport.
“Milan-Sanremo is the biggest goal after the Olympics for me in my career,” he told Sport360 last week prior to the Dubai Tour.
Milan-Sanremo, dubbed ‘La Classicissima’, is one of the most prestigious Classics in the history of cycling.
With a distance of 298km, from Milan to Sanremo in north-west Italy, it is the longest professional one-day race in modern cycling and Viviani is one of countless riders who dream of conquering it.
This year’s Milan-Sanremo, the first of five ‘Monuments’ (the five oldest, longest and most prestigious one-day races in professional cycling) contested each season, is scheduled for March 17 and Viviani has set his heart on winning it.
Considered a sprinter’s Classic due to its mostly flat nature, Milan-Sanremo offers a great opportunity for Viviani to shine, especially now that he has joined Quick-Step Floors – a team renowned for prioritising its sprinters, and one who has delivered plenty of wins for the likes of Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel in the past.
But Viviani isn’t the only Quick-Step rider who wants to win La Classicissima. His Colombian team-mate Fernando Gaviria, whom Viviani once described as a “phenomenon”, is also gunning for it.
And as Viviani was winning a stage and leading the Dubai Tour in the UAE, Gaviria was dominating in Colombia Oro y Paz, showing great form ahead of next month’s Monument.
Quick-Step had two riders finish in the top-five in Milan-Sanremo last year, with Julian Alaphilippe completing in the podium in third, and Gaviria placing fifth. Viviani, who was with Team Sky, finished ninth.
The question of who Quick-Step will back for this year’s edition is one that will probably be answered by the road.
Viviani can find himself fighting against his own team-mates in Sanremo and he is vague in his response when asked if he has already talked to Gaviria about possible scenarios, or if he has an idea who Quick-Step will favour next month.
“I hope we finish first, second and third, and fourth also,” Viviani says with a laugh, while speaking to reporters in Dubai.
“We have a strong team so it’s difficult also for the directeur sportif to do the team because we are one guy less, seven guys, not eight anymore, and we need also some helpers. I think Milan-Sanremo is one of the really strange races of the season because it’s for everyone, but not really for everyone.
“There are a lot of finish lines before the real finish lines in Via Roma and always something can happen.
“The reality is that three of us finished in the top-10 last year and Fernando came close to winning Milan-Sanremo the first year he did it.”
It is unclear whether discussions have already taken place within Team Quick-Step regarding the matter but Viviani remains diplomatic in his views.
“I think we’re a really strong team and the most important thing is to win Milan-Sanremo. So tactically we can speak maybe the week before but as you can imagine, Alaphilippe and Philippe [Gilbert] can attack and it’s all about the sprint on me and Gaviria.
“If I pull for him he wins Milan-Sanremo, if he pulls for me I win Milan-Sanremo, so maybe one year me and one year him.
“I think the problem is to arrive there in Via Roma all together and then we start thinking who can win Milan-Sanremo.”
Elia Viviani owns just a slender two-second lead at the top of the Dubai Tour general classification heading into Saturday’s finale but the Italian can find comfort in the considerable gap he created between himself and his main sprint rivals during Friday’s fourth stage.
Viviani retained his leader’s blue jersey on top of Hatta Dam after claiming sixth place following a steep summit finish.
The Quick-Step Floors rider had started stage four with a four-second advantage over sprint star Mark Cavendish – the winner in Fujairah on day three – but Viviani’s Hatta exploits means he is now well ahead of the Manxman in the overall standings.
Cavendish, who placed 20th on Friday, 11 seconds behind, now trails Viviani by 15 seconds in the GC to lie 12th, while two-time defending champion Marcel Kittel is 28 seconds adrift of the Italian in 17th.
It gives Viviani confidence ahead of today’s sprint finish at City Walk, where he hopes to secure the Dubai Tour title. Two seconds separate him from Magnus Cort Nielsen in the GC, with yesterday’s stage winner Sonny Colbrelli two seconds behind.
“Sure I created this chance (to win the Dubai Tour) today. We started this day with four seconds on Cav and the main goal was maybe to have more seconds on the pure sprinters,” Viviani told reporters on Friday.
“It’s better to have two seconds on Cort Nielsen than two seconds on Cav or Kittel because tomorrow they can potentially beat me on the sprint.
