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Etixx DS: Gaviria is best neo-pro I’ve ever seen

MONTALTO DI CASTRO, Italy (VN) — Fernando Gaviria shocked the cycling world with his sprint win in the Tour de San Luis over Mark Cavendish last year, but Friday in the Tirreno-Adriatico, his first WorldTour race, he proved he is the real deal. Etixx – Quick-Step’s Colombian sprinter, just 21 years old, out-muscled his rivals up the seven-percent ramps into town and to victory.

Making it more impressive, he won a gold medal in the omnium last Saturday at the London world track championships. In a matter of days, he switched back to the road to prepare for his WorldTour debut. He timed it perfectly.

“I’m sharing a room with him in Tirreno-Adriatico,” said teammate and race leader Zdenek Stybar. “He only speaks Spanish and doesn’t say much. It’s not like he is shouting out how confident he is. He shows it on the bike, which is the best way to do so, I think. I think that this guy will win a lot of races.”

Last year, Gaviria surprised everyone when he shot from the pack to beat cycling’s five-star sprinter, Cavendish, then an Etixx man. After that performance, Etixx manager Patrick Lefevere out-bid French team Ag2r La Mondiale for his services.

Lefevere and Gaviria made a deal: After the 2015 track worlds, where he won omnium gold and a few other races, he would switch to the Belgian WorldTour team as a stagiaire. He placed eighth in the RideLondon & Surrey Classic and won the fourth stage of the Tour of Britain, while his new teammate Cavendish placed 13th on home soil.

This season is his first official year as a professional. He won twice already, in San Luis and Provence, and then a third time Friday in his WorldTour debut. Etixx sport director Brian Holm said afterward, “He is the best neo-pro that I have ever seen in my career as a DS.”

Holm’s words carry more weight, considering the riders he worked with, including Cavendish before he left for team Dimension Data. Cavendish led out the sprint in stage 5’s final kilometer for teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen, who could only manage 15th place.

The current Etixx team includes Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen, and the sprinter Lefevere signed to replace Cavendish, Marcel Kittel. Gaviria does not see himself butting heads with the more experienced German.

“He’s strong. I don’t have to beat him,” Gaviria said. “He’s a teammate. We are in a team, it’s like a family, and we need to try to win the most sprints for Etixx.”

Etixx counts 18 wins, the most for any WorldTour team so far this 2016 season. It will take Gaviria to some select races for experience this year, like the sprinters’ monument Milano-Sanremo on March 19. Stybar will be there, too.

“He can surprise us,” Stybar said. “It’s a very long race, but not the hardest race. Fernando does really well on the climbs, so we will see, but I think he can bring us a good surprise.”

Cycling celebrated Colombians often in recent years. Movistar’s Nairo Quintana is the brightest star, winner of the Giro d’Italia and twice second in the Tour de France behind Chris Froome (Sky). And like Quintana, most all of the Colombian cyclists are climbers, thanks to the country’s history and high-altitude lands in the Andes.

Gaviria comes from La Ceja in west-central Colombia, just south of Medellín, at 2,200 meters (7,218 feet). He first believed he would be a climber like the famous Colombians, but he was dropped in races. His father Hernando, who runs the Clecilja Club, took him to the track. There he developed his speed.

“It’s hard to be a sprinter in Colombia, the roads are up and down. The races are for climbers. You have to be skinny, small,” Gaviria added. “The stage in San Luis that opened the door for me, that changed my life. I hope my way of racing will change the way people think about cyclists from Colombia.”