Fernando Gaviria enjoyed a big year in 2018. Already billed as one of the great prospects for cycling’s future, the 23-year-old Colombian delivered further notice of his immense promise with a stunning start to the Tour de France – winning two stages.
It had followed on from a stellar 2017 during which he also shone on the Grand Tour stage – claiming four victories at the Giro d’Italia as well as the overall points title.
The future looked bright. Gaviria was seemingly on the path to greatness. Winning, and winning big. On one of professional cycling’s biggest teams – Quick-Step Floors – who showed ultimate faith in his potential when they were happy to jettison German giant Marcel Kittel to Team Katusha-Alpecin.
Kittel, with 14 individual stage wins at the Tour de France, is the sixth most successful rider at an event considered the jewel of cycling’s crown. His 19 stage wins at Grand Tours in total puts him 13th overall among wins at Le Tour, the Giro and Vuelta a Espana.
It seemed like a tectonic shift – the young gun hired as the veteran champion was ran out of town.
And then Gaviria dropped a bombshell at season’s end by announcing his departure from the Belgium behemoths, saying his time with them had “run its course” as he sensationally signed with UAE Team Emirates.
Finances are said to have played their part, Patrick Lefevere secured Deceuninck as the team’s new sponsor last summer, but the manager also appeared resigned to losing his rising talent to the overtures of a lucrative contract from the UAE.
Here, the lure of being the team’s lead sprinter was too great. Despite Kittel’s departure, Gaviria was still playing second fiddle to Italy icon Elia Viviani, who enjoyed a stunning debut with Quick-Step.
Even with Norwegian veteran Alexander Kristoff still around, Gaviria will enjoy the unrivalled status as sprint leader status this season.
“I lived beautiful cycling seasons in my previous team and I became the rider I am now thanks to them. But I felt it was time for a change and UAE Team Emirates was the best solution for me,” Gaviria told Sport360 ahead of his first foray competitively on the ‘home’ soil of the Emirates for the UAE Tour which gets under way next week.
“I really liked the project of the team. I feel it was the best option for me for giving an interesting future to my career.
“There’s a very interesting project behind the team; trying to become one of the top teams in the world and also to inspire people in the UAE, especially kids, to cycle and so to live a healthy lifestyle. This gives extra motivation to all the members of the team.”
To be fair, it’s not like Gaviria’s future looks any less shinier now, despite departing Deceuninc. UAE Team Emirates have made tentative progress in their first two years but whispers started in the off-season with Gaviria’s acquisition that a leap towards the elite could be made in 2019.
The 24-year-old’s arrival was accompanied by the signings of compatriot Sergio Henao, the 2017 Paris-Nice champion, from Team Sky; as well as exciting Portuguese twins Ivo and Rui Oliveira, and promising Belgian rider Jasper Philipsen and Slovenian Tadej Pogacar.
They join an already star-studded squad including 2015 Vuelta champion Fabio Aru and 2018 Tour de France stage winners Kristoff and Dan Martin.
And results are already looking up. Four wins have been achieved at the Tour Down Under, Vuelta a San Juan and Tour Colombia in the embryonic stages of the season.
Gaviria too has also shown signs of continuing his progress with victory on his debut in UAE colours, winning the opening stage at the Vuelta a San Juan, as well as another on Stage 4 and three more top-10 finishes.
He began brightly in his own backyard at the Tour Colombia too, claiming fifth place on the opening stage time trial, although he was forced to abandon prior to Stage 3, suffering with a respiratory infection.
Despite the setback, he’s enjoying his new environment and looking forward to continuing his rise in 2019.
“Very well, everybody in the team was welcoming and I perceive a positive mood,” he said when asked how he’s settling in to his new surroundings.
“I will try to be as competitive as possible in all the races I take part in. Some main appointments will be the UAE Tour, the Belgian classics and the Tour de France.
“Winning a stage at the Tour de France is something every cyclist dreams of, so I will be very happy if I have the opportunity to compete again for stage victories. Last year I wore the yellow jersey, it was amazing, but this is a very difficult goal.”
