Giro d'Italia
Fernando Gaviria knows he can't defend the Giro's...

Don’t call him the ‘missile’ — Gaviria unlike any other Colombian rider

Fernando Gaviria stands out from his fellow Colombian cyclists as a pure sprinter. He's enjoying his one day in the Giro's pink jersey.

PALERMO, Italy (VN) — It’s rare for a Colombian to plan on ceding a grand tour leader’s jersey on a summit finale. Fernando Gaviria isn’t your run-of-the-mill “escarabajo.”

On Tuesday, Gaviria knows he will be giving up the pink jersey on the steep slopes of Mount Etna (possibly to compatriot Nairo Quintana). The overnight leader of the Giro d’Italia also knows it won’t be his last.

“I know it will be impossible for me to defend the maglia rosa,” Gaviria said Monday. “I will enjoy every second I am in it.”

While Colombia has almost assembly line efficiency, pumping out tiny, lithe climbers nicknamed the “beetles,” Gaviria, 22, is unlike any racer that’s come out of the thriving Colombian race scene.

A product of track racing (he’s a former omnium world champion), Gaviria is firmly focused on road racing after his shot at the Olympic gold medal fell short in Rio de Janeiro with fourth, just outside of the medals in the omnium.

After five wins this season, including a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, the Giro victory was his consecration and a confirmation. Gaviria is already surpassing expectations on the road.

“It was nice to wake up this morning in Sicily and see the pink jersey there,” he said. “Last night, I thought a lot about what we did as a team.”

Gaviria is rare for Colombia, which has a rich tradition of climbers ranging from Luis Herrera to Mauricio Soler to today’s superstars Quintana and Esteban Chaves. He’s fast, he’s versatile, and he’s a raw talent with untapped potential.

By Colombian standards, Gaviria comes from the lowlands (at 7,200 feet, compared to Quintana’s 9,300 feet), and grew up in La Ceja, near Medellín. Rather than being drawn to the mountains like so many of his compatriots, Gaviria honed his skills on the track, winning several titles in the junior and U23 ranks. His top finishing speed meant he was destined for big things on the road as well.

Of course, everyone knows his big coming-out party came in 2015, when he beat WorldTour ace Mark Cavendish at the Tour de San Luís, which eventually led to Gaviria joining Quick-Step as a stagiaire and later as a pro. The fact that he joined the Belgian-based, classics-centric team says it all. Some believe that Gaviria could develop not only into a top sprinter but also a rider capable of winning classics such as Milano-Sanremo or Tour of Flanders.

Monday’s victory was a culmination of years of work, and many believe it’s the start of something even bigger. He paid back his Quick-Step teammates, who blew up the wind-blasted finale, with the Giro “doblete” — his first grand tour win and the celebrated pink jersey. His parents traveled from Colombia to be at the finish line to witness history in the making.

“Yesterday’s victory is the most important of my career, and to win this in front of my mom, dad, and sister made me even happier,” he said. “Without their help, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

Gaviria also sent a message for journalists, asking them to stop using the nickname, “The Missile from Antioquia” (Misil de Antioquia in Spanish), because he said it evokes the wrong image of his homeland.

“I don’t like this nickname because it is a reference to war,” Gaviria told journalists. “Colombia is already associated with war, with weapons, with armed conflict. We are trying to change this image through sport. Colombia is a country, just like any other. We are not a Third World country.”

Gaviria is now the fourth Colombian to wear the pink jersey (Rigoberto Urán, Quintana, and Chaves are the others), and he happily accepts that he will lose it. Even one day in the pink (not counting Monday’s training ride when he also wore it) is priceless.

Colombian journalists covering the Giro are quietly hopeful Gaviria will pass on the pink tunic to his compatriot Quintana, who is sure to come to life on the smoldering slopes of Mount Etna, before what could be another sprint stage Wednesday into Messina.

If Gaviria keeps his winning ways, journalists will have to think of another nickname pretty fast.