LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, France (VN) — For all the many victories on the palmares of heavy hitters like Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin), youngsters like Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) are garnering much of the attention as the sprinter-friendly first week of the Tour de France approaches.
Gaviria, long considered the next big thing in sprinting, is making his highly anticipated Tour debut. He was up front about his emotions ahead of the event.
“It’s hard not to be a little nervous before a race this big. I’m anxious to get started,” he said at Quick-Step’s pre-Tour press conference. “Still, we’re happy with our condition so we expect to do well.”
Despite missing out on the classics due to a broken hand sustained at Tirreno-Adriatico, the 23-year-old Colombian has still managed to pull together quite a few sprint victories so far this year. [related title=”More Tour de France news” align=”left” tag=”Tour-de-France”]
He nabbed a win in his very first day of racing this season at the Vuelta a San Juan and picked up three more stage wins at Colombia Oro y Paz in February. After recuperating from his injury, he went on to dominate the sprints — over a very strong field — at the Amgen Tour of California.
On flying form, Gaviria is expected to shine brightly even in his maiden Tour. Having the sterling Quick-Step lead out squad to set him up for the fast finishes should help overcome any rookie jitters.
Would-be lead out man Iljo Keisse will miss the race with a case of pleurisy, a blow to Gaviria’s hopes, but the rest of the team still packs plenty of punch. Gaviria can still rely on right-hand man Maximiliano Richeze as well as big engines like Yves Lampaert, Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, and Julian Alaphilippe.
“I think we’ll try to race differently, try to use the strong team we have, but I think putting someone else into Iljo’s position is a bit difficult,” Gaviria said.
“Alaphilippe can help us. Lampaert too, who is strong and fast. We won’t have problems with the sprint, I don’t think.”
Indeed, sport director Brian Holm expects the Quick-Step lineup to be busy on the flat stages. Although Gaviria pointed out that no one sprinter or team has earned the right to top favorite status just yet, he and Holm both said the team was committed to taking control whenever necessary.
“We always do what we have to do. We don’t really look at the other teams,” Holm told VeloNews. “If we bring a sprinter here, we create a bunch sprint. It’s as simple as that. We don’t do that Mickey Mouse sort of cycling, like, ‘Look at us, we’re not riding.'”
Quick-Step, and Gaviria himself, are expecting big things from the race. At the same time, they are wary of their rivals for the sprints. Holm pointed to LottoNL-Jumbo’s up-and-comer Dylan Groenewegen as a potential winner of multiple stages. He also said it was important to give the established veterans their due.
“I would never underestimate anybody, especially not Cav. Maybe Cav is already back on his level. You know him,” he said.
“Two years ago, at Saint-Michel, it wasn’t looking too bright before for Cav and suddenly he beat us [when we had] Kittel. It was really painful and it took us a few days to win. He was flying. Lesson one, be humble. Don’t underestimate anybody. Kittel has been flying low so far but maybe he’ll do it here.”
Indeed, competition will be fierce for the sprint stages in the French grand tour. Gaviria knows it. He knows expectations are high — and he also knows what stage victories at the Tour mean for a professional sprinter. Gaviria may be a four-time stage winner at the Giro, but it will take success in the sport’s biggest race to transform him from an emerging star to a true sprinting heavyweight.
“It’s the most important stage race,” he said. “People see your results in this race like your diploma as a pro cyclist.”
He won’t have long to wait for his first chances. The first two stages of the 2018 Tour look like great opportunities for the fast finishers. The main objective right now is to get win number one out of the way.
“Even Fernando is a bit nervous, with good reason of course,” Holm said. “Every team is stressed until you’ve won that first stage.”