Team chiefs previously spoke of how the belated success of 2018 – Martin and Kristoff’s stage wins in France – masked more worrying deficiencies that simply have to be made up this year if UAE Team Emirates are going to achieve their goal of becoming one of the best in the business.
Business manager Mauro Gianetti did not pull any punches when he served praise upon Kristoff and Martin at a team training camp in the Emirates towards the end of last year alongside a demand for improvement after less than impressive results during the first part of the season.
But two wins in Argentina for Gaviria, as well as for Philipsen on Stage 5 in Australia and Juan Sebastian Molano on Stage 3 in Colombia, show definite progression.
“Racing in a new team and with new team-mates is always a step which requires adaptation, but we as UAE Team Emirates started very well and we showed to be already skillful enough for achieving the goals we set,” added Gaviria.
“This is very good and it helps me and my team to approach the next appointments with high morale.”
Cyclists always talk about needing to condition themselves ahead of their main season objectives and how you’re unlikely to see them at their best at the start of the year if their main aim is the Tour de France or the spring classics. So how encouraged is Gaviria with his start to 2019?
“For a rider, the victory is always important and especially for a sprinter it is fundamental to receive winning feedback from as many sprints he takes part in as possible,” he added.
“It will be an important year for me, so I’m happy I already won, I always did it in my past seasons as a pro and it was great to do it again.”
Aru lines up alongside fellow Italians Simone Consonni, Valerio Conti and Simone Petilli, plus Croatia’s Kristijan Durasek, Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar and Jasper Philipsen, from Belgium.
Philipsen had a debut to remember, the 20-year-old rode to victory on Stage 5 of the Santos Tour Down Under and will be hopeful of carrying that form through to this week’s race in southern Portugal.
Commenting ahead of the race, Aru said: “After the good start in the Mallorca challenge, I expect that I will find even more good feelings to confirm the improvement in my condition.
“The tour offers stages that should provide a good testing ground. Like always, I’m going to ride with grit and go for it in the stages most suited to my abilities.”
The opening stage will see the peloton tackle a lengthy 199km route from Portimao to Lagos, with rolling hills and a category three climb; the stage could lend itself favourably to the breakaway if they can build up a big enough lead on the main pack.
Stage 2 brings about the first summit finish of the tour with riders having to battle up the Alto de Foia. The 8km ascent has potential to wreak havoc on the General Classification (GC) standings. The fast men will have a chance to pull it back on Stage 3 though, an Individual Time Trial (ITT) around a 20.3km loop in Lagoa.
Stage 4 throws up an early category four climb, but shouldn’t be too troubling for the sprinters who will relish the inevitable bunched sprint finish into Tavira. The fifth and final stage of the tour will be the most challenging. The Alto do Malhao – a category two climb – is scaled twice by the peloton, while the category three ascents of Picota, Alto da Amerixieira and Vermelhos makes this a true climbers stage.
Vincenzo Nibali admits he is desperate to “win something important again” but denies he has underachieved at Bahrain-Merida as he tackles the 2019 cycling season amid speculation his future lies away from the Middle East outfit.
The 34-year-old sits joint seventh in terms of most Grand Tour victories, having won four (the Giro twice and the Tour de France and Vuelta once each). Only 10 more men have raced to greater success.
His last title came when he lifted a second Giro title in 2016 but, having left Astana at the end of that season to join the new venture in Bahrain – where he was to be the undisputed leader of a team built around him as he plotted further Grand Tour triumph, things have not gone exactly to plan.
He was forced to pull out of Le Tour last year following a crash during the ascent on Stage 12’s iconic Alpe d’Huez after spectator interference – it was the first time he had suffered such a fate in 18 outings at one of the big three races.
He also then went on to finish a disappointing 59th in the overall General Classification at the Vuelta – his worst performance at a Grand Tour since debuting at the Giro in 2007.