“So I think we saw a few combinations, we can hope the guy in the breakaway [Brandon McNulty] arrives and takes the 10 seconds but at the same time, if you see the sprint, Cort Nielsen can win this race, because he came from so far back, and if he won, he takes the [overall] lead.
“So in that moment I’m really happy to have two seconds on Nielsen and four on Colbrelli and then play the game tomorrow.”
— ELIA VIVIANI (@eliaviviani) February 9, 2018
The final climb up Hatta damn is a short 400m ascent but with a brutal peak gradient of 17 per cent. It is one that has been conquered by a sprinter in the past, when John Degenkolb triumphed in the uphill finish in 2015. Viviani tried to replicate that moment on Friday but couldn’t quite pull it off.
“I felt pretty good on the climb so I said to the guys to try to close the gap. After the last climb I asked [Niki] Terpstra and [Yves] Lampaert to pull full gas because 50 seconds here and 3km to go is too much time,” said Viviani on the gap McNulty had over the rest in the final kilometres.
“We know in the last kick we can close 20 or 30 seconds but we were not sure to close all 50 seconds. On the side they did a really super strong job like always. Also Lampaert led me in the last corner, so a little bit of movement after the last corner and I think I couldn’t do better than this. I just needed to control not to keep a gap on the other guys.
“If you see the sprint, Colbrelli did an amazing sprint, and Cort Nielsen too. So I think sixth place is okay for me today.”
Viviani took over the blue jersey after claiming the second stage in Ras Al Khaimah on Wednesday, which gave him his second win of the season with his new Quick-Step team.
The 29-year-old from Isola della Scala has arguably the strongest lead-out train in the peloton this week and knows the onus is on him to take Saturday’s fifth and final stage – a flat 129km ride from Skydive Dubai to City Walk. He has faith in his squad but knows the job is not finished yet.
“If I had won today, I go with a 14-second lead tomorrow, I really can sleep quiet, but I think I need to sleep quiet [anyway] because I have a really strong team to control the race tomorrow and then do the best sprint I can,” said the omnium Olympic champion.
“I think the main goal can be also to win the sprint tomorrow. If I win the sprint tomorrow would be a nice finish to this Dubai Tour.”
A frustrated Yousif Mirza rued yet another missed opportunity for UAE Team Emirates after they failed to get their leader Alexander Kristoff first over the finish line atop Hatta Dam in the Dubai Tour fourth stage on Friday.
Kristoff, the reigning European champion, has engaged in tight sprint battled over the past few days on the roads of the UAE but is still searching for that maiden victory with the Emirati outfit.
The Norwegian heads into Saturday’s fifth and final stage in eighth place in the GC standings and Mirza is hopeful they home team can finish the Dubai Tour on a high note.
“We worked all day for Alex so we could get our first win of the season but it wasn’t meant to be,” the Emirati rider told Sport360 as he gasped for air following a gruelling finish in Hatta.
“We still have a fifth chance to do it. It’s a flat stage and perhaps our best chance to get the win.”
Kristoff took fourth place in Friday’s Hatta Stage behind Sonny Colbrelli, Magnus Cort Nielsen and Timo Roosen. He was seventh on stages two and three. UAE Team Emirates have been riding for Kristoff all week but the taste of victory is yet to come for the 30-year-old sprinter.
“Honestly we did everything we could today, we put in a huge effort,” said Mirza, a local who knows this climb like the back of his hand and who crossed the finish line in 24thplace.
“For Alex, there really isn’t anything missing for him to grab a victory. The entire team is working for him. He’s our leader. But Bahrain-Merida did a better job today. The climb made all the difference in the end. Sonny had two riders ready to help him in the final 200m. It’s only 200m but as you can see it’s a very steep climb. So the first team to get there will of course get the win.”
Kristoff was not too disappointed with how things unfolded, saying: “I’m pretty satisfied with fourth place. Whilst a podium position would have been a great way to end a great race, I prefer to focus my attention on the fact that I’m producing consistent performances in the top 10.”
“My team-mates were fantastic leading me to the approach of Hatta Dam, especially Sven Erik Bystrom and Matteo Bono who both did a really impressive job. My legs were fairly good, but maybe the final few metres were too heavy for me.”