“We knew he was fast, but what impressed me the most was how well he rode the cobbles,” said a certain Tom Boonen, when asked about his up-and-coming Colombian teammate Fernando Gaviria’s first season with his Quick-Step team. In only his first year as a professional, the little-known rider quickly made a name for himself as he won stages in WorldTour races like Tirreno–Adriatico or historic classics like Paris–Tours. But where he really surprised many was in the northern cobblestone classics highlighted by a sixth-place finish in the 2016 Ghent–Wevelgem.
But then it is safe to say that Fernando Gaviria is nothing short of an iconoclast. He first got into sport through speed skating, not exactly a major national pastime in Colombia. And then, when he took up cycling, he turned out to be a sprinter in a country noted for its great climbers. But second-year professional Gaviria, is not bothered, because the 22-year-old Quick-Step rider is focused on finding his own path. And maybe, just maybe, he will become Colombia’s first great classics rider.
How did you get into cycling? Well, I am a bit of a marginal. My father is a gymnastics teacher in school and we grew up in the mountains [in the small town of La Ceja, near Medellin]. We actually started with speed skating, my sister and I, when I was very young. And then my dad put me on a bike, and I immediately loved it.
You are atypical for a Colombian cyclist because, well, you are not a climber. The country has never really produced sprinters. Did you feel like an outcast as you were coming up in the ranks? Yeah, it wasn’t easy for me. All the races were geared toward climbers. But I learned early that my strength was sprinting and I tried to find ways to focus on that. The track offered me my first chance and then the national team gave me a chance to ride on the road in races like the Tour of San Luis. And that is where the big European teams saw me. It was thanks to my victories there that I was able to get a pro contract in Europe. But hopefully riders like me are showing that Colombia is not just a country of climbers, but a country of good cyclists.
You turned professional with the Quick-Step team. What is it like riding with a guy like Tom Boonen? Oh, Tom just has so much talent and so much class. Sometimes he has worked for me, to help lead out a sprint or something. And that is just such an honor. I hope to be able to return the favor here in the final weeks, months of his career. Tom Boonen is Tom Boonen.
Do you hope to be able to develop into a rider like Boonen? You have already established yourself as a top sprinter, but can you become a classics rider as well? It is difficult to say at the moment, and it is difficult to compare riders. For the moment I am just focused on winning as much as I can. I don’t really know how I am going to develop as a rider. I’m still in a learning process. But when I see riders like Tom or Peter Sagan I am inspired. And I hope one day to reach their level. I remember watching Tom win Paris–Roubaix. It is a race that I love and hope to do.
Would you like to ride with Boonen in his final Paris–Roubaix? Yes, I would love to be part of that. Not just for the final day, but the days leading up to Tom’s last race. It’s going to be a special moment and I’d like to be part of that and to give my best to help him.
You got your first taste of the cobbled classics last year and had a good ride in Ghent–Wevelgem. What did you take away from it? Did it give you some ideas for the future? It was an important period. I didn’t win, but I learned a lot. I learned, for example, that it is important to eat and drink after every cobblestone section. I didn’t do that enough last year. But I can say that I know one thing is for sure, I learned that I love the cobbles! The cobbled classics are not normal bike races. I love the vibration. I love the roads. Those races are just so unique. They are so extreme. A rider who can win in Belgium can win in extreme conditions, in the rain, in the wind, on the small roads. They are probably the most intelligent guys in the peloton. I look forward to doing more of those races this year. If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere! And I like the Belgian beer too!
Last year, you created quite a stir when you won a stage in Tirreno–Adriatico sprinting with your hands on the tops of your bars. Is that a special technique you have? Ha-ha, no, that was a mistake! My dad made the same comment. I told him that as long as you win it doesn’t matter where you place your hands?
Last year you were well placed in the final kilometer of Milan–San Remo before crashing. Is that a big objective for you? First, I want to win as many races as possible, but, yeah, Milan-San Remo is just so beautiful.
You were also world champion on the track in the omnium in 2015 and 2016. Was it hard juggling track and road racing? In the beginning it wasn’t a real problem because I was pretty much just training and racing on the road.
You came up short in the Olympic Games, however. Do you think you will return to the track for the next Olympics? Would an Olympic gold medal be a big void in your career if you didn’t try again? For the moment, no. For the moment I am concentrated on riding on the road with Quick-Step. It’s my team and where my focus is. I really want to give something back to this team that gave me the chance to turn professional.
Quick-Step sports director Brian Holm said that you were the most impressive neo-pro he ever saw and you have been compared to Sagan, Bettini, Saronni. How does that make you feel? Do comments like that add pressure? No, it’s an honor. They are legends of cycling. Hopefully, I can win all of the races they have won combined! It won’t be easy. But that’s my goal! For the moment I’m just Fernando Gaviria. And I’m still trying to find my own way.
Is there any one race that makes you dream more than the others? Paris–Roubaix!
TOUR DE FRANCE NOTE: As of today, Gaviria has won two stages at the 2018 Tour.
FOLLOW GAVIRIA ON INSTAGRAM: @fernandogaviriarendon