Nibali had never previously finished outside the top-10 in four outings at the famous Spanish race – although he had suffered the ignominy of being disqualified in 2015 after video emerged of him holding on to his team car when attempting to rejoin the peloton following a crash on Stage 2.
It tied in to Nibali suffering one of the most fruitless campaigns of his career last year – a maiden and coveted Milan-San Remo triumph a rare bright spot.
But even though the man known as Lo Squalo (the Shark) has been swimming in murkier and shallow waters in terms of controversy and success in recent years, he does not feel under pressure to deliver in 2019 – when he will attempt the Giro-Tour double for just a third time.
“It’s clear that I would like to win something important again, but I run without pressure because I love my job and it makes me happy,” the Messina-born man tells Sport360 when asked if he’d be content to retire with four Grand Tour wins.
“I’m happy with my career and if I could choose, I’d like to try to win the world championships and the Olympics in Tokyo.”
He is also keen to point out that while he has enjoyed little success as he enters his third year with Bahrain-Merida, he recorded podium finishes during 2017’s – his debut season with his current team – Giro (third) and Vuelta (second).
“I did not win, but I think the third place in the Giro d’Italia and the second place at the Vuelta in 2017 are not to be thrown away.”
Nibali has been ever so close on multiple occasions to adding to his four Grand Tour crowns – he has six podium finishes outside of his victories, as well as three more top-10 placings.
The great Eddy Merckx is the most grandiose of Grand Tour riders – he sits alone on 11 overall titles. Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome – who became the seventh to win all three after glory at the Giro last year – sit ahead of him, while a fifth success would draw Nibali level with compatriots Gino Bartali, Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi.
📽️ Rewind the Season 2018— Cycling_360 (@cycling_360) 18 December 2018
📅Date: 17th March
⏱️Avg. speed winner: 40.21km/h
📍Start/finish: Milano➖Sanremo (294.0k)
🇮🇹 @vincenzonibali of
🇧🇭 @Bahrain_Merida wins
🇮🇹 109th @Milano_Sanremo#MSR pic.twitter.com/NmfThPSrbP
The inaugural UAE Tour – taking place in the UAE from February 24 to March 2 – will be the venue for the Shark of the Strait’s (another nickname) 2019 debut, although Nibali admits his Bahrain-Merida future is less that straightforward
“It’s early to say, we will see,” said a rider who was linked with a switch to Froome’s Team Sky at the end of 2018 before the British-based organisation revealed in December that Sky was withdrawing its sponsorship at the end of the 2019 season.
“How can I say it now? I continue to pedal then we’ll see.”
Nibali’s agent was contacted by Sky team principal Sir Dave Brailsford while Trek-Segafredo are also believed to have offered him terms for 2020, with the future for the Shark at Bahrain also plunged into further confusion with a contract extension being put on hold by talks between the team and Formula One giants McLaren coming on board as a partner this year.
“We are in the third year and, looking back, I can only say that we have grown so much that we have managed to enter, last season, in the top-10 of the WorldTour teams,” added Nibali, switching focus to what he and Bahrain have been able to achieve – they finished 14th in the team standings on debut in 2017 before leaping to seventh last year.
“This year important riders arrived such as the time trial world champion Rohan Dennis, young Dylan Teuns and expert Damiano Caruso, and this will help us to grow again.”
Nibali will add the 2019 Giro-Tour double to his 2008 (he finished 11th in Italy and 20th overall in France) and 2016 (he lifted a second Giro crown and came 30th at Le Tour) attempts.
“After the Giro I will participate in the Tour de France. As usual, I will try to do my best knowing that the double is not easy,” he added.
“Every year, I run two Grand Tours, usually the Giro and Vuelta. This year I wanted to change.
“My first goal for 2019 is the Giro d’Italia. I will start the season at the UAE Tour and then I will go to Italy to Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and San-Remo.
“The Milan-San Remo victory (last year) was the best moment of my season. The other two important events were the Tour and the World Championships but the serious crash on the Alp d’Huez ended up compromising everything.”
The Shark will be hoping things go more swimmingly for him in 2019.