Stage races, cobbled Classics, time trials and hilly races: Michał Kwiatkowski can do it all. But in 2017, the former world champion is taking a more focused approach to the season. Procycling finds out why the Polish rider is going all-in for the Ardennes races.
There’s a discrepancy between Michał Kwiatkowski the rider and Michał Kwiatkowski the person. On a bike, he’s a lethal and photogenic combination of classy, aero and punchy. He looks good on a bike, and he’s aggressive – one of my favourite cycling photos of 2016 was of him at speed going round the top corner of the Poggio descent, a few seconds ahead of the chasing bunch. I enjoyed his attacks with Peter Sagan at E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders last year – one (the former) was successful and one was not but the main point is that, in bike races, he makes things happen. He pedals elegantly fast, although I suspect this is more born of wiry strength than of innate grace, and even the sunglasses he wore through 2016, if it matters, gave him an air of cool. (I like the 2017 model less.)
Off the bike, however, he’s slightly nerdy and placid. At Team Sky’s pre-season training camp in Majorca, he seems to go with the flow. Kwiatkowski is socially engaged enough to laugh at other people’s jokes but, from my observation, he’s not the one who makes the jokes. It could be shyness or it could be confidence. When we talk, his voice is so quiet that I have to move my dictaphone closer to him.
Some Kwiatkowski results:
- 11th in the 2013 Tour de France
- first in the 2008 World Junior Time Trial Championships
- first in E3 Harelbeke in 2016
- first in the 2015 Amstel Gold
- second in Paris-Nice 2015.
That 11th place in the Tour was impressive. It was his second Grand Tour and he only slipped out of the top 10 on the final mountain stage. He was third in the white jersey competition, won by Nairo Quintana. “I had the freedom to fight for the GC,” he says. “There was no pressure and the team was motivated for winning stages. How many did we win? Four? On many days it was difficult to follow the best climbers and I was in survival mode but I was proud of what I had achieved without really thinking of riding GC.”
The World Junior Time Trial Champs win went along with a win in the European Junior Time Trial Champs the same year. “It was a funny year,” he says. “I won the Euro and Worlds TT. Peter Sagan won the mountain bike Euros and Worlds, and a French guy [Johan Le Bon] won the road race in the Euros and the Worlds. The three of us were double champions. I was a good time triallist but I also had a couple of medals on the road and track. I didn’t have a career yet but these results meant I could get my first pro contract and I had more confidence I was doing the right things.”
E3 last year saw Kwiatkowski attack with Peter Sagan and then easily win the two-up sprint at the finish. “Apart from a team time trial, that was my only win last year,” he says. “It was a special race because I have been racing together with Peter since we were juniors. We are always fighting each other and it’s nice racing against a great champion and a great mate.
“It wasn’t planned but it was the right moment and we attacked together. There were many guys from Etixx in the front group so it was smart to escape from them. I was happy I could raise my hands once in that season.”
Kwiatkowski’s 2015 Amstel Gold win was taken while he was the reigning world champion. “It was my first win in the rainbow jersey. I was chasing that win for a long time,” he says. “It was all about playing the cards we had and being in the right position for the sprint. It’s difficult for me to sprint against guys like Valverde and Matthews – you have to have the right kick at the right moment but I had a bit of luck and I was happy.”
In 2015, Kwiatkowski was second behind a rampant Richie Porte at Paris-Nice. “It was one of my best performances in a stage race. I was chasing the win and we took a lot of risks. I almost lost second place but we weren’t thinking about finishing second. It was all about the win.”
I look at Kwiatkowski and ask him if he knows why I’ve chosen these races to talk to him about. He looks at my list and shakes his head.
If you break down these results, there’s a very impressive Grand Tour GC, a time trial win, a win in a cobbled Classic, a win in a hilly Classic and a close second place in one of the hardest and hilliest stage races in the WorldTour. Apart from bunch sprints, Kwiatkowski can do everything. But I wonder if he’d win more if he specialised, or if he even wants to.
