What a difference 12 months can make. This time last year Michal Kwiatkowski's head was full of doubts, the former world champion starting to wonder whether he was worthy of those rainbow bands on the sleeves of his jersey.
"We were trying to put in my head that I didn't lose talent, that I just needed more time,” Kwiatkowski tells Cyclingnews.
Whatever was said, it worked. Kwiatkowski, who had one victory and six DNFs across 56 race days last year, was transformed this year in his second campaign with Team Sky, with success in one-day classics and stage races alike. He won his first Monument at Milan-San Remo and triumphed in convincing fashion at Strade Bianche and the Clásica San Sebastián, while also finishing on the podium at Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Basogne-Liège. He then went to the Tour de France and was arguably the stand-out domestique for Chris Froome as the Briton secured his fourth yellow jersey.
"My problem sometimes is that I have too much motivation. Maybe when I came to Sky I had too much motivation. I wanted to impress. I wanted to start too early but it's not the way," says the Pole, who struggled with illness and injury last year.
"This season gives me a lot of confidence – well, not confidence, but the realisation that sometimes there are things you cannot control."
There wasn't much that Kwiatkowski and Sky couldn’t control this July. Froome’s victory was owed in no small part to the strength of his team, and it wasn't long before debates over team sizes and salary caps resurfaced. If last year it was Wout Poels who amazed rival directeurs sportifs and fans alike with his turns in the mountains, this year it was Kwiatkowski.
Prominent across a variety of scenarios – an ‘all-terrain' super-domestique was how AG2R boss Vincent Lavenu described him – the 27-year-old was singled out for public recognition by Froome himself, while his team cast him as the 'MVP' – most valuable player – of the Tour.
"I think that was the best I've ever climbed," says Kwiatkowski, "but what impressed me the most was that I could perform for 21 days; in the first, second, and third weeks, I was pretty much the same level. You could see me actually performing well on each stage in the Tour without any crazy training or anything crazy.
"It’s very different to what I had to do at Quick-Step, for example, where there’s the pressure to win certain stages and catching opportunities but here it's about the process of how they think about the entire race, staying fresh, and performing on all 21 days."
Such was his performance – and it mustn't be forgotten that he was one second away from winning the penultimate-day time trial in Marseille, going quicker than Froome – Kwiatkowski has been talked about as a future Grand Tour contender.
The potential was evident as early as his 2013 season when he finished 11th overall on his Tour de France debut, with Sky keen to develop that side of his game when he joined in 2016. After the false start last year, that process will now gather pace.
"For sure, I would love to try once in my career to go for GC on a Grand Tour," he says.
"I’m working mostly on improving my time trialling and climbing and that brings you the opportunity to one day maybe try and do something in the Grand Tours. But for sure if you look at the riders like G [Geraint Thomas], first of all you have to prove yourself in one-week stage races, and if I see any sign in Paris-Nice, Dauphiné, whatever, that I can be there in the GC then I would love to try it. But there's no pressure.
"Team Sky is the best team to be in for the Grand Tours – there's no doubt about that. Just being here, without doing anything specific, you are actually getting that experience. I could be really close to Chris during the Tour so I could see how much pressure he's got on his shoulders and how he handled that."
Kwiatkowski is an archetypal all-rounder. Arguably the most complete rider in the pro peloton at the moment, he can climb, time trial, and sprint, and it's not absurd to cast him as a potential winner of all five Monuments, nor as a future Grand Tour champion.
The age-old conundrum associated with all-rounders is the idea that their strength might also be their weakness, the breadth of the talent causing it to be spread too thinly – jacks of all trades, masters of none. Kwiatkowski, however, is resisting all temptation to specialise, and his Grand Tour ambitions will not see his one-day qualities neglected.
"I definitely will not focus on just the one way, because that's what has brought me success in the past. I’m an all-rounder and I want to stay that way," he insists.
"I only won San Remo because I could descend well and I could sprint well, and I didn’t give up on those things. Honestly, the way I’m trying to improve my time trialling and climbing also helps me win San Remo and lots of different races. I didn't focus mainly on the Classics this year and I was in the game for most of the races.
"Even to win the Tour de France, you have to climb well, time trial well, descend well, sprint well, so I don't want to give up on anything. I still didn’t win Liège, Lombardia, those races, so I'd love to win those in the future – the near future, I would say.”
As for which style of racing he prefers, once again, it's the variety.
"OK, maybe from some people’s point of view the Tour de France was more predictable but for me it was something completely new, defending the yellow jersey and trying to get it back," he says. "For me that was completely unpredictable – people were trying to go in the breaks and every time they were trying to just beat us. Sometimes in the Classics you have a group of favourites like in Flanders or Liège, and you know that's where the winner will come from. They can both be a bit predictable and a bit unpredictable.
"I just want to gain as much experience as I can in different races, and that’s what motivates me in cycling. Every scenario is different, every race is different – that’s my motivation."
Kwiatkowski will draw up his 2018 race programme early next month as Team Sky gather for its first off-season training camp. It's likely to look similar to this year, which started out with week-long stage races in Valencia and the Algarve, and then Tirreno-Adriatico, sandwiched by Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, before the Vuelta al País Vaso led into the Ardennes Classics. After a break in May, it was all eyes on the Tour de France, via the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Polish Nationals.
Kwiatkowski may be determined to focus on classics as well as stage races, but there can't be room for everything. This year he didn’t ride a single cobbled classic – despite his obvious ability on the cobbles as evidenced by his win at E3 Harelbeke in 2016 – and it's once again the Ardennes that will take priority in 2018.
"Every single year I’m trying to be up there in Liège. I was third this year, and, honestly, I would love to win it,” he says.
"I need to see how it goes, and see what's the best way of being there in good shape. I love racing on the cobbles, and if there’s a chance to fit the Tour of Flanders in my race calendar, that would be nice. But we still need to analyse what went good and what went wrong this season."
Kwiatkowski is speaking to Cyclingnews in Japan, at the second of ASO's two end-of-season Criteriums in Asia – a holiday of sorts for many riders despite the 120-odd kilometres they were required to ‘race’.
"I really need a good rest because the season was so long,” he says, explaining that he's taking a total of five weeks off before his preparations for 2018 begin in earnest. The important thing will be to remember what went right last winter and what went wrong the one before that.
"Not much changes – the same," he says. "What I was really happy with this season was that I could perform well the entire season – I was always in the game. OK, I won nice races, but the most important thing for me was that I could perform the entire season and I was in the game to achieve more.
"If you start the season already at end of January, and you want to perform in Ardennes Classics, it's a really long way. No one remembers which races you won in February. You have to remember that when you start your training. That's what I want to achieve this winter, to get myself fresh, then work hard.”
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