Team Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski might be softly spoken, but he has never shied away from a challenge. The Polish road race champion is a rider who has been able to turn his hand to just about anything over the years, but one thing remains on his bucket list, or what he calls his 'moon-shot plan': overall victory at the Tour de France.
Since turning professional with RadioShack back in 2011, Kwiatkowski's wins have included Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold, and E3 Harelbeke. He is also, of course, a former road race world champion and won the Worlds team time trial title with QuickStep in 2013.
One thing the 28-year-old has not yet nailed is how to win a Grand Tour. His best finish came at his debut Tour de France in 2013, when he finished 11th overall. He has since not been able to repeat that success, and in recent years has instead worked as a support rider rather than a leader.
However, winning the Tour has always been in the back of his mind and the success of his Sky teammate Geraint Thomas last year gives him the confidence that it could work out for him in the future.
"For sure, in the future being there as a leader is my moon-shot plan," Kwiatkowski tells Cyclingnews. "I haven't had the chances like I did at QuickStep to ride with a sprinters' team and try to ride for the GC there. But the thought of trying to win has always been there with me, and it has been driving me to climb better and time trial better. It's not that the plan has to work out in the next couple of months; it's something that you have to work for over many years, but I'm making progress.
"You could see it in the stage races last year," he continued. "My climbing abilities and time trialling abilities are moving in that direction, so let's hope that one day I'll be able to feel great and do it like Geraint Thomas did. He was on a similar path for many years, chasing and being there with [Chris] Froome, working hard for so many years, and then one year it worked out perfectly, which was last year. Let's hope one day I can do that as well."
Longing for Liège
This year, Kwiatkowski will be riding for defending champion Thomas and four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome at the Tour de France. Prior to that, all of his preparation is centred around being at his peak for the Ardennes Classics, and for Liège-Bastogne-Liège in particular.
Kwiatkowski had proved himself as a strong stage racer with his 11th place at the 2013 Tour de France, but it was the Ardennes where he enjoyed his breakthrough as a one-day rider. In 2013, he scored top-five placings at the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne. The following season, he would do the same at Amstel before going on to take podiums at Flèche and Liège. The trio of races holds a special place in Kwiatkowski's heart.
"For many years, I've been chasing it. I love Amstel, I love Flèche, and Liège with the different course. With the different finale, I think that it will still be a very demanding challenge, but it's natural that I'm going there," he explains. "I don't know in the future if I will skip the Ardennes, but I'm putting a bit of pressure on myself to be up there for Liège this year.
"It's quite a long period until Liège, so I hope I can be there. I always have the support of the team, and I've won Amstel, and I've almost always been up there. So many times I've been among the best riders. For sure, I'm capable of winning those races. That drives me and motivates me to do it this year."
In order to give himself the best possible opportunity to win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Kwiatkowski has trimmed down the number of race days that he's doing at the start of this season. By the time he rode the Amstel Gold Race last April, Kwiatkowski had already ridden 26 days across seven races, while this season it will be – DNFs notwithstanding – 21 over three races. By the end of the season, he had done 91 days of racing, failing to finish just two – the second of which was the Worlds road race.
"There is always that moment when you're training and racing for longer periods, and you just run out of gas," says Kwiatkowski. "Let's hope that racing smarter and using that race calendar in a smarter way will help me reach the Ardennes in better shape. I think that I'm capable of winning all three of them, although maybe not in the same year.
"Liège is something that I've been chasing for so long, and that's why I've decided to skip Milan-San Remo this year, and Strade Bianche, and go to Paris-Nice, because of that one race. I believe that's the best way."
Fewer races this year has meant that he was able to start his season a few weeks later at the UAE Tour. After Paris-Nice, he'll enjoy a short rest and then ride the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. It is not the first time that Kwiatkowski has tried to cut down his race programme. In the past, he has attempted to ride a full cobbles programme followed by the Ardennes. As he's got older, he's become pickier about his calendar, and has completely eschewed the cobbles altogether.
Kwiatkowski explains that he finds it difficult to use races for training, and that can be to his detriment.
"It's because I love racing," he says. "I'm not racing to just do the race and as preparation. There is always a possibility to win, and that's why maybe sometimes it has cost me a lot. When you're not capable of winning the race and you give it 100 per cent, then it gets difficult.
"The calendar is super long," he points out. "You can start racing in Australia and finish in China at the end of October. That's a massive challenge. It's basically impossible for a rider to stay in very good shape. If you don't look at that bigger picture and how many races you're going to do, you're just going to die somewhere on the bike. I've learned a lot from the team about looking at the overall picture. It helps you stay in really good shape for a longer period."
Reclaiming the world title
Kwiatkowski's season is very much split into three parts: the first is geared towards the Ardennes, the second is focused on the Tour de France, while the last section is built around the World Championships in Yorkshire and another tilt at a monument at Il Lombardia.
For the World Championships, Kwiatkowski has prepared another slimmed down programme, with the defence of his Tour de Pologne title and the Canadian one-day races at Montreal and Quebec. The Bretagne Classic in Plouay could also be on the cards, but Kwiatkowski thinks that it might be too hard to slot it in.
It is over four years since Kwiatkowski won his world title. Indeed, he was the last rider to wear the rainbow jersey before Peter Sagan's run of three, which ended last year. Kwiatkowski's year in rainbows was a mixed bag, with a win at the Amstel Gold Race and an abandon at the Tour de France. Still, he looks back at the year with a positive outlook.
"Thinking about the Ponferrada Worlds always makes me emotional, because I know how the boys and Poland were riding there, and how beautiful that race was," Kwiatkowski says. "I'll be happy to be in really good shape again for this year's Worlds. I would love to fight for the medals. I remember the 2015 season, which wasn't really very easy, in the rainbow jersey. It was amazing to be the world champion, and I'll do everything possible to find a way to win it."
The Yorkshire course lends itself to a Classics-style rider, and an in-form Kwiatkowski would definitely be among the favourites this September. Having ridden the 2014 Tour de France, which started in Yorkshire, he has seen some of the course and is expecting a challenging day out.
"I did the Tour stage on the road to Harrogate, so I know the area and the climbs around there. It will be very similar, but at the end of the day it will be a different time of the year racing there – at the end of September – and I haven't yet been to the circuit," he says.
"For sure, it's going to be demanding, as racing in Great Britain is always tough, and with almost 290 kilometres to cover for the road race in September, there won't be that many guys that will even be able to finish it."