Blazin' Saddles: Viviani and Gaviria rivalry could define the season
It still may only be January but the first races of the season seem to suggest that former team-mates Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria will be the men to beat in the sprints in 2019. We take a closer look at both riders and weigh up who – if anyone – can challenge them for the spoils this year.
For a fifth year running, Fernando Gaviria won his first race of the season on Sunday. It's become something of a signature dish for the Colombia, a run stretching back to 2015 when he beat Mark Cavendish in the opening stage of the Tour de San Luis.
A year later, it was Peter Sagan and Elia Viviani whom he beat in San Luis (after winning the opening TTT with Etixx-QuickStep). In 2017 it was that man Viviani, then of Team Sky, whom he beat on the opening day in San Juan, while last year it was Niccolo Bonifazio who could only muster second place behind Gaviria.
On Sunday, Gaviria got the better of yet another Italian, Matteo Malucelli of Caja-Rural, to open his account for UAE Team Emirates. It was a messy sprint which also saw the 24-year-old despatch Bora-Hansgrohe duo Sam Bennett and Peter Sagan as well as Dimension Data's Cavendish.
In so doing, Gaviria laid down a timely reminder of his sprinting prowess after some impressive early season performances from the Italian champion Viviani, who added victory in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race to his earlier – and quite beautiful – win in the first stage of the Tour Down Under.
They may have been team-mates last year, but, besides training camps, Gaviria and Viviani's paths crossed only once – at the Tour de Romandie where neither rider exactly covered himself in glory (both were disqualified for finishing outside the time limit in the 9.9km uphill ITT on day four).
Now officially rivals again, it will be fascinating to see how the former track stars fare when they first go head to head next month at the UAE Tour before expected showdowns in Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-Sanremo, the Giro d'Italia and, mouth-wateringly, the Tour de France.
Let's take a closer look at the two riders and then consider who could push them most over the next 10 months.
Elia Viviani (29, Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Podium / Elia Viviani of Italy and Deceuninck - Quick-Step Team / Trophy / Celebration / Sea / during the 5th Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, Elite Men a 163km race from Geelong to Geelong / #cadelroadrace / on January 27, 2019 in Geelong, Australia.Getty Images
Some eyebrows were raised when the Italian was brought in from Sky to replace the outgoing Marcel Kittel, but a stellar first season – coupled with the German's steady downhill trajectory – built a strong case for the move of the season.
With 18 wins last term, Viviani doubled the tally of then team-mate Gaviria and looked unbeatable at times in the Giro and Vuelta. With one of the best trains in the business, a supreme kick, and a brave tactical awareness (just look at that surge by the barriers from the Tour Down Under), Viviani has all the attributes to keep on winning.
He's got off to a strong start this season and will be relishing a return to the Tour de France for the first time since 2014 for it's the only Grand Tour where he's yet to leave his mark. It would take a brave man to bet against Viviani coming home empty handed: he's looks to be the man to beat this year.
Fernando Gaviria (24, UAE Team Emirates)
Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step) wins stage 1 of the 2018 Tour de FranceGetty Images
It's easy to forget how young the Colombian is because he seems to have been picking up wins for ages now. Gaviria admitted on the weekend that his "tough decision" to leave Quick-Step had been a "risk" – but he seems to have hit the ground running at UAE Team Emirates.
A lot will depend on whether his new team can provide as strong a lead-out as Quick-Step could (and still can for Viviani) – especially given the potentially conflicting ambitions of Norway's Alexander Kristoff as well as the team's GC hopes in Dan Martin and Fabio Aru. Come July, for example, unless something gives, there may well be too many cooks in an already heated kitchen.
Gaviria has the speed and nous to 'freelance' his way to victories – but to do so consistently over three weeks of a Grand Tour is quite different. It's for this reason that Viviani has the edge.
What about the other fast men?
The old guard
Given his troubles with illness and injury last year, it would be very surprising to see Mark Cavendish (33, Dimension Data) return to winning ways in major races. Certainly, Eddy Merckx's record of Tour de France stage wins will be untouched barring something extraordinary. Could this be the last year we see Cav in the peloton?
Cavendish's old foe Andre Greipel (36, Arkea Samsic) should pick up victories by dropping to Pro-Conti level but, like Cavendish, it's almost inconceivable to picture the Gorilla atop a Grand Tour podium again: the sprints have just got so much more competitive. Sure, he did eventually pick up a stage win in La Tropicale Amissa Bongo but Tour wildcard status for Arkea is far from secure, what with the Vital Concept team of forgotten man Bryan Coquard pushing.
That said, Alexander Kristoff (31, UAE Team Emirates) seemed about as likely to win a sprint last year as Romain Bardet – and look, the Norwegian only went and won on the Champs-Elysees. This goes to show that opportunities may arise after the rough-and-tumble of a three-week race. But don't hold your breath.
For Kristoff, it was hard enough when having protected status. But given Gaviria's arrival and the rise of youngsters Jasper Philipsen and Juan Sebastian Molano, Kristoff's opportunities may be limited to the classics.
The all rounders
Gold medalist Slovakia's Peter Sagan (C), silver medalist Norway's Alexander Kristoff (L) and bronze medalist Australia's Michael Matthews pose with their medals after the men elite road race of the UCI Cycling Road World Championships in Bergen, on SepteGetty Images
Peter Sagan (29, Bora Hansgrohe) will always win the odd bunch sprint – especially in a reduced field after a demanding finale or on an uphill ramp. The same can be said of Australia's Michael Matthews (28, Team Sunweb) – provided the Slovakian isn't racing, that is.
