After his below-expectations performance in the Amstel Gold Race where he abandoned close to the finish, Michal Kwiatkowski will start Liège-Bastogne-Liège as Team Sky’s leader once again, but this time with the backing of multiple Tour de France winner and teammate Chris Froome.
The defending champion in Amstel Gold last Sunday, Kwiatkowski blamed his abandon on the difficult weather conditions, and expressed deep concern about the cold and possible snow forecast for Sunday in Liege. He was not so worried, he said, about the additional climb, the Cote de Rue de Naniot, in the closing kilometres.
“If my condition is there, then I will like it more,” he told a small group of reporters. “It’s definitely harder as a finale than in previous years so that’s going to suit the riders with the strongest legs. And without the Cote de Stockeu” - a tough mid-race climb with a very difficult, dangerous descent - “it’ll be a less nervous race, for sure.”
Having spent the week training in Valencia, Kwiatkowski said that his form was good but felt that how his body responded in poor weather would be key to his performance in Liege. That was, he said, the reason why he had to quit Amstel the previous week.
“I felt good before Amstel Gold, too, but when that freezing rain started during the race there was nothing I could do,” Kwiatkowski pointed out. The one big plus about having the forecast for snow in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he said, was that unlike in Amstel, they had no idea such rough weather was about to begin. “We thought it was going to rain after the finish so we got caught out.
“In Liege, everybody, including me, will be mentally and physically ready for such conditions. I don’t feel great in such weather but I will start out looking forward to the race, even with the possibility of such bad conditions.”
In Amstel, he said, it was a different situation altogether. “I don’t have much experience racing when it’s two or three degrees and icy rain.” On top of that, given the poor weather kicked in just in the finale, “It was really a bad moment to be caught out by the rain and at that moment in the race we just had to stay in the front, we couldn’t go back to the car for rainjackets, because we had to be up there on the climbs and cover the attacks.
“For me it didn’t work out, but I’m leaving that behind me and looking forward to tomorrow. You can’t turn the clock back. I’ll have a lot of spare clothes to wear in the car, and my teammates are very strong, with Woet Poels and Chris Froome. We are ready to go, that’s sure.”
As for Froome, the Briton did not take part in the team presentation in Liège but was set to fly into Belgium on Saturday afternoon for his first participation in La Doyenne since 2013. That year he placed 36th, his best result in four participations to date. In 2014, Froome was due to race, but illness forced him to pull out at almost the last minute.
“He likes this race,” Nico Portal, Team Sky director, told reporters on Saturday afternoon at the team presentation. “It’s more or less on his program every year but actually doing it always a bit of a last minute decision. There’s things like the poor weather forecast for one thing, and he’s a bit concerned about that.
“But he likes it, even if other races like the Tour de Romandie are coming up too, and they’re fundamental building blocks for the Tour de France.”
Froome fighting for a top result in Liege-Bastogne-Liege is not totally ruled out. But Portal preached caution, pointing out that “the days when riders could win races across the board, like Eddy Merckx, are pretty much past. Things have become so specialized in each type of racing these days that guys like Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who fight for Grand Tours and for Classics as well, are very the exception rather than the rule.”
Following the Volta a Catalunya - his previous race to Liege-Bastogne-Liege in which he took eighth - Portal said Froome had spent some time with his family in Monaco before heading back to train in Tenerife with Sky teammates Wout Poels and Geraint Thomas. That was prior to heading back to his home and then onto Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Saturday and, as of Tuesday, the Tour de Romandie, which he has won twice in the last three years. He will then race the Criterium du Dauphiné, as is always the case for Froome, and the Tour de France.
As for Kwiatkowsk, third in Liege in 2014 is his best performance to date, but as he says the weather may play a big part in his performance on Sunday.
Asked by one reporter what his body fat percentage was, this year’s E3 Harelbeke winner said he had no idea. “I would say from the moment I was born I don’t have a lot of fat. Some people think that because I was born in Poland I should be able to deal with wet weather. But if you look at my experience from Sanremo and other races when the temperatures have been at less than ten degrees I don’t deal with it so well. I need to learn how to deal with such weather, everybody has to…”
Kwiatkowski said he had no idea which of the top rivals operated best in such cold weather conditions - although as another journalist pointed out, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), winning memorably in a blizzard at Tre Cime di Lavaredo ski station in the 2013 Giro d’Italia, clearly adapts to it well.
“I don’t know, actually, it’s hard to say. I would say [Nairo] Quintana (Movistar) if he was racing, I’ve seen him coming off the Gavia in the snow, and also in Tirreno. But Valverde is still the favourite, he’s going to be the man to beat.”