Competing at the Vuelta a España is something of an experiment for Team Sky's Michal Kwiatkowski. The Polish rider has been racing nearly non-stop this season with an end goal of securing a second world title in Innsbruck in September. The question is: will the 21 days of racing in Spain put him into a state of exhaustion or will he come out the other end in winning form ahead of the UCI Road World Championships?
Kwiatkowski arrived in Malaga on Wednesday, several days ahead of the opening time trial that kicks off the Vuelta on August 25. After recently winning the overall title at the Tour de Pologne, he spent time in France at a training camp – partly for the training and partly to avoid the realities of being a popular sports figure back home in Poland.
"I could recover a bit more at the camp," Kwiatkowski told Cyclingnews in a phone interview. "I'm looking forward to starting the Vuelta.
"It's a new thing for me to race for so long, and I'm still finding good shape. So far, I've felt great, even in training after Poland. You can't really predict how your body is going to react or respond to another 21 days of racing, though."
It's even harder to predict how Kwiatkowski will respond to the Vuelta after having already raced at the Tour de France in July where he helped his teammates Geraint Thomas win the overall title and Chris Froome finish on the podium in third.
Before that, he raced the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he won the opening prologue, helped win the team time trial, and went on to support Thomas in winning the overall title. Even further back, he started his season in February at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and then won the overall titles at the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico.
He hasn't reached a breaking point, but he did seem to struggle through mediocre performances in the select few Classics that he started at – namely, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and the three Ardennes Classics: the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
While the Tour de Pologne was a late addition to his programme for this season, he said the Vuelta a España has always been in his plan for two reasons.
"It has always been my goal to race the Vuelta to prepare for Worlds, but also for me to experience two Grand Tours in a season," said Kwiatkowski, who has limited himself to just one Grand Tour per season since 2012, and last competed at the Vuelta in 2016, although he abandoned after stage 7.
"It's not only about the best way to ride the Worlds but also experiencing what it is like to race from the Dauphiné to the Worlds. A lot of times, I think about how my body will react to that kind of stress."
Team Sky announced their roster on Wednesday with Kwiatkowski and David de la Cruz headlining the team's GC ambitions. The rest of the team will form a combination of youth and experience with Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov starting the Spanish Grand Tour for the first time, as well as Jonathan Castroviejo, Sergio Henao, Salvatore Puccio, and Dylan van Baarle.
"We want to start the Vuelta with high morale from day one, and we don't want to lose that throughout the whole race," Kwiatkowski said.
"I'm looking forward to spending these three weeks with the boys. I've raced with all of them at many different races throughout the season, but in a Grand Tour we have an opportunity to get to know each other a bit better. It's important for the more experienced riders to give their time and advice, or to actually bring good spirit to the team."
The Vuelta's defending champion Chris Froome and new Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas have opted to instead compete at the Tour of Britain. Team Sky, therefore, don't seem to have the same kind of GC threat that they did at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France. Kwiatkowski admitted that alters the team's ambitions and tactics at the Vuelta.
"Of course it is a different story, racing without Geraint and Chris, but the most important thing is that we have multiple riders who can have success in our team," Kwiatkowski said. "You have to be more flexible. You have to see what the range of abilities are within each stage and in the team.
"You can't go into this race with one goal. We have a mix of experience, and it's not a one-goal race for us. We have to check every day: what is the stage, what are our abilities, maybe we can try to stay in the GC or go for stage wins. We want to start the race well with high energy."
Kwiatkowski has shown his strength in the Grand Tours having placed 11th at the 2013 Tour de France. More recently, however, he has played a vital support role in three-week races. He has also succeeded in the Classics races during his career with wins at Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold, the Clasica San Sebastian, E3 Harelbeke and Strade Bianche twice.
This year's Vuelta a España will include nine summit finishes – six of those coming over eight stages during the Vuelta's second half – and two individual time trials. There are six flat stages and four mid-mountain days.
Asked if he considered himself Team Sky's GC option at the Vuelta, Kwiatkowski said he is open to that role, but would prefer to wait and see how he does in the opening 8km time trial in Malaga on Saturday.
"I have to be open to seeing what the best option is throughout the race for me," he said. "For sure, I'll try to start the race with a good time trial and then we'll see what happens after that – whether we go for stages or try to stay high up in the GC."
Peter Sagan, the Worlds and the rainbow jersey
Kwiatkowski last won the world title in 2014 in Ponferrada, Spain – a feat he accomplished after attacking several times over the final climb of the race and then holding off a select group of chasers to take the rainbow jersey at just 24 years old.
He would like to win the world title again, and he believes that he is a legitimate contender. Together with compatriot Rafal Majka, who will also race the Vuelta with Bora-Hansgrohe, they form a tough-to-beat pair on what is considered a climber's course. He is hoping that the Vuelta will provide the fine-tuning he needs before heading to Innsbruck.
"It would be great if I can stay in top shape all the way to Worlds, and I'd really like to arrive there in top shape," he said.
"At the end of the day, you have to believe that you can win every race. I'm hoping that my approach to that race is just right this year. The Worlds road race is like a Classic, and is sometimes a lottery, but I hope this year I'll be able to deliver a good performance."
The men's road race is demanding at 265 kilometres long, and features close to 5,000 metres of climbing with the 'Highway to Höll' set to be the decisive final steep climb of the race.
Kwiatkowski had initially planned to preview the circuit after the Tour de France but was called on last-minute to race the Tour de Pologne, and so he has not seen the Innsbruck course, but he has studied the profile and map.
"It's a challenging course with a very steep climb at the end, so I know that if I want to do anything there, I need to be at the top of my climbing shape. It's like a Classic, but you have to be ready for a 25 per cent climb."
Peter Sagan will line up in Innsbruck as the defending champion, but some consider the route to be too difficult for him. Like Kwiatkowski, Sagan will race the Vuelta a España to prepare himself for a potential fourth consecutive world title, having succeeded Kwiatkowski's reign by winning rainbow jerseys in Richmond in 2015, Doha in 2016 and Bergen last year.
Sagan won a record-equalling sixth green jersey at the Tour de France but hasn't quite recovered from a crash on a descent during stage 17, recently pulling out of the European Championships citing pain in his back and hip.
Despite Sagan's injuries from the Tour, and a mountainous Worlds course that might not perfectly suit him, Kwiatkowski said that the cycling community shouldn't discount Sagan as a contender for the world title in Innsbruck.
"I think it's up to Peter," Kwiatkowski said. "I think he is an incredible rider and he absolutely can do whatever he wants.
"With the Tour de France and now racing the Vuelta, it's good for him to try to combine all those things. I don't know what his plans are, but, for sure, if he is able to do something different – perhaps change his racing and training programme a little bit – then for sure he will be up there, even on a 25 per cent climb. Nothing is impossible for Peter."
As for Kwiatkowski's chances at a second World Championship title, the next 21 days in Spain will show us whether he is teetering on the edge of exhaustion or about to have the race of his life.