Standing on the final podium of 73rd edition of Paris-Nice, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick Step) had his rainbow stripes covered with the maillot blanc for best young competitor. After leading the race for five stages only to be knocked back to second place overall in the final two days, the Polish rider remains unmoved by what some often call "the curse of the rainbow jersey".
"I'm satisfied with the final result. Victory at the prologue, leader's jersey for a couple of stages, it's a really good start of the season," Kwiatkowski said to the Polish website rowery.org. "Skipping Strade Bianche and choosing Paris-Nice instead of Tirreno-Adriatico was a good move, however, I missed the white roads watching Zdenek's beautiful ride in Italy."
"I see progress in my climbing, time-trialling, sprinting and, I hope, in classics in general. I'm getting stronger with every year because I work hard for it. I am not afraid of challenging the climbs, but you cannot achieve everything in just one year," Kwiatkowski explained, stressing the importance of experiences gained in stage races over last seasons.
The 24-year-old kicked off his spring campaign with a victory at the prologue in Maurepas, narrowly edging world hour record holder Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing). After giving up the lead to sprinter Michael Matthews on stage 3, he regained the yellow jersey on the first mountain finish to Croix de Chaubouret the next day, despite losing time to stage winner Richie Porte (Team Sky).
With gaps between race protagonists remaining small ahead of uphill time trial, stage 6 saw Etixx-Quick Step team putting pressure on Team Sky's leaders with early attack – first on the Col Saint Roch and later on descends towards Cote de Peille.
"There was no fixed plan, but as a team we always go for the victory, it's all or nothing. During Saturday's stage, we tried to gain time on the main favourite – Richie Porte. My teammates did an incredible job and seeing them work their guts out helped me believe that we can succeed."
The young Pole managed to put himself at the front of the race of the rainy stage to Nice, but was soon on the back foot, hit by hunger knock and a charge organised by Porte and Thomas. The Sky duo, however, crashed on the descent into Nice and called it a draw, crossing the line just ahead of the world champion.
"It was a hard day; I was fully concentrated but that was not enough – I ran out of steam due to cold and hunger flat in the finale. If I had Tony Gallopin's legs that day, it would all be different," Kwiatkowski said.
Gallopin managed to hold off the chasers and grabbed the stage win together with the race lead on the Boulevard des Anglais, however the ambitious Frenchman had to surrender his dreams of winning the race on the final day, and paid for his efforts on the slopes of Col d'Eze and losing over a minute to victorious Australian. Kwiatkowski saved his podium place, finishing in a rare three-place tie with Katusha's Simon Spilak and former world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), but earning second thanks to his prologue victory.
"It was the first mountain time trial in my life and I'm very satisfied with the result because it's a real challenge to plan your effort on a climb you don't know. Of course, I was afraid that I may pay for my raid on the previous stage, but 24 hours was enough to recover."
It is only the second time in the history of the race that more than two riders finished in the same time in the final general classification. Previously, in 1955, Bernard Gauthier came third while Raphaël Géminiani, Antonin Rolland and René Privat had to settle for next places despite clocking the same time.
"A podium in Paris-Nice boosts the morale ahead of my main goals of the season. This is a great race with a rich history and to finish it on the podium is something special. It is all going as planned, and I am right there where I wanted to be at this time of the year," Kwiatkowski added.
The Polish star has already named three goals at the beginning of the year – the Ardennes Classics, Tour de France and World Championships in Richmond.
"Paris-Nice marks the beginning of a busy racing period, but I am ready for that. We made slight changes in my program, I know the races and myself better, hard work during the winter pays off and with team's support I believe that rainbow jersey is an asset, not a curse. It allows me to think about victory for myself or the team in every race we start."
Glory is on Etixx-Quick Step warriors' mind ahead of Sunday's Milan-San Remo, where Patrick Lefevere sends a strong squad with 2009 winner Mark Cavendish, Kwiatkowski and Strade Bianche champion Zdenek Stybar. While the team remains prepared for all scenarios, setting up a sprint for “Manx Man" and helping him to the victory after six years remains the main goal.
The 2015 course sees a return to its traditional finish on the Via Roma, as the riders conclude 293km of racing 2km closer to decisive climb of the Poggio. Organisers have also removed the Le Manie climb from the schedule, leaving only Capo Mele, Capo Cerva and Capo Berta ahead of Cipressa and Poggio in the finale.
Accompanied by his teammate Michal Golas, Kwiatkowski rode the final 70km of the route on Monday, acquainting himself with the final descent and finish on Via Roma. The 24-year-old has never finished world's longest classic and is was careful to answer questions about his role on Sunday.
"Our team is strong. Cavendish is a guy who won this race in his very first participation. He is a guy who has a great feeling for this race and the experience that is useful for all of us. On a personal level, I want to discover this finale, considering I didn't finish my first two attempts. I want to honour the race by finishing it, first and foremost," he said according to team’s website.
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