As interesting and impressive as the rise of Colombian riders like Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Esteban Chaves has been, it's worth noting that the international press and fans alike knew little about them as they entered the top ranks of the sport (sometimes interestingly so).
That's not the case with Fernando Gaviria, whose arrival to Europe this year is easily the most anticipated of any Colombian cyclist, perhaps ever. Gaviria, already very successful on the track, rose to prominence at the Tour de San Luis last year, where he beat Cavendish twice (nearly three times), instantly getting interest from the press and European teams alike. Riding as a stagiaire for Etixx-Quick Step last year, he won a stage at the Tour of Britain, beating out the likes of Greipel, Boasson Hagen, Viviani and Ciolek, thus proving that his San Luis performance was not a fluke.
Having signed with a team that will be able to help him develop and grow as a sprinter, Gaviria's performances in Europe could help redefine the landscape of Colombian cycling, which up until now has been highly focused on mountain top finishes, and the riders who excel in that type of racing. There's a great deal of anticipation surrounding Gaviria, given his talent and abilities. It's a monumental amount of pressure for a young rider who seems to be taking it all in stride.
Before we start the interview in logical order, it’s probably best if we address the obvious first. How are you recuperating from the fracture that you sustained in San Luis?
You know, it’s coming along and healing really fast. I’m especially happy right now, because I’m already back to riding a bike.
Wow, that was fast. How long have you been back on the bike?
I’ve been training on the bike for a week now, going easy, but I’m now increasing the kilometers day by day.
Has the crash changed your calendar at all, as far as racing or even when you travel to Europe?
It hasn’t at all. I’m going to Europe on Februrary 15th, and that hasn’t changed. I know my first race will in France, but I leave it up to the team to make those decisions [Fernando is currently scheduled to compete in the Haut Var and Tour Cycliste International La Provence upon arriving].
Let’s talk about how you first became involved in cycling. It’s interesting to me that the sport so permeates your entire family...your dad runs a cycling academy, your sister races on the track, and yet you took up speed skating first before racing on the track or the road. Why?
It was just because my sister decided to take up speed skating, and I wanted to follow her, and compete and train along with her. But I always had my eyes on the bike, I always wanted to ride. The moment that my parents got me my first real bike, I was hooked. I started taking it seriously, and training right away. From there, it became my life, and something I took up as a profession.
How old were you when you took it up more seriously?
At fifteen. I could tell that I liked the races more and more. I also started doing better and better at them, so that made a difference too.
Your dad runs a cycling academy, so that must have had an effect on you, correct? He even raced at a high level in Colombia.
That was an influence, for sure. He raced a lot, as an amateur, but was able to compete in one Clasico RCN.
What did your parents do for a living when you were growing up?
They’re retired, now but they were teachers at schools here in La Ceja, Antioquia. These days, my mom tends to the house, while my dad is very involved in the cycling academy, and taking care of the kids. Organizing their racing, making sure they get to races and all that goes with that.
Colombian cycling is hugely focused on climbing, almost to a humorous extent. This leaves sprinters like you almost marginalized. How were you able to realize that you were sprinter, rather than simply thinking you were a bad cyclist, because you couldn't climb with the others?
That was a problem for sure. I didn’t understand why I would get dropped on a long climb, if I was training hard. But really, I was training to be a "good cyclist", which in Colombia pretty much means climbing. Now, I know what suits me, and I train for sprinting, which is different.
But yeah, it was frustrating at first, because so many of the races don’t suit me. But you quickly start to realize that you may want to win in every type of terrain, but it’s the flatter stages and the bunch sprints that suit you. It gets sorted out pretty quickly.
Because Colombian cycling is so tailored for climbers, to the point that in major races almost every single stage is a climbing stage, what could be done to help and develop riders who don’t necessarily fit the mold of a stereotypical Colombian cyclist? I have to wonder how many sprinters and all-arounders we’ve missed out on over the years because of the strict focus on climbing.
Yeah, it’s a tough thing for sure. Almost every race is a mountain-top finish, or they are simply so hard that you can’t really have a sprint finish at all. The few races or stages that are actually intended to be sprint finishes, are often so dangerous, that there are bad crashes, and few of the best sprinters even make it to the finish, you simply get caught up behind a crash.
