Few riders would want Peter Sagan for company in the finale of any major race, let alone the World Championships, but Michal Kwiatkowski is actively relishing a battle with the two-time champion in Norway next week.
That's largely because it would mean the pure sprinters have been raced out of the equation, but also because if anyone knows how to beat the Slovakian, it's him.
Greg Van Avermaet has started winning big races in the last couple of years, but Kwiatkowski has a notable string of successes in direct confrontation with Sagan, against whom he's rubbed shoulders since the junior ranks. There was Strade Bianche in 2014, where he dropped him on the steep haul towards the Piazza del Campo, and E3 Harelbeke in 2016, where he got the early jump in a flat two-up sprint. Then at Milan-San Remo earlier this year he pipped him to the line by the narrowest margins in a three-up sprint on the Via Roma.
"He beat me a couple more times, I would say, just times when I was not in the mix," says Kwiatkowski magnanimously, speaking to Cyclingnews at the Tour of Britain, his final race before flying to Norway.
"Peter will be up there, for sure – defending the title is probably the biggest motivation of the year for him. I'll be happy, actually, to be racing against him, because that's going to prove that the race went hard, and the sprinters are not there. Let's hope the scenario goes that way and that I'll be able to race against Sagan, and not [Alexander] Kristoff, [John] Degenkolb – the fast guys."
Not including Sagan – who has won seven bunch sprints at WorldTour level this year alone – as a 'fast guy' seems slightly bizarre, but perhaps it's a sign that those duels have taken the edge off the fear Sagan inspires in most.
"I wouldn't say there is a secret to beating Sagan, but it's true, I have beaten him a few times now, and, yeah, that definitely gives you confidence."
Kwiatkowski was already confident ahead of his World Championships victory in Ponferrada in 2014, despite being just 24 years of age at the time. In the preceding months he'd won the Volta ao Algarve and Strade Bianche, as well as finishing fifth at Amstel Gold Race, and third at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
While he didn't yet have the status of a top favourite, he was by no means was he an unknown quantity as he attacked with 7km to go, taking it to the line in a roll of the dice that combined brute strength with tactical finesse.
"I was really confident before the race, and that's why we [Poland] took responsibility," he says. "Maybe I didn't have on my palmares such a big wins as I have now, but I had massive confidence in what I was able to do. I was able to finish Liège on the podium, and if you're in the mix there you can fight in the World Championships."
Despite a somewhat disappointing couple of seasons following that triumph, Kwiatkowski has since gone about bulking out his one-day portfolio.
He won Amstel Gold in 2015 and E3 Harelbeke in 2016, while his 2017 season – the best of his career – has seen a first monument in Milan-San Remo, another Strade Bianche, and the Clasica San Sebastian, along with podium places at Amstel and Liège.
As such, an extra layer has been added to that youthful confidence of three years ago.
"It's better to have that experience, at the end of the day. The races I've done, that I've won, it's just going to help me," he said.
"For sure, by the end of the race I'm going to think about it. If I'm up there at the end, I'm going to be thinking, 'I can make it.'"
The course in Bergen is punchy, first picking its way across the fjords before hitting Bergen for 12 laps of a finishing loop that contains three climbs, the last of which is 1.4km long at 6.5 per cent and tops out 8km from the line. The length, as always with the Worlds, at 267.5km, only adds to the unpredictability.
"It can be a really hard course, but you never know how it's going to be raced," says Kwiatkowski.
"There are lots of sprinters, and they might have a chance, especially if the weather is ok. We don't know how the weather will look, or how the race is going to go, who will try and control. We just have to have the eyes open during the entire race, and adapt to the tactics. I know I'll have good support. Maybe not as good as Ponferrada, because we had a full team [of nine], and this time we have just six riders.
"It's really difficult to predict because who will be in the mix as there are not many races beforehand where all the contenders can race together. For sure the Belgian guys have a really strong squad. There's [Edvald] Boasson Hagen and [Alexander] Kristoff as well. And of course Peter..."
A long season
Perhaps the biggest unknown is Kwiatkowski's form. There are parallels with 2014 in that his approach to the Worlds has been preceded by a season's worth of remarkable performances, and by a similar race programme – Tour de France, GP Plouay, Tour of Britain.
However, while he rested considerably after the 2014 Tour, this year he hung onto his form to win San Sebastián, and it wasn't long before he was in Livigno for a three-week altitude camp.
"You have to find this balance between resting and going back out training, doing efforts or volume. I think I rested enough. If it's too much or not enough, we will see later in September."
A useful indicator might be the Tour of Britain. Kwiatkowski won a stage and finished second overall in 2014. This year, Cyclingnews spoke to him shortly before he finished seventh in the 10-mile time trial and then fifth overall.
"At the Tour of Britain for sure I have different form, different legs than I did in 2014. I didn't have the best feeling in Plouay [August 28] but I've been feeling better day-by-day here," he says.
"It's been a long season, but I've got the feeling I'm still on the way up, so that's a good thing with still two and a half weeks to go. I'm pretty relaxed. I feel if the condition is there, I know how to race, and that gives me a lot of confidence."
Taking into account his domestique performance at the Tour de France, it's not a stretch to include Kwiatkowski alongside the likes of Greg Van Avermaet, Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert, Chris Froome, and indeed Sagan, as riders who can reasonably lay claim to being the standout rider of of 2017.
The World Championships might just be the clincher.
"After a really difficult year last year, this year has just been amazing from the start," he says. "And I hope until the end."
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