If Elia Viviani is frustrated after another season regularly finishing just behind the top sprinters in cycling’s biggest races, he doesn’t show it. Besides, he is both a winner and a nearly man at the same time.
At 25, he has youth on his side and has averaged seven victories a season since turning pro in 2010, taking stages in WorldTour events such as the Dauphiné and Tour of Beijing.
As we speak in a London hotel before August’s RideLondon-Surrey Classic, Viviani touches on the importance of improving his tally in the autumn races. Ah, I bait, so it’s more about quantity than quality for you?
“No, no, no. I’d happily swop all my wins for one Giro d’Italia stage,” he says. “Winning so many races doesn’t interest me, it’s the beautiful ones that matter.”
The Tour of Turkey might not be the prettiest, but it was the race where Viviani showed the keenest glimpse of his capabilities. His two stage wins in late April, firing out of the slipstream of Mark Cavendish, no less, on both occasions, put Viviani’s season back on track. He had never seen such high power figures. Surely this was the year to break into the big time.
“I’ve imagined winning a Grand Tour stage many times and after Turkey, I thought I’d be able to realise that dream,” he said. “But it didn’t come.”
At the Giro, Marcel Kittel crushed the opposition in week one (Viviani was third in Dublin), while a fever and crashes robbed the sprinter of other opportunities.
“Maybe I went too strong in Turkey and paid for it,” he says. “If I had the condition of the previous year, I’d surely have won one or two stages… This year, I’m only lacking something in regards to Kittel. I don’t have anything less than [fellow 2014 Giro stage winners] Bouhanni or Mezgec.”
Close calls at the big appointments are becoming commonplace for Viviani. He was also second in two Giro stages last year, as well as runner-up on two 2012 Vuelta stages to John Degenkolb.
While he lacks Cavendish’s jump or Kittel’s build, he has another string to his bow which the rest lack. Having hewn his speed on the track, versatile Viviani continues to mix road racing with the velodrome.
Remarkably, a week after racing in the 2012 Olympic road race, he competed in the omnium – very ably too: he was in the gold medal position until a poor kilo in the final round dropped him to fourth. Another near miss, but he intends to right that at Rio 2016.
Raised on the outskirts of Verona, Viviani originally turned his hand to football as a goalkeeper for his local team. While he stopped, his younger brother Luca continued and now plays in the Italian version of the Conference for Legnago Salus. So why did Elia choose cycling? “It gives me more personal satisfaction. When I win, it’s all me; in football, the victory is shared with ten team-mates."
He is a regular winner too. Recent ones at the US Pro Challenge and Coppa Bernocchi have boosted his so-so summer, following an anonymous first Tour de France as gregario for green-jersey chasing Peter Sagan after a late call-up. Yet the Slovakian’s departure to Tinkoff-Saxo gives a chance to Viviani, who knows exactly what he needs to compete with the best in 2015: support.
“I’ve already spoken to [Cannondale team boss] Roberto Amadio about this: I want to create a group of four or five team-mates close to me; that is the most important thing.”
He suggests Alan Marangoni, Oscar Gatto and Kristjan Koren as possible members of his tight-knit circle.
“I’ve never ridden all year long with Gatto, and that’s difficult for a sprinter. Going in the wheel of Gatto isn’t the same as going in that of Sabatini, for example. It’s a good chance to do a leap in quality. So, certainly, I can face up to Cav, Kittel and Greipel more next year.”
Whether he’ll get his men, given the Garmin-Cannondale merger, or even stays put on the amalgamated squad, is another issue altogether. Although Viviani confirms that he is contracted to Cannondale for another year, it’s reported he will go to Team Sky for 2015.
Whatever happens, having turned pro with Liquigas in 2010, Viviani is wistful about the approaching changes. “Yes, it’s a team and a job, but it’s also like a family, this all-Italian team and staff. I’ve had five years where I learned so much."
He identifies Francesco Chicchi as a key figure in his formative years. “Chicchi taught me to always fight for any placing: even if you don’t win, continue to the line because a third or fifth place is still good. And to take things serenely: when a sprint goes badly, accept it and look ahead.”
Viviani hasn’t always stuck to that mantra. The narrow loss to Cavendish on day one of his first Giro in 2012 rankles with him the most. To miss out on the stage win and the maglia rosa provoked the angriest reaction in his career.
“I think that’s the instinct of the sprinter,” he says, smiling. “That moment of irritation after the finish is there, but these days, maybe I’ll go and watch the sprint afterwards because I want to see where I went wrong or if I could do something more. Now, I am ready to not to find excuses and say ‘okay, today he was stronger, I was beaten’.”
But apart from the odd appearance, Viviani’s fierce desire is hidden by a placid demeanour. “I’m a nice guy in normal life, but I can be bad on the bike because I want something,” he says.
The next few years are pivotal: we will see whether Elia Viviani gets what we wants – Olympic silverware and bunch sprinting supremacy – or is destined to finish in the shadows of Kittel, Cavendish and company, forever the nearly man.