You wouldn't have guessed from Team Sky's storming team time trial victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné that Michal Kwiatkowski had crashed heavily the previous afternoon, nor indeed Geraint Thomas 48 hours before that. "I must have hard bones," Kwiatkowski said in his press conference in Louhans, newly decked out in yellow as overall leader.
"I came out without any major injuries, just skin off and some pain in my elbow, arms, and hip this morning, but when you're racing you actually forget about it, because you've got more pain in the legs than the parts of the body you hurt."
The Pole, who'd lost his lead to Daryl Impey as a consequence of bonus seconds rather than the crash, led a Sky team that swept the floor with the opposition on Wednesday. They finished a full 38 seconds quicker than second-placed BMC Racing, with just three of the 21 other teams able to get within a minute. As a consequence, Sky now occupy the first four spots on the general classification as the race heads for the mountains.
The writing had perhaps been on the wall since the prologue. Kwiatkowski was the winner there over 6.6km, with Gianni Moscon third and Sky putting two more riders in the top 15, not to mention Geraint Thomas, who might have won but for his crash.
That said, there was some surprise at the squad's margin of victory in the team time trial, not least from Kwiatkowski himself.
"Before the stage actually I didn't expect this parcours was going to be so difficult. On the profile, it's quite flat, but when we did the recon it was actually never flat – it was all up and down, small ramps and changes of speed. It was demanding – one of those difficult ones where you have to pace the team very well. It's because of that that there were such big gaps," Kwiatkowski said.
"If you have the strongest guys on paper, you always have to use the course. We had a long meeting before the recon and after the recon, about how to pace ourselves, what we were going to do, and that worked out perfectly. And that's why there were such big gaps. On a completely flat course, there wouldn't have been such big gaps."
While BMC and Quick-Step Floors – who were fifth at 1:02 – were largely without the key riders who'd propelled them to victory in the World Championships TTT in previous years, Team Sky had three national champions in a squad that will look very similar to the one they take to the Tour de France next month.
With a TTT of exactly the same length coming up on stage 3 of the Tour, Sky arrived at the Dauphiné a day early to lay the foundations.
"We did a TTT session on Saturday just to go through the order and freshen up the heads, because it's not a daily job, you only do it a few times a year," sports director Servais Knaven told Cyclingnews.
"We didn't do it on this course – we just did it around Valence, on similar roads, just practising. One session we did 6-10 minutes at race pace, and the other sessions in 'zone 3' because the day after was the prologue so we didn't want to kill each other."
Team Sky have taken complete control of this race but there is an air of caution owing to the four back-to-back mountain stages – and four summit finishes – that will take the race to its conclusion.
After scaling the hors categorie Col du Mont Noir, the riders will have a category 2 ascent to the finish of Thursday's stage 4, and things only get tougher from there, with an HC final climb to Valmorel on stage 5, four major climbs in the space 110km on stage 6 to La Rosière, and three more major climbs and a first-category summit finish on the final day.
Kwiatkowski and Thomas are both proven week-long stage racers, with the Pole having won Tirreno-Adriatico this year and Thomas a past winner of Paris-Nice. But this year's Dauphiné route ranks as one of the most mountainous on the calendar. The question is, how will the buffer they've opened up against the clock stack up against the differences that might be seen in the mountains?
"The mountains are where the race will be decided," insisted Kwiatkowski, who accompanied Thomas on a two-week altitude camp on Mount Teide before coming to the Dauphiné.
He leads the race by three seconds from Moscon, by nine ahead of Jonathan Castroviejo, and by 21 seconds over Thomas. BMC's Damiano Caruso is the nearest overall rival at 52 seconds, while Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) is at 1:08, and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) at 1:17. Pre-race favourites Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) are back around the two-minute mark, along with Marc Soler (Movistar) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin).
"For us, I would say it's a nice advantage to start the race like this because in the last four days we've made a nice gap, but at the end of the day the most decisive stages are in front of us," Kwiatkowski said. "It's going to be hard to defend the jersey, but of course we're going to be really motivated to do it."
As for the Team Sky leadership question, which remains unanswered, again, "The mountains will decide."
"Let's hope our bad luck is behind, that we have no more crashes, and that we can play together really well. Myself, Geraint, Gianni… they all really strong climbers but, at the end of the day, there are a lot of rivals or opponents who are here to win this race, so it's going to be some nice racing to watch I guess."
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