Elia Viviani will travel to Abu Dhabi on Thursday, keen to finally start his 2021 road racing season at the UAE Tour after a cardiac arrhythmia and subsequent ablation surgery forced him to spend three weeks off the bike.
The Italian started training again last week at a Cofidis training camp near Almería and has spent the last few days at the Montichiari Velodrome near Brescia training with the Italian national track team as they lay down the foundations for the Tokyo Olympic Games. He will target success on the road with Cofidis and then lead the Italian track team in Tokyo.
Viviani will face some of the best sprinters in the world at the UAE Tour, including Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos). But he is keen to fight for victory in the four expected sprint finishes at the UAE Tour after a disappointing first season with Cofidis in 2020 when he failed to win a race.
After his heart problems, Viviani has a microchip under his skin that monitors his heart beat but tests have shown he has made a full recovery and he has been given the green light to race again.
“My form has improved a lot with just a week of training, that’s why I’ve decided to ride the UAE Tour,” Viviani told Italian website BiciPro during a track session and after undergoing a 3-D scan to study his track pursuit position.
“It’s the perfect race to get going again. There are several flat stages, we can work on our lead-out train and it’ll be a good week of racing. I’ll be happy with a fifth or sixth place in a sprint but I obviously hope to be up there sprinting for the win, too.”
Viviani had worked hard during the winter, adding track sessions with training camps with his Cofidis teammates as they tried to learn from their mistakes of 2020 and strengthen their lead-out train and strategies. He was hopeful his solid foundation of form had not been totally lost.
“Modern cycling is all about numbers, they indicate your form but it’s the long days in the saddle, when you still feel good when you get home, that boosts your morale,” he suggested.
“Last Saturday I did two hours with my teammates before they rode the Clasica de Almería and then five and a half hours alone, with some sprints and speed work. I still felt good when I’d finished. That was a good sign.”
The struggle to emulate Deceuninck-QuickStep
Viviani won gold in the Omnium in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, and is convinced combining road and track can help him win another medal and get back to his best in the sprints. He won 11 races with Deceuninck-QuickStep in 2019, including a stage at the Tour de France, the Cyclassics Hamburg and the European road race title, but failed to win a single sprint in 2020 despite riding both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France and a total of 67 race days.
Viviani and Cofidis have done a lot of introspective analysis during the winter, questioning their training, mentality and lead-out train.
“Success is like a chain. If the first links click in place, then the others follow,” Viviani suggested.
“Inversely, if you don’t win, it starts to wear you down. You start to analyse everything, you try to change a thousand things but they don’t often work. When there were some problems with my lead-out train, I started doing the sprints on my own, even though I knew I’m at my best with a lead out. I lost my sense of rationality.”
Viviani left Deceuninck-QuickStep after receiving an important offer from Cofidis as they returned to WorldTour level. He hoped to emulate the Belgian team and quickly create a similar well-oiled and highly successful sprint squad. However he quickly realised it takes time and effort.
“It seems easy to create the same dynamic as Deceuninck but it’s not easy. I know because I tried,” he said.
“There’s a special mentality in the team and they’re super strong. They have riders who work all day for a sprint finish, while I couldn’t expect that at Cofidis because I wasn’t winning the sprints. The lockdown also had an impact. A lot of the smaller races were cancelled and so the WorldTour races were always huge battles.
“The bottom line is that I wasn’t at my best on the track and the road. I realised I wasn’t competitive at the track Worlds in Berlin and I was clearly lacking something in sprints on the road too. It was both mental and physical.”
Viviani, like Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), has sacrificed time at home to train on the track with the Italian team. He is convinced it is worth the effort and will return to Montichiari in March before riding Tirreno-Adriatico and then Milan-San Remo.
“Working on the track with such a strong group of guys lifts my motivation even higher and pushes me to do better,” he said.
“I can feel the difference in my legs, I’ve done a lot of work on my peak sprint power. Last year my numbers just weren’t up there, as if they were being limited. That’s why I’ve done standing starts, sprints and team pursuiting. We’re recreating road sprint scenarios but using track gears, so when I’ll use 54×11 on the road it won’t seem such a big gear.
“Now my goal is to get back to being the rider I was in 2018 and 2019 when I won the Italian title, Hamburg, Plouay and other races. But first of all I want to win a lot.”