Odd man out? Elia Viviani is a world-class sprinter on a Team Sky built for Grand Tour contenders

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As the biggest event in professional cycling, the Tour de France draws the best riders in the sport — a peloton made of classics winners, world champions, and Olympic champions.

One Olympic champion, however, will not be there.

Italian Elia Viviani, the 2016 Olympic omnium gold medalist, rides for Team Sky, the British outfit that has won the Tour de France three times in the past four years with Chris Froome.

On a big-budget, all-star team carefully assembled to bring Froome into Paris wearing the maillot jaune, there’s little room for a field sprinter.

When the Tour starts on July 1, it won’t be the first time Viviani is left off one of Team Sky’s Grand Tour squads. It likely won’t be the last time, either.

With Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa both focused on the general classification, the 28-year-old from Isola della Scala, near Verona, was left out Sky’s lineup for the Giro d’Italia, a race he had ridden each year since 2013. Instead, he was sent to the Amgen Tour of California, and later, the inaugural Hammer Series event, which Sky won.

“I know this is a danger of being on Team Sky,” Viviani said in California, where CyclingTips sat down with him for an interview. “When they decide to go all in for the GC, they need to have eight riders behind the leader. It’s not easy for the team to take this decision, and it’s not easy for me to accept this decision, but I understand. It’s a tactical choice, not a rider choice.”

Elia Viviani (Team Sky) won Stage 3 of the 2017 Tour de Romandie ahead of Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Michael Schwarzmann (Bora-Hansgrohe). Photo Rene Vigneron/Cor Vos.

Though Viviani sang his team’s praises in California, he was also spotted throughout the week frequently chatting with his agent, Giovanni Lombardi. He left California without a win; his best result was third behind Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan on the opening stage in Sacramento.

“I’m really happy with what I’ve done over the past two years at Team Sky,” Viviani said. “I won my first stage at a Grand Tour, at the Giro d’Italia, and this was my first dream, and I did that with Team Sky. The second dream was to win the Olympics in 2016, and for that I re-signed with Team Sky last year. I’m really happy to be on the best team in the world.”

Overlooked for the Giro and Tour, Viviani is now campaigning for a spot at the Vuelta a España. However if Froome returns to the Vuelta after the Tour, as he’s done the past three years, it’s possible Viviani could go the entire 2017 season without a Grand Tour in his legs.

Viviani has raced the Tour just once, in 2014, riding in support of Sagan at Cannondale. Sagan did not win any stages that year, and Viviani never figured in the sprints, failing to crack the top 10 on any stage. When that team folded, Viviani signed with Sky. The only Grand Tour he’s ridden since is the Giro d’Italia.

Elia Viviani (Italy) was overcome with emotion after securing the Olympic omnium gold medal in Rio de Janeiro. Photo LB/RB/Cor Vos.

“If you are a sprinter and you are on Team Sky, you know your goal is something other than the Tour de France,” Viviani told CyclingTips. “Froomey has already won the Tour three times, and he can win the next two or three, who knows? My goal is the Giro. As soon as I signed with Team Sky, I knew my goal was not the Tour de France, but maybe the Giro, maybe the Vuelta, maybe the classics.”

Viviani has 41 pro wins on the road, though only six have come at the WorldTour level.

His most recent WorldTour victory — his sole win in 2017 thus far after six second-place finishes — came at the Tour of Romandie in April, where he beat out Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Michael Schwarzmann (Bora-Hansgrohe). A few weeks earlier, he finished second at Scheldeprijs, behind Kittel and ahead of Nacer Bouhanni.

At the 2016 Three Days of De Panne, Viviani won a stage ahead of Kittel, confirming that he is capable of beating the world’s best, as he did when he took his most prestigious road win to date, Stage 2 of the 2015 Giro d’Italia, finishing ahead of Moreno Hofland and Andre Greipel. Viviani went on to register nine wins in 2015, his best road season to date.

In order to be competitive in a field that consists of riders like Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel, and Sagan, Viviani needs two things — more experience, and a dedicated lead-out train. And while he may be afforded the latter at certain events, it’s unlikely he’ll ever have the chance to fight for Tour wins wearing a Sky jersey.

Elia Viviani (Team Sky) took his first Grand Tour victory on Stage 2 of the 2015 Giro d’Italia, ahead of Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal). Photo: Kristof Ramon.

In California, Viviani’s lead-out train consisted of Peter Kennaugh, Danny Van Poppel, Jonathan Dibben, and Owain Doull. Viviani referred to it as “maybe the best lead-out train I can have on Team Sky.” However after finishing third in Sacramento, Viviani would not finish in the top 10 for the rest of the week, demonstrating that it’s a lead-out that still needs to mature.

“In this lead-out we have three really young guys, with Danny, Owain, and Dibben, but the feeling is good because a big part of this lead-out train comes from the track,” Viviani said. “I have another two Olympic champions in front of me, Pete Kennaugh and Owain Doull, and Dibben is a few times world champion on the track. They have all the characteristics, the quality, a lead-out train needs. I hope to have this group all season, and the next few years, because they are young and I think they can do the best job for me. This is what I dream of, to have a good lead-out train. I know it’s difficult to have this at the Giro, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta, but there are a lot of other races I can win with this lead-out train.”

As reported by La Gazzetta dello Sport, after California Viviani met with Sky boss Dave Brailsford during the final week of the Giro d’Italia to discuss his race schedule, the outcome has not been announced and likely depends on Froome’s Vuelta plans. Though he’s contracted through 2018, La Gazzetta reported that conditions exist in his contract stipulating that if Viviani is unhappy with his program, he may leave his contract one year early.

