Etixx-QuickStep have an enviable list of options for the first Monument of the year. Despite losing the talismanic Tom Boonen, they still head into Sunday’s Milan-San Remo with former winner Mark Cavendish, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski and recent Strade Bianche winner Zdenek Stybar. Few other teams can match them in terms of options aside from perhaps BMC with Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet to choose between.
With a string of top talent on their roster it’s rare that Etixx-QuickStep enter a race without a plan B but it doesn’t always work out. At last year’s Tour of Flanders they went in with three leaders but failed to make the podium, however, a week later they reversed their fortunes as Niki Terpstra stormed away to win Paris-Roubaix.
So what it is this year? Is it a case of too many cook spoil the broth or can they use it to their advantage?
“We are with three and I think that we can deal with that,” Stybar told Cyclingnews on the eve of Milan-San Remo. “None of us are such an individual that he doesn’t want to win himself. Everyone wants to win themselves, but we have such a good relationship that I will be just as happy if Mark or Kwiatko wins. I think that we can deal with that.”
For both Stybar and Kwiatkowski it will be their third appearance at the Italian race, with the former scoring his best result of seventh at last year’s edition. Kwiatkowski, however, has yet to finish La Primavera, blaming the abandons on a hectic early season schedule in 2013 and 2014. They’ve made some changes to his programme this season, giving the world champion a much more gradual build-up to the spring.
After a strong performance at Paris-Nice, which saw him take second in the overall classification behind Richie Porte, he travelled to Italy to reconnoitre the final kilometres over the Cipressa, the Poggio and into San Remo. It was a much less stressful approach to the race and allowed him to see the stretches of road he’d never reached during his previous two attempts at the race - and now he can plan what he might do on Sunday.
“I didn’t feel tired after Paris-Nice. We did the recon on the Monday and I really enjoyed that time,” said Kwiatkowski. “The most important moment is on the top of the Poggio to be in the front, because if you have one rider who hasn’t got the best skills in the descent then you can lose the race there.
“I’ve just watched Milan-San Remo on the television. I couldn’t feel it on my skin before how the race looks like because I just raced 140km in the peloton and then I stopped in the first or second feed zone… Because I saw the Capi, the Cipressa and the Poggio I can dream and think about the finale more now than when I’d never seen the Poggio or the Cipressa. That was really useful for me.”
Milan-San Remo will be Kwiatkowski’s first major classic since winning the rainbow jersey six months ago. His attack just before the final climb of the World Championship road race caught the peloton on the hop, allowing him to establish a crucial advantage over the group. A similar attack ahead of the Poggio could see him make a repeat performance but with the rainbow stripes on his back is it possible to get the jump on the peloton in the same way?
“It’s possible on the descent of the Poggio to surprise but not really a chance to chase someone back. It’s just your skills that matter and your position before the descent that matters. I think there is no difference whether you have rainbow stripes or not,” said Kwiatkowski. “I think nobody could follow my attack in Ponferrada. I never try to move in the race when it is a surprising moment, I try to move when it is the moment to attack.”
Stybar is also more than capable of riding off the front in a breakaway and, if it was to come to a small bunch sprint, then his turn of speed makes him a likely candidate for victory. The Czech road champion played his tactical cards close to his chest but said that he’s ready for whatever comes his way.
“I think I have a lot of options. There is the final that everyone knows and I think if a group goes on whatever climb I can follow,” explained Stybar. “Honestly I feel pretty good. I think the shape is fine, since the opening weekend in Belgium even since the first races I have felt good and now I am improving and I hope that the shape will stay. For tomorrow, I just look forward to the race because it’s a monument and it’s a really nice race. I just hope that it won’t be the same weather as it was last year and two years ago.”