“Actually, I don’t know. There are so many beautiful things in cycling I want to try. I don’t want to put myself in a box.”
While I was writing this piece, Kwiatkowski won Strade Bianche, for the second time. In 2014, he’d dropped Peter Sagan on the final climb into Siena; this time he’d attacked a long way out, riding 15km on his own.
The Italian race is a good analogy for Kwiatkowski’s strengths as an all-rounder. It marginally favours Classics riders over climbers but Tom Dumoulin, a time triallist and Grand Tour contender, and Thibaut Pinot, a former podium finisher at the Tour, were also in the top 10. Of course Kwiatkowski won, though – he’s good at everything, and there’s a bit of everything in Strade Bianche. However, he’s rationalising his targets for later in the year. Rather than be good everywhere, he’s skipping the cobbled Classics in order to focus on the Ardennes plus Amstel Gold. I sense reluctantly so but Kwiatkowski lost a little bit of wriggle room in 2016 when his season went downhill after his E3 win. He was sick even before April but his good form kept him in the hunt for wins. He regressed afterwards, however, and spent the rest of the year chasing form, which put him further back. 2015 wasn’t dissimilar. After winning Amstel, he got two more individual top 10s for the rest of the season.
“Last year, both the team and myself, we were learning about me,” he says. “I wanted to try Sky’s training plans and use the knowledge they have, and they were open to that. Two planets were finding the best way and I hope that’s going to work out this year. We’re skipping the cobbles and keeping me calm in the December and January training camps to try to focus on the right thing.
“I have to make a bit of a choice. I’m doing it now by skipping the cobbles. The only Classic I won last year was on the cobbles but at the end of the day the goal is the Ardennes and I know this year I have to focus just on that, otherwise I will be a bit distracted.”
Then he thinks, and adds: “I’ve won the Tour of Algarve and come second in Paris-Nice, and for that you have to time trial well, sprint well and do the whole thing. I don’t want to leave that behind. From my point of view, practicing all these things is crucial.”
Kwiatkowski’s all-round abilities get him very good results, and some great ones. His World Championships win in 2014 remains one of the most aggressive and tactically astute rainbow jerseys in recent years, and there are other less prominent results which make it even harder to pigeonhole him. He’s a perennial fast starter to the year, with three second places and a win overall in the Volta ao Algarve since 2013. It’s possible that his consistently superb early-season form contributes to his occasional mid-season fatigue. In the 2014 Tour of the Basque Country, he was third in five stages out of six. He was third in stage 1, a mountain stage won by Alberto Contador, second in the bunch kick behind solo winner Tony Martin on stage 2, third behind Michael Matthews in a reduced bunch finish on stage 3, same again behind Ben Swift two days later and third in the stage 6 time trial. He came second overall behind Contador. Whether he can crack the top five in a Grand Tour is still open to question, though he was fifth and seventh in the two time trials in the 2013 Tour, one pan-flat and the other very hilly, in the Alps.
Before meeting Kwiatkowski, I read the two previous interviews we’ve done with him, one in late 2013, the other a year later. Two quotes stood out.
“I know what I’m good at but nobody knows what races I’m really good at, not even me,” he said in 2013. Then in 2014: “I don’t think now is the best moment to choose one direction, to have one goal because you really need experience at every different type of race. I’m still learning.”
In 2017, he still has an open mind about his abilities, and he infers that he finds specialisation limiting, rather than guaranteeing more success. But between him and Sky they have at least directed that instinct towards one big early set of targets at the Ardennes. With a Strade Bianche win in the bank, and no distractions with the cobbled races, for this year at least, it’s time to see what a bit of focus can do for Michał Kwiatkowski.
This is an abridged version of the Michał Kwiatkowski interview in Procycling April 2017. For the full version, buy the magazine, available now.