Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) emerged as the surprise race leader after the key mountain stage at Tirreno-Adriatico on Saturday, but the 22-year-old Polish rider insisted he's ready to fight to defend the blue jersey and did not seem scared of the big-name riders behind him in the overall classification.
Kwiatkowski was second in the Volta ao Algarve and was second in the 2012 Tour of Poland behind Moreno Moser, just five seconds down on the equally talented and prodigious Italian. He also won the seven kilometre prologue time trial at the 2012 Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen last March, proving he can perform against the clock.
He was one of the key riders when Omega Pharma-Quick Step won the opening team time trial last Wednesday and had worn the best young rider's white jersey since then. He proved his credentials for overall success by staying with the leaders until close to the finish, even managing to find something extra to finish two seconds ahead of Alberto Contador.
"This was one of my main goals for the beginning of the season but I didn’t expect to take jersey today," he said timidly but clearly not afraid of taking on his much bigger-name and more experienced rivals.
"There are a lot of big champions like Contador and Nibali and I didn’t think I'd be able to stay with them but the team did a great job in the early stages of the race and that made me believe in myself and do my best. It worked and I kept the jersey.
"It's always good to be good in something. I've done some good time trials but my climbing was a weakness. But I've worked on it during the winter and it's paid off. I can now be good for the GC in races."
Kwiatkowski leads Chris Froome (Team Sky) by four seconds, with Nibali third at 16 seconds and Contador fourth at a more distant 30 seconds. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider revealed he fears Sunday's steep uphill finish in Chieti more than Tuesday's final 9.3km time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto.
"It's a hard stage tomorrow. I don’t know what to expect but I'll try to keep the lead," Kwiatkowski said. “I'll try not to lose time and the time trial is my thing, so I'll even try to get some seconds.
"I'll do my best and think I'll get help from my teammates. I'm more confident now and feel I can develop as a rider. This is only my second year (Kwiatkowski joined Omega Pharma-Quick Step from RadioShack ahead of the 2012 season) but the guys helped me here and we have a good spirit in the team and feel good about the rest of the race."