Last year’s Ardennes Classics were a success for Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), which was topped off with his first monument podium at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Talking to the press ahead of Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, Kwiatkowski believes that programme changes mean he is in better shape as he looks to improve on his 2014 performances.
“With preparation, training, health, it’s all going well and in the right direction so I should be better, that’s my feeling,” said a relaxed looking Kwiatkowski. “There is always the feeling that you are good but you don’t have the chance to check how you are against other riders.”
Kwiatkowski has had a less intense start to the year than he did in 2014, reducing his number of race days through the earlier part of the season. Following Milan-San Remo, he made a brief appearance on the cobbles with Dwars door Vlaanderen before returning to racing at the Vuelta al País Vasco last week. It was a successful week on the bike with second to Michael Matthews on the opening stage and two further top five finishes to put him eighth overall, and he’s happy with where he is before the Ardennes.
“I had a more difficult year last year with Tirreno, and Milan-San Remo. The feeling before País Vasco was worse last year and then this year I haven’t that feeling so far. Until now, everything has gone well, I just crashed at San Remo and I have nothing really to complain about.”
Kwiatkowski will kick off his week as team leader at Amstel Gold where he finished fifth last year. The result signaled that he was going to be a real contender in the Ardennes but it is a result he feels like he could have improved on had he not mistakenly followed Samuel Sánchez’s initial move to set up Philippe Gilbert. It’s a mistake that he’s learned from the hard way and perhaps he’ll be considering his own Gilbert-style move this time around.
“I know I’ve gained experience in the past at Amstel and the most difficult thing is trying to pace your effort on the Cauberg, which is always a crucial point in the race,” he explained. “They say that there will be a tailwind on the Cauberg, so that is good for the rider that is alone on the top of the climb… It means that there is a bigger chance of arriving solo to the finish which is always good. The Cauberg is more important than the 1.8 kilometres to the finish afterwards.”
The Cauberg is a climb that Gilbert knows intimately, and as a three-time winner of the race and the defending champion, he is the rider that many will be looking out for when they hit it for the fourth and final time. Kwiatkowski knows that Gilbert will be tough to beat on the climb that he’s almost made his own, but the world champion knows that anything can happen on any of the 34 climbs in the race.
“You have to be flexible. Ninety per cent of the final is decided by the Cauberg now so you need to be mentally ready for that effort but you need to be in the right place on the climbs before,” Kwiatkowski said.
“(Gilbert) is well prepared, he’s in shape now and it’s not going to be easy but I don’t know if he’s going to be there in the final. I’m more focused there on my effort and where I have to be on the Cauberg, and before the Cauberg, how fast I can go on the climb and I will not really think about Gilbert at the moment.”
Only three World Champions have ever taken victory at Amstel in the year of their reign, even Gilbert couldn’t do it. If Kwiatkowski were to pull it off on Sunday he would join a club that includes some illustrious company in Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and race record holder Jan Raas.
“Not so many and really big names. It’s difficult to do it,” Kwiatkowski stated when the list of names was put before him. “It would be an amazing feeling to cross the finish line with the rainbow stripes, especially when you are aiming for the races and the Ardennes are your goal. You can realise your goals and that makes it even better.”