Six years after he first wore the Tour de Pologne leader’s jersey for two days, Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) returned to the top spot overall in his home race thanks to a stunning uphill victory in Szczyrk.
In 2012, Kwiatkowski could arguably make the most of the fact he was still a little-known third-year pro. But, in 2018, there was no such possible flying under the radar for the Polish national champion, who was flagged up as the pre-race favourite, and was the major home favourite with the massive crowds on the climb in Szczyrk chanting his name repeatedly long before the shattered peloton hauled its way up stage 4's steep final kilometre-long ascent.
To his immense credit, Kwiatkowski did not buckle at all under the immense pressure and instead the Team Sky racer fulfilled all the expectations placed on his shoulders, not only out-powering defending champion Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing Team) on the climb, but even distancing the Belgian by a few seconds for his first-ever stage win in Pologne.
Kwiatkowski praised his teammates for doing their utmost to deliver him to the foot of the final climb in a perfect position and, in the process, having asphyxiated any risk of late breakaways with a furiously high pace on the very hilly run-in.
"It's incredible you know, my teammates took all the responsibility even without being sure if I or Sergio [Henao] were in a good condition because I didn't know how my legs were after the Tour de France," Kwiatkowski told reporters afterwards.
Visibly keen to stay near the front on stage 2's technical finale, the Pole added: "on the three flat stages I felt motivated but, on the other hand, you never know exactly how you are going to feel on such a steep gradient like this.
"The boys were amazing today, they were chasing without looking at any other teams, we didn't have any other helping us. It's amazing I can finish well here in Poland, and to do so on this climb is special - it's one of the nicest in the Tour of Poland history."
The next big question is, obviously, whether Kwiatkowski - set to ride the Vuelta a España after the Tour de Pologne - can maintain the lead throughout the three difficult days remaining. The Pole clearly has the team to back him up, and his form from the Tour de France, which he concluded with a very strong time trial performance on stage 20, is obviously also very good. Leading his nation’s biggest bike race, too, surely gives Kwiatkowski even greater motivation to do well.
However, perhaps understandably given how small the gaps are for now - and if recent Pologne history is repeated, are likely to remain - the Pole was wary about over-estimating his chances too soon.
"Let's hope I can recover well. It's not going to be easy winning in Poland, and staying relaxed, all the fans are around and the media," Kwiatkowski commented. "But I will try and focus on my job."
If you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to be part of a top-level cycling team, and to be on the ground, inside the barriers, at the Tour de France, then RUNNING WITH WOLVES will take you there. It is available to rent for $3.99 USD or buy for $6.99 USD.