Michal Kwiatkowski received a surprise birthday present after turning 28 yesterday. The Team Sky rider found himself with stronger legs than he'd expected after his return from an altitude camp on Mount Teide, and took the first yellow jersey of the 2018 Critérium du Dauphiné with victory in Sunday's prologue.
The question now is: can he keep it?
The Pole had been billed in Sky's roster announcement as a 'co-leader' for the week-long French race, alongside Geraint Thomas, who's preparing to ride as Sky's 'Plan B' at the Tour de France. An early hierarchy was perhaps established by a dose of misfortune, as Thomas crashed in the prologue and finished 21 seconds down.
While Kwiatkowski will be deployed as a super domestique in July after his impressive work for Chris Froome last year, he is a week-long stage race specialist in his own right; this year already he has won the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico.
The Dauphiné, however, with its four back-to-back summit finishes, proposes a much sterner challenge, especially for someone like Kwiatkowski, whose success in such races is usually built against the clock rather than in the high mountains.
"You never know," he said cautiously of his chances of overall victory next Sunday.
"With this race, this year, it's way harder than last year. There are four summit finishes, and I don't know if I can perform so well in the high mountains, especially for four days in a row. You never know. We have to think positively – let's hope I can fly in the mountains.
"I know the transition I made from the spring, when I was aiming for Classics, to now working so hard on climbing and time trialling to be ready for the Tour. If there's an opportunity to win the overall, either with myself or Geraint, we will try to win the race. There's no pressure – there are still four weeks until the Tour, so it's a pretty long period – but when you have the leader's jersey on your chest you try to defend it."
While Kwiatkowski will be stretched to breaking point in the second half of the race, he has a chance to increase his buffer over Tour de France hopefuls such as Romain Bardet and Vincenzo Nibali before the race reaches the mountains, with a 35-kilometre team time trial coming on stage 3 – something of a dress rehearsal for stage 3 of the Tour.
Team Sky – who had Gianni Moscon third in the prologue, Jonathan Castroviejo ninth, Dylan Van Baarle 15th, and Thomas on course to win it before his crash – have arguably the strongest TTT squad of the 22 teams here and, over 35km, the damage could be significant.
"It's a nice check-up before the TTT in the Tour, so we brought a strong team, and we even came here one day early for a day of training especially focused on the TTT," Kwiatkowski said.
"It's really important for us, and it's actually quite crucial for this race. The last four stages, with the summit finishes, are tough, but we know the TTT is very, very important, so I'm looking forward to that."
Kwiatkowski declared himself surprised to have ridden so well in what is his first racing appearance since Liège-Bastogne-Liège, more than a month ago. He also took a good deal of confidence from it, given the disappointment that had lingered since the spring.
After starting so successfully at Algarve and Tirreno, Kwiatkowski endured a poor Classics campaign, the Ardennes having been a major focus. After finishing 11th on his defence of his Milan-San Remo crown, he dropped into the Tour of Flanders to finish 28th, then failed to reach the end of the Vuelta al País Vasco before finishing 31st at Amstel Gold, 57th at La Flèche Wallonne, and 29th at Liège.
"I couldn't perform in the Ardennes. I'm actually quite happy that it's happened to me once again, because I know how to deal with this now. I just take it as it comes," Kwiatkowski said, referring to his disappointing first season with Sky in 2016.
"The Ardennes, they were three races that were not as good as I wanted. Why? I don't know. Maybe I shouldn't have raced Flanders, maybe I shouldn't have done País Vasco. I'm always motivated. You always want to win more and more and more, especially when the year before you won so much. It was difficult, like so much in cycling. With my abilities, where I can race pretty well in the Classics and also the stage races, it's always a case of maybe I should put my ambitions in one pocket. My morale was high, but I couldn't perform as I wanted to."
Kwiatkowski has clearly bounced back well. After a short break he spent 16 days on Mount Teide in Tenerife with Thomas, training at altitude before making the trip to France for the Dauphiné. With the football World Cup forcing an extra week between Dauphiné and Tour this year, many are cautious about performing here, a full month out from the Grand Départ, but Kwiatkowski is confident he hasn't peaked too soon.
"After more than 40 days without racing it's a bit of a surprise to perform like this, but I know how hard I was training the last few weeks, how important that period is, and also how important the Tour is," he said.
"For sure I've made progress, even since last year. I had really good sensations in Tenerife. I know it's quite early to be in the best condition, but I still have some kilos to lose and there's still a big period of time to think about how to build up the shape for the Tour."
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