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The first loser. The nearly-was. They say that second is the worst spot to finish. You’re close enough to victory that you can taste it; close enough that you feel the pain of defeat more keenly than anyone else.
It’s a feeling Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is familiar with. Not that you’d know it from looking at his results sheet from last year. In all he snagged 18 wins — four more than any other professional — including four stages at the Giro and three at the Vuelta. But amongst the many successes were two results that stuck in the Italian’s craw — second-place finishes at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and at Gent-Wevelgem.
Today, Viviani made amends for the first of those frustrations, taking a narrow sprint victory on the Geelong Waterfront ahead of Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott).
Edging out ???????? Caleb Ewan on the line. pic.twitter.com/pugfogMgsl
— 7Sport (@7Sport) January 27, 2019
As tough as second place can be, it can also motivate. It can also educate. For Viviani, finishing second at Cadel’s Race last year did both. It left him determined to go one better in 2019, and it taught him some lessons about how to do that.
A year earlier, at the 2018 Cadel’s Race, a group of seven riders had been clear coming into the final kilometres. Viviani was in the group behind; a group that was chasing desperately to make contact before the line. It did, but too close to the line to give Viviani a chance at victory. That the Italian was able to make contact with the lead group and weave through the pack for second was a testament to his strength and sprinting prowess.
Looking back on that result, Viviani puts it down to a team error. His teammate Dries Devenys was in the lead group of seven and in Viviani’s mind, he might have won had Devenys stayed with him rather than striking out late. That feeling helped motivate a different strategy this time around — while Devenyns had a free role again, another teammate would be called upon to stick with Viviani.
“Last year we lose probably because we missed one guy in front and we can’t close this gap on that seven guys,” Viviani said. “I just come up double speed but we missed one guy. Today the guys they know that and they are really motivated.
“[Michael] Morkov last year doesn’t make it up over the last climb; this year he is really focused to stay with me and then you see the lead-out he do …”
That lead-out saw the Danish champion drag his sprinter from 700m to go until about 150m from the line. It put Viviani into perfect position to take the sprint and his second WorldTour win of the year.
But it was a close-run thing — Viviani only just managed to hold off Caleb Ewan in the frantic dash for the line.
Ewan too was a rider motivated by the frustration of a near-miss, albeit one much more recent than Viviani’s. Ewan was first across the line on stage 5 of last week’s Tour Down Under but was later relegated for an “irregular sprint”. It meant Ewan left the TDU without a stage win for the first time in four years.
But today, after failing to finish Cadel’s Race in his first two outings, it looked like the Australian was well placed to take his first WorldTour win for Lotto Soudal. But it wasn’t to be. As Ewan sees it, he was boxed in in the final sprint.
“I couldn’t really start my sprint when I wanted to,” he said. “Daryl [Impey] started pretty early and then he couldn’t keep going — he was in my way when I tried to start.
“Elia [Viviani] left it really late and it was actually a perfectly timed sprint by him and by the time there was actually room for me to come round, I started but we were way too close to the finish line for me to really get past him.”
But there was more that came out of this year’s Cadel’s Race than its bunch sprint and Italian winner. There was something of a feeling that now, after five editions, we’re actually starting to understand this race.
The first few years of any new race are always intriguing. Riders, fans and the media alike are trying to understand how it might unfold and the sort of rider it might suit. The course profile can help in that regard, but not entirely. As the cliche goes, it’s not the course that determines how hard a race is, it’s the riders. It’s the riders that determine whether a race will end in a bunch sprint or with a solo winner, or somewhere in between.
The first year it was a group of eight that got to the finish while a solo winner took out the next. The three editions since have all been won from a group of between 23 and 33 riders. Nothing is set in stone, but from what we’ve seen the past few years, and especially today, a reduced bunch sprint now seems to be the default for the men’s Cadel’s Race.
And that’s something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Daryl Impey explained after his third place today, the more that riders believe a certain outcome’s likely to happen, the more likely that is to happen.
“Having a guy like Viviani make the final [in 2018]: it makes the sprinters the next year think they have a chance of making it — when they sniff the finish line they know they can make it there,” Impey said. “So I think a lot of guys pushed on today.”
What a lot of guys didn’t do today was attack on Challambra Crescent and the finishing circuit’s other climb: Queens Park Road/Melville Avenue. Sure, there were the odd attacks on those late ascents — Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-Scott), Kenny Elissonde (Sky) and Diego Ulissi (UAE-Team Emirates) all tried at various points. And Davide Ballerini (Astana) got away solo with a late move on Queens Park/Melville. But on the whole, there was a surprisingly lack of aggression on the four laps of the race’s key ascents.
“We tried to make it as hard as we could,” Impey said of Mitchelton-Scott’s approach to the final kilometres. “It looked like we were the only team really trying to make a select group there at the final.”
Perhaps the weather conditions didn’t suit the sort of attacks needed to split the race decisively, particularly on Challambra: “I think it was just really the headwind that kind of nullified all the attacks and it was easier to be on the wheel”, Impey added.
Or maybe it’s just that Challambra Crecent, as hard as it is, isn’t long or tough enough to reliably force a meaningful gap. After all, the men’s road race at the 2010 Road World Championships went up the climb 11 times and that ended in a reduced sprint too.
Viviani certainly believes the climb isn’t as hard as it might seem on paper.
“The climb is hard — you can blow up there and you lose everything but a guy like me or like Caleb [Ewan], if you manage really well the energy you can stay with the first group,” he said. “It’s always a balance to have — don’t go over the limit because if you blow up in that steep climb you’re just dropped.”
Caleb Ewan offers a similar assessment.
“I knew if I started the climb in good position I probably wouldn’t be able to stay with the front guys but I knew I wasn’t going to be too far off them and that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “And I had time to recover down the back there [between Challambra and the finish].”
There were plenty of attacks “down the back there”, in the 6km between the final climb of the day and the finish line. But with the likes of Viviani, Ewan and Impey still in the bunch, and each with teammates to keep it all together, it was clear the race was headed for a reduced bunch sprint. And with 33 finishing on the same time, it was the biggest lead group in the race’s history.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with a reduced bunch sprint, but a race is perhaps more interesting if it can realistically finish in any number of ways, as the men’s Cadel’s Race did the first few years (or the women’s race continues to). Of course, there’s nothing to suggest that a solo winner won’t take out next year’s edition but all things being equal, a reduced bunch sprint will again be the expected outcome.
Viviani will be hoping that’s the case. He’s said he’ll be back next year, and why not? Starting his season in Australia has worked pretty well these past two years.
He’s already got two WorldTour wins to his name in 2019, and he’s already made amends for one of his rare stumbles last year. He’ll head back to Europe a very happy man, before taking a decent rest then building towards the biggest one-day race in his homeland: Milan-San Remo.
“[Cadel’s Race] is one of the four or five WorldTour classics I can win so that means a lot for me,” he said. “I have already won Hamburg and Plouay before — double Hamburg — so now is the moment to try to win the others I miss. So that is this one, and it’s done today, and then Gent-Wevelgem and San Remo.”
For now, the pain of his second place from last year will be a distant memory. And if the past 13 months are anything to by, there’ll be plenty more for Viviani to celebrate in the year ahead.
Follow the link for full results from the 2019 men’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.