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When he burst on the pro scene in 2011, clocking up 11 UCI victories in his debut year as a 21 year old, it appeared that cycling had found a new star sprinter. Earning comparisons with Mark Cavendish’s own debut year and having a similarly aero sprinting style, many predicated that Andrea Guardini was set for a huge future.
Those early successes included five stage wins plus the points classification in the Tour de Langkawi, victory on stage five of the Tour of Qatar, two stages in the Tour of Turkey and one each in the Volta a Portugal, the Tour of Slovenia and the Giro di Padania.
For a first year pro it was a staggering haul.
It also compared favourably with the debut seasons of riders such as Cavendish and, before him, Robbie McEwen. Cavendish also took 11 wins in his own first pro year while McEwen clocked up ten.
Guardini continued well in 2012 by clocking up ten more triumphs, including a stage victory in the Giro d’Italia ahead of Cavendish, but his momentum faltered after that.
He topped the podium only once in 2013 and while he had a resurgence of sorts in 2014, netting five successes including a stage of the Eneco Tour, comparisons with the sport’s top sprinters had faded away by then.
He was, it seemed, becoming somewhat forgotten.
Guardini appeared to lack confidence and, at times, support. His Astana team was fixated on general classification success in the top races and this was partly the reason why, until last autumn, he had not been selected for any of the Grand Tours since joining the squad in 2013.
This further compounded his lack of progress.
Without doing the top races, a stagnation can occur. Opportunity to chase wins aside, riding three week events gives a big boost to a rider’s development and endurance. Without those, it’s very difficult to make the same kind of progress as would otherwise be the case.
However this year things appear to be different. After doing the Vuelta a España last autumn, the benefits of that plus a good winter’s training meant that Guardini hit the ground running in February.
He notched up second and third on stages of the Dubai Tour and then went on to two runner-up slots in the Tour of Qatar.
He was banging on the door of a stage win, and finally achieved that when he took stage one of the Tour of Oman. A runner-up slot on stage three was his ninth top-ten finish of the year and, after those performances, a visibly more confident Guardini returned to familiar stomping ground at the Tour de Langkawi and dominated once again.
He outsprinted Caleb Ewan and others to take stage one, then also did likewise on stages two and four. He was also in the running for stage six success, but had to settle for fifth after his chain came off just as the sprint started.
Momentum is crucial in these moments. The same is also true in the broader sense. On a macro level, performing well increases the chance of further strong results being achieved. Confidence is crucial for a rider, and arguably even more so for sprinters.
Doubts are hindrances; self-assurance a huge asset.
That’s why, during the past week in Malaysia, Guardini seems to be someone who is completely at ease with himself and where he is at.
He spoke at length to CyclingTips at the race and explained how he turned things around.
“For sure I have started really good,” he said, referring to the 2015 season. “I made a really good preparation in the winter.
“And, for sure, the participation in the Vuelta a España in the end of 2014 was really important in order to start better this year.”
Asked to elaborate on what changed, Guardini offers a number of explanations.
“I worked a lot. I did more quality and more kilometres,” he said. “After the Vuelta I went on holiday in Madagascar, where I spent two week. I then started my training from November 14. I think I lost only one day of training due to snow.
“It was a really good winter because I spent a lot of days in Calpe with the team and alone with myself. It was the perfect work to start well.”
Training, or, rather, physical fitness is only one part of the equation. The mind also has to be strong as well. Looking at him and the comfort he shows in himself, it’s clear he has that aspect worked out too.
“What brought back my confidence was that I stayed really well in terms of my health. There were a lot of problems in the start of the last season but from June to the last season I started to be better.
“I also learned that I am intolerant to lactose. Those were all important things.
“Now I eat really well and everything is really better, day by day.”
”We now see in Andrea what we want to see”
Dmitri Sedoun is working as Guardini’s directeur sportif at the race. He said that getting the sprinter back on track has been a gradual process.
“I think all the results of this year of Andrea are the results of the work in the past last two years. That is an important point,” he told CyclingTips moments before the start of stage five in Kuala Terengganu.
“When he came in our team, he was a big talent for the sprints but it is not enough to win with the important sprinters like Kittel.
“We worked with him so he would go better over long distances and in the climbs. At the end of last year we decided to put him in the team for the Vuelta. That was also an important point. For a rider who starts a Grand Tour, it is important to go to the end and finish.
“He did finish the Vuelta a España; last year it was a very hard race.”
Although his best placing on a stage was only 64th, Guardini took confidence from completing the event and also obtained a big mental boost. Both are evident this season.
“I think all these moments [helped] and Andrea also is bigger now in the head,” said Sedoun. “He understands how many things in the team and with himself are working.”
The net result is that he and the Astana management are satisfied. “In the beginning of this season we now see in Andrea what we want to see,” he said.
To put it more plainly: things are getting back on track.