Video: Elia Viviani talks Milan-San Remo

If he does leave, Viviani wouldn’t be the first sprinter to leave Sky. Cavendish lasted only one season at the British squad; Ben Swift departed for UAE Team Emirates this season after having raced with Sky for each of its seven years in existence, and twice reaching the podium at Milan-San Remo.

And now that he’s an Olympic champion, San Remo is now Viviani’s biggest objective — a natural choice for an Italian sprinter. He had his best result yet in March, finishing ninth on a day when teammate Michal Kwiatkowski got the jump on Sagan to bring home Sky its second Monument victory.

“Finally we won San Remo, with Kwiatkowski, not with me, but I’m really happy with the result I did,” he said.

‘These two days were the best of my life’

Though he’s unhappy about his lack of opportunities at Grand Tours, Viviani is grateful to Team Sky for giving him the latitude to pursue his Olympic dream during the 2016 season.

“I followed this dream for many years, maybe eight years, or a little less,” he said. “I was full on for London and I lost everything in the last race, I lost every medal. So after that I wanted to take one year’s rest, but after that it was three years, intensive on the track, all winter and also during the season. For that, I wasn’t missing wins on the road. I won nine races in 2015, including a stage at the Giro. It was my best season on the road.

“I think last year I sacrificed a lot of road racing. I often said only a gold medal could repay me for everything I did over the last few years, and all the sacrifices I made with road racing. So for that I have to say thank you to Team Sky for giving me this opportunity last year. It’s not easy to have a team that will permit you to miss three months from the road to let you focus on the track. The team has a good mindset toward track racing, and also they believed in me with this big goal.”

Elia Viviani (Italy) nearly saw his Olympic gold medal slip away after a late crash in the points race, the final event of the 2016 Olympic omnium in Rio de Janeiro. Photo LB/RB/Cor Vos.

After finishing fourth, just out of the medals, at the 2016 world track championships, Viviani headed to Rio de Janeiro an underdog of sorts, rated on par with Cavendish but behind two-time world champion Fernando Gaviria. The Italian took the lead after the 1km time trial, the fourth of six events, and headed into the final event, the 40km points race, with a comfortable lead over Cavendish. A dramatic crash late in the race, caused by Cavendish, saw Viviani on the deck while the Manxman stayed upright. For a brief moment, it appeared the gold medal had been lost.

“At the moment I crashed, for sure, I started to think, when I come back on the track, I start to see the fourth-place rider, where he was, how many points behind me he was, because in my mind I thought, ‘if I have to lose again because another unlucky crash took me out of the win, I need to go home with something, and if something is the bronze medal, that’s okay,’” Viviani said. “I checked to make sure I wouldn’t lose third place.

“After a few laps, the feeling was better and better. And then when the second rider was really close, one point to me, I start to react, and said, ‘no, I am still first in this omnium, and I want to defend my place. The gold medal is what I want.’ So in the last 30 laps I did everything that I could, tactically, mentally, I was really on in that points race. The only moment I thought maybe I’d lost the gold medal was the moment I came back after the crash on the track.

Viviani recovered to finish fifth in the points race and secure the gold medal. In the moments that followed, and through the awards ceremony, he was overcome with emotion.

Video: Elia Viviani takes Olympic omnium gold

“These two days were amazing,” Viviani said. “The feeling I had in Rio, I was very quiet, very focused. I think these two days were the best of my life. I think the one bad moment in the last year, in 2016, was when I lost the worlds, in London. I was pretty close to winning my first world championship. I lost the last sprint with Cavendish and I lost everything, from first I finished fourth. I’m not interested in two silver and bronze, what I want is the rainbow jersey. It’s a new goal, maybe something I can do in the next few years. At the moment, to win one rainbow jersey, I’ll need to do it on the road.

“But I’ll never forget the amazing feeling I had for these two days in Rio. I had my family there, my mom was there, my dad was there. All my group from the track, the Italian national team, was there. Marco Villa, who is more than a coach, he’s a real friend of mine. It was a really amazing feeling. It’s a fresh memory, even though it was a few months ago.”

Will Elia Viviani continue in Team Sky colors in 2017? It’s tough to say. Photo Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos.

It’s likely Viviani will return to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, particularly now that the omnium program is “easier,” having lost the flying lap, 500m, 1km time trial, and individual pursuit, while the Madison has returned to the Olympic program. Riding with Marco Coledan, Viviani took silver in the Madison at the 2015 world track championships.

“Now, I am back on the road, and I want to win in this [Sky] jersey as much as I can in the next two years,” he said. “It’s a new part of my career, after Rio. You never know, because the feeling I had to win the Olympics was amazing, and I want to see what I can do on the road this year, but Tokyo is not impossible for me to go back on the track. Omnium is quite easier now, compared to the omnium in Rio. So it’s quite sure I’ll come back to the track for Tokyo, because the feeling to win the gold medal is amazing.

“Omnium and Madison are two big chances to take a medal. I think with some months out of the road and preparing for the Olympics I can do that in Tokyo. Bu at the moment, I am on the road, and I have goals. I want to win Milan-San Remo. I want to win 10 races this season. Winning the Olympic gold medal was my last goal. Winning Milan-San Remo is my next goal. The gold medal is done, so San Remo is the next dream for the next few years.”

For Viviani, the next objectives are set. Just how he’ll achieve them — and whether he’ll be wearing a Team Sky jersey — is less clear.

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