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After years of juggling the track and the road, Italian sprinter Elia Viviani—the Olympic champion in track’s omnium event—moved from Team Sky to Quick-Step Floors this year to not only focus on becoming one of the world’s best road sprinters but also to become a top level classics rider. And the 29-year-old appears to be well on his way. Since the beginning of the year Viviani has won no less than seven races and he finished a strong second to Peter Sagan at Ghent–Wevelgem. And look for Viviani to extend his winning streak in this week’s Tour de Romandie and, of course, next month’s Giro d’Italia.
Words: James Startt/Image: Sunada
PELOTON Magazine: Elia, how did you get into cycling? You grew up in Verona, which has hosted the world road championships several times in the last 20 years. Did you see them?
Elia Viviani: Oh yeah. The first one was in 1999 and it was only my second year riding. I started riding in 1998 when I was nine years old. So I was only 10 years old at the time, but I really wanted to go and I went with my whole family. It was the first time I got to see a professional bike race in person. I remember my parents said that if we wanted to see any of the racing then we needed to be there early, so we went really early in the morning to the Corso Porta Nuova, where the finish line was, and I saw the riders come by on every lap all day long. Then, in 2004 when the worlds returned to Verona, I went again; but that day I watched it with friends and we rode our bikes up to the climb, about 15 kilometers from my home. And then there was a team time trial in Verona during the 2012 Giro d’Italia. I was already a pro with Liquigas but wasn’t racing the Giro that year, so I just stopped by to catch up with my teammates.
PELOTON: Fairly early on you were attracted to track racing and you are one of the most experienced track racers in the peloton today, not to mention Olympic gold medalist in the omnium. What attracted you to the track?
Viviani: Well, I’ve always enjoyed both the road and the track but in Italy, when you are 12 or 13, they really try to get you on the track and racing with single-speed bikes, etcetera. So I got into track racing very early on and was always mixing the two. I was always racing the track one night during the week and then doing a road race on the weekend. As I moved up into the junior ranks I was getting a lot of good results at an international level on the track, so that motivated me to continue with it and I started to think about the Olympics. As result, even after I turned pro, I continued to race the track.
The track is just so special. I just love the atmosphere. I love being in a stadium with the fans so close. The ambiance is amazing. I also really like the one-on-one nature of track racing. For the most part it is really individual, you just are face-to-face with the biggest riders in the world. And, from a technical point of view, track racing just makes you smart on the bike because if you ride with a single-speed bike you need to be smart. You need to react quickly to the moves of others. If the guy in front of you makes a quick change, you need to follow him, or if there is a crash you need to react so quickly. And the single-speed training on the track also really helps me on the road. It just makes me quick. After the 2016 Olympics, I stopped competing on the track at an international level but I still use it in training. I still get on the track regularly. I just really feel I need to do some track work before a big event on the road. Before the Tour de Romandie, for example, I’m getting on the track for three days to make sure I have that leg speed necessary for the sprint stages….
PELOTON: So, until the Olympics, you were able to balance both the road and track but now you have really committed to the road.
Viviani: Yeah, I went to the London Olympics in 2012 and just came home really frustrated because I didn’t win. I still raced on the road a lot before Rio in 2016. I was focused on the road but not totally, because I still had the Olympic goal in my head. But after winning gold in Rio I really wanted to focus on the road and become one of the best road sprinters.
That said, I am already thinking about Tokyo in 2020, and I will probably do it again. But it will be easier now because there will be no time trial in the Omnium event. In 2016 there was still a time trial in the Omnium and I really had to do a lot of specific training for that. It took me a year to prepare for the last Olympics. The time trial just took so much preparation for me, which included putting on muscle and weight. I put on 2.5 kilos [about 5.5 pounds] in muscle mass for the Rio Olympics, and to get back to my normal road weight was really hard. It took maybe a full year to get back to my road weight. Normally, my road weight is 70 to 71 kilos on the road but at the Olympics I was 73.7 kilos [162.5 pounds]. That is a long way from 70 kilos [154 pounds] and I think I really needed a full year to get back to my best road condition. What I did for Rio was really extreme track training like a proper track rider. It’s not like now where I do the track to improve my road speed. It’s two different ways to approach the track.
PELOTON: Did you do any six-day races on the track in 2017 or did you make a total shift to the road?
Viviani: I only did the Ghent Six Day. It’s the most beautiful and it is the hardest. I really love Ghent. It’s just such a big show. I really love it.
PELOTON: Well, you have improved a lot on the road in the past year and especially this year where you have simply become one of the winningest sprinters. It seems like you have gained a lot of road power among other things.
Viviani: Yeah, that has really become my focus. I want to be one of the best road sprinters and also to develop as a classics rider. Last year I got ninth in Milan–San Remo and won Hamburg and Plouay later in the year, so I think I made a good step. And I think I have confirmed it this year. Okay, I didn’t get a result in San Remo but, honestly, I just had no legs for the sprint. That is the truth about what happened in the sprint for second place in San Remo [just behind winner Vincenzo Nibali]. The team gave me a great lead-out, but I just didn’t have the legs to sprint. When I stood up on the pedals, I just had nothing in the legs.
A week after, however, I came really close to winning Ghent–Wevelgem, so that confirmed that I am making progress. And going to Quick-Step Floors this year has really helped make a difference and will continue to make a difference in the next few years I think. I am heading into the best years of my career and a team like Quick-Step can really help make the difference. I’ve really been able to do the races I want to do and I have the support of the team in all of the races. The team is just amazing. Every day we go to a race, it is with the motivation to win.
PELOTON: As you know, of course, when you signed with the team at the end of last year, general manager Patrick Lefevere told the press that he thought you actually had the potential to win more races than Marcel Kittel, who was leaving the team. Those were huge words, especially considering that Kittel had just won, what, five Tour de France stages. How did that make you feel?
Viviani: Well, it made me proud that’s for sure! And it put just a little bit of pressure on the shoulders! [He laughs]. But I think if you want to be a real team leader, you need to feel the pressure and not crack under it. I was like, “This boss really believes in me. Now I have to show him that I can do that!” I’ve had a good start to the season, but I have to continue. The season is still just starting and I just want to win as many races as I can. But again, I have a really strong team around me. But for sure Patrick is happy. We’ve just had a great start to the season. Everybody is winning. If it is not the classics team then it is the team in the Basque Country or something. Winning is inspiring [more] winning.
PELOTON: One moment where you seemed not so happy was with your second place finish in Ghent–Wevelgem to Peter Sagan. Most guys wouldn’t be too upset at that. But you were destroyed and could even be seen in tears after the line. Why was your reaction so strong?
Viviani: You know, there are some races that you just really, really want to win. The Olympics were one of those and Milan–San Remo is on my list before the end of my career. And Ghent–Wevelgem is one of those on that list. Okay, it is true that I finished second and was there in the final for victory for the first time in my career. But my goal is to win these big classics and not finish second, so right after the line I just really thought that I had missed a great chance to win a big classic. I have finished second plenty of times in my career. But that one really hurt. So now I just have to come back stronger.
PELOTON: Are there any other races on your wish list?
Viviani: Ha-ha. Well, one rainbow jersey on the road or track. I have never won a rainbow jersey, never in juniors or U-23, never on the road or on the track, so I really want to win a rainbow jersey at least once. I would say that Milan–San Remo is my big goal. That’s the one! But, yeah, I also really want to wear the rainbow jersey at least once in my career.