“When riders hear ‘okay, maybe the team stops,’ it is a lot of stress”
Every team is under a certain amount of pressure to succeed, but Astana has more on its plate than most. Last year a combined total of five riders from the WorldTour and Pro Continental teams tested positive. Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy had been part of the bigger team, while one if its stagiaries, Kazakhstan’s national champion Ilya Davidenok, was found to have traces of anabolic androgenic steroids in his system.
He had started the year as a member of the Astana Continental team. Two more riders from the latter squad, Artur Fedosseyev and Victor Okishev, also tested positive for the same class of substances.
All five riders waived the right to B sample analysis and are thus liable for lengthy suspensions and fines.
The publicity was bad for Astana, and so too the damage to the team’s image. However an additional issue cropped up; the UCI requested its licence commission to look into the matter and decide whether or not the team should remain in the WorldTour.
On February 27, the governing body then asked that its commission to withdraw the licence.
That has yet to be finalised by the commission but if it does agree to that request, it is unclear if the team will automatically get a Pro Continental licence or if it will have to apply for that.
The latter case would mean a further delay. Even if such a licence is secured, the team will lose its automatic right of participation in the Tour de France and other WorldTour races. It would instead have to request wildcard entries.
Astana is determined to resist and said that if the Licence Commision does indeed withdraw the WorldTour slot, that it will appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Gaurdini and the other Astana team riders at the Tour de Langkawi were reluctant to speak about the situation, saying simply that they wanted to concentrate on getting on with their jobs at what is a difficult time.
However Sedoun gave more feedback.
“Okay, it is some stress for the riders, but not from the team. When riders see news from the UCI or somebody else that says, ‘okay, maybe the team stops,’ it is a lot of stress for the riders.
“From our side we are still easy [relaxed], because we are a really open team. Anyone who wants to know how it is working, ‘please, no problem.’ (Gestures to come in).
“We have contact with the riders every time. When we see this [sort of] news, we immediately contact them and say what we do. For us, it hasn’t changed anything for the training programme, the race programme, the logistics. Things are working like normal.”
Sedoun himself came under the spotlight last year when the-then general manager was fired from the Continental team after its positives. However, after a period of several weeks, he was brought on board as a directeur sportif to the WorldTour team.
No explanation was given at the time for his firing, nor has one been provided for his new signing. That opacity has not helped him or the team, but he insists that Astana has nothing to hide.
“If logic exists, we are still in the World Tour because we are one of the best teams in the world. If somebody doesn’t see that, okay – we are ready to show it. In the roads, in the races, and on the table.
“For us there is no problem, we are ready for all the discussions.”
The Licence Commission will make its own decision in the coming weeks. After that, CAS might have its own say, making a final ruling as to whether the team has been treated unfairly or not.
In the meantime the riders will keep racing, trying to push the licence uncertainty from their minds.
”I am growing up every year”
Given that Guardini has beaten Cavendish in the past and now appears back on track, it’s logical to ask how far he can go. It’s hard to answer that without seeing him square up repeatedly against riders such as Kittel and Cavendish; the weeks ahead will give a better indication as he will overlap with their programmes in several events.
The 25 year old said that he will do Milan-Sanremo “for experience” and then go on to do Gent-Wevelgem, the Three Days of De Panne and Scheldeprijs. He named the latter as one of his big goals for the season.
How far does Sedoun believe he can go as a rider? He is clear that further progress can be made, but believes that will be in terms of sprinting speed rather than versatility.
“Andrea is still a pure sprinter,” he said. “For him it is difficult to go really strong in the mountains like Sagan, maybe, or Kristoff. But I think he can go much better.”
Even if that happens, he is guarded about his chances of riding the Tour de France. Nibali won the race last year and Sedoun is clear that will take full priority again. He sees the Vuelta a España as being possible, though.
As for the Giro d’Italia, the two differ on that point. Sedoun describes any aspirations Guardini may have for his home tour as being “complicated,” saying that Fabio Aru’s strong showing in 2014 made the team decide that he will almost certainly be the full focus of an Italian campaign.
Guardini wants to ride as well as possible before the start, though, and see if he can push his way onto the squad.
“At the moment I have the Vuelta a España [as a target]. But I want to be in the Giro d’Italia,” he said. “It is not simple because I know that my team want to work all together for Fabio Aru, but if I go really well and I win a lot before, maybe the directors will take me into consideration. We will see. I hope for this.”
What’s clear is he is back on track and looking like he’ll have a strong season. He’s had a rollercoaster of emotions in recent years and said that he has learned that you have to act rationally when things are tough.
“I think that all people want to see me in the front, winning,” he said, speaking about the pressure he felt.
“Sometimes it is not simple. If you have a bad period you need to be calm and take time to know what is wrong. It’s about choosing the better way.”
Back on track now, his self-belief is on the up. “I think that I am growing up every year. I want to be really good, getting stronger day by day, year by year.”