The best Colombian cyclists have long hewed to a single archetype, specializing in climbing high mountains and winning on the harshest and steepest slopes. There have been Colombian rouleurs and sprinters before, but the most successful riders have almost all been pure climbers. Lucho “El Jardinerito” Herrera brought Colombia its first Grand Tour success, winning a stage at the 1984 Tour and taking the general classification at the 1987 Vuelta a España. The current-day flag bearer for Colombian cycling is Nairo Quintana, generously listed at 5-foot-5, who has won the Giro d’Italia before and looks like Chris Froome’s only worthwhile foil. However, to pigeonhole one of the greatest cycling countries in the world as the exclusive province of climbers would be reductive and wrong. Hell, Leonardo Duque sprinted his way to a Vuelta stage win less than a decade ago.
That said, there is no Colombian precedent for Fernando Gaviria. The brace-faced 22-year-old Gaviria made his Grand Tour debut at the Giro this year and has completely outclassed every other sprinter in the pack, winning four stages, holding the maglia rosa, and establishing himself in the loudest way possible. If you’ve been paying attention for a while, this isn’t surprising.
Gaviria’s creation myth starts back in 2015, when he was racing for Coldeportes-Claro. As a teenager, Gaviria was an elite track cyclist (he still is) and made a little noise on the junior circuit, but nobody expected him to roar onto the scene the way he did. The Tour of San Luis is one of the first races of the road racing season. It’s a remote race down in Argentina, but it tends to attract a decent crop of European stars looking for warm weather and chance to stretch their legs out. Mark Cavendish came to the 2015 race after a disappointing 2014 campaign. You’d think one of the greatest sprinters of all time would have no problem punking the best that second-rate South American teams could offer. Instead, Gaviria beat Cavendish. Twice. In fact, he smoked the British legend.
Cavendish said after the race that he had never heard of Gaviria, but the Colombian’s impressive performances immediately drew the attention of Europe’s best teams. Cavendish’s Etixx-Quick Step team (the best team in the sport) ended up signing Gaviria and by the end of the 2015 season, he was in Europe training under Cav.
His WorldTour career started out slowly enough. Cavendish left for Dimension data, and Quick Step had Gaviria take a back seat to the team’s other stars in stage races. After all, Quick Step had also signed Marcel Kittel, perhaps the fastest man in the peloton. Gaviria got a crack at Milano-San Remo, one of the hardest one-day races in cycling, and had a chance to sprint for victory until he was undone by a cruel mechanical failure. He filled out the roster on second-tier races, and showed well, winning over WorldTour competition at the Tour of Poland and Tirreno Adriatico. In 2017, Quick Step decided to let him take a run at a Grand Tour, and the results have been astounding.
Gaviria is up against a decent crop of sprinters, featuring all-timer Andre Greipel and fellow up-and-comer Caleb Ewan. Ewan won the bunch sprint for second on Stage 1, Greipel took Stage 2, and since then, nobody has really been able to shake Gaviria. Quick Step took advantage of headwinds on Stage 3 and cleaved the peloton in two, allowing Gaviria to snatch the maglia rosa with a dominant sprint win. Gaviria then won Stage 5, lost by millimeters to Ewan on Stage 7, and took Stage 12 from a bunch sprint. This afternoon, he put forth his most impressive display yet.
Heading into a sweeping turn with 400 meters left in the stage, Gaviria was out of position and wedged in tenth wheel with only one teammate. Instead of sitting up, he launched himself from behind a sprinting group ahead of him and overtook everyone by sweeping around to the far right.
His dominance becomes apparent on the overhead angle.
Gaviria has now tied Bernard Hinault for the most stage wins in a debut Grand Tour, and he’s already set the record for most Giro stage wins by a Colombian rider (although Quintana may retake that record next week). The dude is only 22 and has not fully realized his potential as a rider yet. He is far different than fellow young buck Ewan, and the two look set to duel like Cavendish and Greipel have for a decade. Where the Aussie is teeny-tiny, Gaviria is on the taller side at 5-foot-11. He’s no Marcel Kittel, but he is a power rider extraordinaire, who’s punchy and small enough to profile out as a classics rider if he chooses to focus on one-day races. It also helps that he’s already on an incredibly strong team. The sport hasn’t seen a young sprinter make this emphatic of a debut, and it’s only a matter of time before he sets his sights on the Tour de France. Mark Cavendish is still the shit, but he might very well be in for a redux of San Luis if they go at it again in France.