Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by Zac Williams/SWpix.com
The first Grand Tour of the season holds great significance for every rider who competes but perhaps more so for Fernando Gaviria now.
The 27-year-old since the outset of his 2022 campaign has stressed the importance of the Giro d’Italia to him in what is a contract year.
Gaviria has competed for UAE Team Emirates since 2019 when he transferred to the squad from Patrick Lefevre’s Quick-Step outfit where, as a young gun, he started winning races almost immediately.
He made his Giro debut in 2017 – during his second season with the Belgian team – winning four stages, marking a stint in the maglia rosa and claiming the points classification.
The next season he won two stages in his first Tour de France and wore the yellow jersey.
Gaviria hopes to return to the Tour but his chances of that happening at UAE Team Emirates are arguably slim to none, with the team backing two-time and reigning champion Tadej Pogacar.
That’s not to say the squad hasn’t invested in sprinters, its acquisition of Pascal Ackermann is testament to that, but all indications are that when it comes to the Tour, Pogacar is the man.
Speaking at the start of the season, Gaviria had been realistic about his chances of making the Tour squad likely to be entirely built around the Slovenian all-rounder.
“It’s nice because if you win the Tour de France you take the world in your hands,” Gaviria said.
“I hope I come back in the Tour de France one day because I love this race: nice memories for me.
“I really know now in this team it’s really difficult because we have Tadej and, for sure, he wants to try and win again, and then we need most of the team for him because I can’t help him too much in the climbs.
“Then it’s difficult to the team to take the decision but, actually, with the Giro, I’m really happy for riding that Grand Tour.”
Gaviria has been knocking at the door of a stage victory at the Giro currently underway, but the pressure on his shoulders appears to be becoming more palpable.
He placed third on stage three and second on stage five (pictured) when he unleashed his frustration, banging his bike, which he, in the heat of the moment, called “shit” in Spanish, after a mechanical hindered his sprint and, earlier, that of his lead-out man Max Richeze. Similarly, Gaviria threw his arm up in apparent contestation at the end of Thursday’s sixth stage, which Arnaud Demare won in a photo finish from Caleb Ewan, after colliding with two DSM riders in the messy dash to Scalea. He was then relegated.
Sprinters are born winners; they’re not trained to nor accustomed at losing. It doesn’t sit well with them. But Gaviria’s got more riding on this.
Success at the Giro would no doubt strongly influence any contract negotiations he and his management undertake.
Asked a question about his contract situation and future at the Tour of Oman in February, Gaviria, who is patient and open with media, deferred the question.
“The really important thing is the Giro d’Italia, and then there maybe we can start speaking with the team,” he said. “It’s not my job, my job is riding the bike. [Sports agent Giovanni] Lombardi can speak with the boss.”
Lombardi had not returned a request for comment at the time of publication.
The past couple of seasons have been rough for Gaviria. He was one of the first athletes in the world to test positive to COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, when the world was frozen and isolated by fear of it, rather than fed up and yearning for normality.
Gaviria first tested positive to COVID-19 during the 2020 UAE Tour, which was cancelled with two stages remaining and saw all participants go into lockdown before it was an everyday term.
Gaviria said his symptoms were mild, but he stayed there in hospital quarantine for one month, which set him back.
“I wasn’t really sick. I only had a fever for two days, but the problem was it was just the start of COVID,” Gaviria said.
“Nobody know what happened with the COVID; Now it’s actually more or less everybody know, and also with the vaccine the symptoms are less.”
When competition resumed after a months-long suspension due to the pandemic, Gaviria lined up for the Giro, which was postponed to October. He competed up to and including stage 15 but then tested positive to COVID-19 again and was forced to withdraw.
“I do the test, positive, but I don’t feel it. And then I repeat the test when I’m at home and it’s negative,” he said.
“That is the problem because sometimes you can do some positive test and then you are negative because sometimes in Colombia you also have positive test and then I repeat and it’s negative.
“You go crazy like this.”
Gaviria’s confidence took a hit, as did, according to one team staff member, the faith teammates had in him to compete for victories.
Gaviria got a full season in his legs last year and while he didn’t win a stage at the Giro, he finished it when most sprinters normally depart after two weeks due to the foreboding rigours of the final term.
He placed third in the points classification, behind Peter Sagan and David Cimolai, and returned to the winner’s circle two months later, winning a stage at the Tour of Poland.
Gaviria carried that momentum and good feeling into this season, winning two stages in Oman, where he went up against Mark Cavendish, who is in-form at the Giro and again bolstered by an enviable Quick-Step lead-out, the importance of which is lost on no one.
“The sprinters have to have a really good team now because you need to take the position and don’t lose energy, and then you need to stay fresh for the last k [kilometre],” Gaviria said.
The Colombian hasn’t been able to count on such exclusive support, balancing his own ambitions with team objectives more recently.
“Here it’s a mix of people; some climbers need to help me and sometimes I need to pull in the climbing stages,” Gaviria said.
“It’s difficult because when [I was] in Quick-Step, [they] only stayed focused on the sprint, and maybe all the team go for me and just one climber or something like that.
“But now this year the team has changed a lot and it’s becoming better because we want to try to do really good lead-outs, like the days before.
“It’s actually nice because we take the race in our hands, not wait for the other teams, and if we lose that’s okay but we put the cards on the table.”
Gaviria in the Middle East, where he started his 2022 campaign, felt as if he was returning to the top of his game.
“I’m feeling the high level but not at my maximum,” he’d said there. “I think it’s coming because I’m feeling every day and every week much better.”
Days after the race, in which Gaviria was by all appearances happy and healthy, it was announced he had tested positive to COVID-19 for the third time.
It would test the patience of even the most serene person.
The spring classics and the Giro were Gaviria’s two primary objectives for the first part of this season, but he missed out on the former, returning to competition after his latest COVID-19 incursion at the Tour of Romandie in April before finishing second to Sam Bennett at Eschbon-Frankfurt on his way to lining up at the Grande Partenza.
Gaviria, mindful of the sponsorship ramifications riders face in trashing the technology and bikes they use in competition, stepped away from his in-the-moment outburst later Wednesday.
But you can forgive the resilient fast man for being frustrated, and not just with chance.