So it’s a matter of the Colombian Federation realizing this, and having race organizers plan more flat or flatter stages. This would allow sprinters to develop, and to show their skills, which would likely bring interest from European teams, as has been the case for climbers.
Interest around you grew very, very quickly at the Tour de San Luis last year. You came in as an unknown, beat Cavendish and people started to wonder who you were. In an ideal scenario, the Vuelta a Colombia would be the kind of race where this could have happened, but instead it was in San Luis. A pity really, but that’s another topic. What were your expectations for that race, realistically. It’s not often that a young rider from a small Colombian team can go up against Cavendish, and come out ahead.
I’ll be honest with you, I surprised myself. I prepared well for that race last year, but I had no idea what I’d be able to accomplish. On the first day, I gave it a try, but my hope was to actually get on the podium for the U23 jersey. I didn’t necessarily think I could win the stage. But as it was happening, I saw the finish line was so close, and I still had much more power in my legs, so I just went for it. It was a great moment.
You won two stages in that race, and nearly got a third on the last day. So interest from teams grew quickly. Did you start talking to different teams during the race itself? I imagine it was a feeding frenzy.
I took it very calmly, because I wanted to do things correctly and focus on the race first and foremost. I also wanted to get more wins if possible, because if I started that strongly, I thought I could finish well also. So in San Luis, I tried to simply focus on the race.
Did other teams show interest?
It was mostly Etixx, which was made easier because they had a Spanish doctor there with them. That made communicating with them easier.
Was Rodrigo Contreras, who also signed with Etixx at the same time, part of those talks?
No, they approached him independently of me. They saw how strong of a climber he is, and they started talking to him.
Etixx had you do some testing, which is normal procedure these days. Power, VO2 max and that type of thing. Historically, many sprinters don’t do as well as you’d expect, Cavendish was notorious for that. How did you do?
I did fine, but it was hard. I had done some hard racing, I had crashed and had some bruising, so under those circumstances you can’t do as well as you’d like. Additionally, for a sprinter, the motivation of seeing the finish line and a checkered flag is amazing, and can’t be compared to what it’s like to ride in a lab, and see a computer screen in front of you. So I did well, but there’s no way that a computer will be able to get the best out of a cyclist under those circumstances.
You had one team camp already with Etixx-Quick Step. I know those camps are mostly intended for riders to get to know one-another, taking pictures, bike fitting and the like…but were you able to start working on sprinting drills, and talking about specifics in regards to your sprint?
You’re right, it’s mostly about getting to know one another, but we did start working on things like the sprint train, lead outs…all things that are very exciting to me. I’ve never had a sprint train like this, and with such talented and developed riders. It’s amazing. But we started working on little things, and I’m learning about details like the movements that each rider will make leading up to the sprint, when to go hard, when to lower the pace, and that type of thing.
These are luxuries that you’ve never had before.
Oh, absolutely not. But just being with the team and around the riders was just amazing. A great joy, especially being around so many fantastic cyclists who I can learn from.
Are there any races in Europe that you eagerly anticipate, or that you see real potential in for yourself?
You know, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I haven’t been to any of those European races, I don’t know the courses, or even what racing in Europe is really like. So to say that I’m looking forward to one, or think I can do well in another would be awfully hasty of me. On the other hand, the team knows these races, they know what suits me, and where I’ll be able to learn most and develop correctly. So, it’s all up to them.
Where will you live in Europe?
I originally wanted to live in Belgium, because it strikes me as such an interesting place. But the weather will be harsh early on in the year, so I’m considering other possibilities. I’m looking for a place where they won’t speak Spanish though. I think if I go to Spain, I’ll adapt easily, and I’ll be able to navigate life in general, but I need it to be hard, so I can learn another language. That's a priority.
This is also an Olympic year. Are you planning on going and racing on the track?
As of right now, in my mind, the Olympic games are out. There’s still a long time to go until then, so I’d rather focus on the road, and giving everything I can to my team, and showing them how hard I’m willing to work. So if all goes well, I could take a month to prepare on the track and maybe go to the Olympics, and give Colombia some wins to be happy about, but right now, the road is my focus. And it’s something I hope to excel in this year, to make Colombia and my team proud.