And then there's Italy's Sonny Colbrelli (28, Bahrain Merida) – a talented sprinter, no doubt, but one who seems like he can only win the kind of races that Sagan and Matthews can win, but only when both Sagan and Matthews are absent.
Such is his pedigree, Sagan will get the better of Viviani and Gaviria over the course of the season – but not regularly, and not in a flat finish.
The pure sprinters
This year is make-or-break for Marcel Kittel (30, Katusha-Alpecin) following his nightmare in 2018. In the past, the German has shown an ability to bounce back after being written off. But it remains to be seen if he has the hunger and ability to turn things round at Katusha. Will we see the Kittel of 2017 who won five stages in the Tour or the Kittel of last year, who only won two races all season?
In Kittel's absence, Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen (25, Jumbo-Visma) has grown in stature and will look to build on his 14 wins from last year. Recent victories in the Tour and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne shows that Groenewegan can win big and not simply mop up the smaller races.
Also part of the new breed, he's already head and shoulders ahead of his fellow youngsters: could Groenewegen be the one to push Gaviria and Viviani hardest? It looks likely.
Arnaud Demare (27, Groupama-FDJ) may be a solid sprinter capable of winning stages or classics, but he's also in a different, that's to say inferior, league to our top dogs: lightweight and easy to wind up, Demare proves that you can win by nook or by crook – but not consistently over the entire year.
A victory in the Down Under Classic got tongues wagging, but the Australian pocket rocket Caleb Ewan (24, Lotto Soudal) couldn't get the better of his rivals in the opening WorldTour race of the season – and when he did, he was disqualified for head-butting.
With his options limited at Mitchelton-Scott because of the Grand Tour aspirations of the Yates brothers, Ewan now hopes to make his belated debut in the Tour de France. He sure has Gorilla-sized boots to fill at Lotto but the tenacious Ewan has what it takes to keep his Belgian team competitive in the sprints.
Despite regularly getting the better of Viviani en route to winning three stages in last year's Giro, Ireland's Sam Bennett (28, Bora-Hansgrohe) finds himself frozen out. He's already been told that he won't race the Giro, so a lot will hinge on the Vuelta. Either way, Bennett is too fast a finisher to sit around waiting in the wings: expect him to move on at the end of what could be a frustrating year.
Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni (28, Cofidis) picked up his first GT stage win in four years in the Vuelta and with Cofidis likely to keep on receiving wildcard invites to the major races, Bouhanni will have (yet more) opportunities to show what he can do. But you never know what Bouhanni you're going to get: the bullish competitor or the argumentative, toxic, implosive ball of negativity and defeat.
The new breed
The reason why Sam Bennett looks to be frozen out for the Giro comes in the form of Pascal Ackermann (25, Bora-Hansgrohe), who looks set to be given a Grand Tour debut this year. A nice fit for the team's sponsors, the powerfully built German national champion could be Andre Greipel's heir apparent but he still has it all to prove.
Although it's worth remembering that Ackermann did get the better of an in-form Viviani on the streets of London last July...
Famous for his forward-tuck position and his relentless stream of wins in China, Jakub Mareczko (24, CCC Team) finally has a chance to prove his worth in the WorldTour. But he's still a poor man's Ewan, who himself was only recently dubbed a poor man's Cavendish, so he'll have to keep pecking himself up the order before we start to take him seriously.
And finally, given that they were team-mates last year, Viviani and Gaviria will be well served to look over their shoulders and closer to home. For both riders will find their heels being snapped at by younger, highly talented stars on their respective teams: Fabio Jakobsen (22, Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Jasper Philipsen (20, UAE Team Emirates).
Dutchman Jakobsen won the final stage of the final WorldTour race of last season, holding off Ackermann and even compatriot Groenewegen in stage 6 of the Tour of Guangxi. It was his second win of the race and his seventh of the season – a superb return for a neo-pro.
Jakobsen notably beat the likes of Kittel, Ewan and another promising young sprinter - Norway's Kristoffer Halvorsen (22, Team Sky) - in a chaotic finale in the Bink Bank Tour.
With Gaviria gone but not directly replaced, Jakobsen will have opportunities to shine for Deceuninck this year – so Viviani will not be able to rest on his laurels. The same can be said for the Colombian, who will not only have Kristoff to contend with at UAE Team Emirates but the Belgian tyro Philipsen.
Awarded the win in stage 5 of the Tour Down Under after being on the receiving end of Ewan's head-butt, Philipsen already has a WorldTour scalp to his name – something Gaviria couldn't say when he was 20. He may not race a Grand Tour, but expect Philipsen to race a full spring classics programme in his bid to become the new Tom Boonen.
Meanwhile, jostling for opportunities alongside Viviani and Jakobsen is another tyro, the Colombian Alvaro Hodeg (22, Deceuninck-QuickStep). He notched five wins as a neo-pro last season in which he got the better of the likes of Greipel, Bennett, Bouhanni, Ackermann and John Degenkolb. With such an embarrassment of riches in the ranks, it's no surprise Patrick Lefevere was happy to let Gaviria fly the nest.
Verdict: Viviani edges it
An entirely speculative and conjecture-fuelled sprinting hierarchy according to the number of wins secured this season will be as follows: 1. Viviani, 2. Gaviria, 3. Groenewegen, 4. Ewan, 5. Sagan, 6. Kittel, 7. Greipel, 8. Bouhanni