When Canadian Michael Woods pushed the pace on the hellish Gramartboden ascent, trying to outclimb two French musketeers, an ill-tempered Italian and an evergreen Spanish veteran, the red-and-white jerseys of Poland were nowhere to be seen.
Michał Kwiatkowski, one of the day's favourites, faded 215 kilometers into the 259km race, while the last man standing for the Polish team, Rafał Majka, finished 35th, four minutes down on the victorious Alejandro Valverde of Spain.
"I wasn't feeling good enough to be thinking about fighting for the win," Kwiatkowski said, speaking to a group of Polish journalists at the parking lot after the race. "I wasn't even able to help Rafał. A day to forget. I came here to fight in the road race, I'm not satisfied, I'm angry and I feel that I disappointed a lot of people."
Starting the race on a chilly Sunday morning, the six-man strong squad committed to work for Kwiatkowski. The Team Sky rider and 2014 road race champion has had a long second part of the season, racing the Tour de France to help Geraint Thomas claim the overall victory, bossing Tour of Poland on the home roads, and then taking on Vuelta a Espana.
With little time to recuperate, Kwiatkowski's attempt to hang on to a high place in the general classification faded after 10 days of the Spanish Grand Tour. The experiment to race two three-week races in one year might have given the Pole a better idea of his capacity as a stage racer, but it left little in his tank for the World Championships.
In Innsbruck, the 28-year-old and his Team Sky squad placed 4th in the team time-trial contest on the opening day of competition. Kwiatkowski then mustered every bit of energy left to clock fourth in the individual time-trial, but he was unable to repeat that effort in the road race.
"After the first few laps I knew it wasn't my day," he said. "I told Rafał but he felt the same way [laughs]. We could only shrug our shoulders and try to hang on as long a possible. Rafał managed to stay there quite long actually. I'm sad I couldn't be there for him. It was a demanding race. You couldn't have done much with these legs.
National team sports director Piotr Wadecki echoed his riders.
"It didn't work out, the boys didn't have the legs today," Wadecki said. "They switched the roles quite early into the race, after about 140 kilometers."
Speaking to the media, Majka, who dropped from the front group on the last climb, was too tired to even crack a joke, a trademark of his interviews with the Polish press. Sitting on the stairs of CCC Sprandi Polkowice's team bus, the Polish team's logistical hub, he seemed equally tired of both the whole season and the race itself.
"We talked, Michał wasn't feeling well," Majak told a group of reporters. "We're professionals. We always give it everything. He said he wasn't feeling great, I said I wasn't at my best either. There wasn't anything we could have done. Just try to hang on for as long as possible."
The 29-year-old has not had a successful season, lacking the form during Tour de France and then failing to win a stage at the Vuelta a Espana, despite a number of promising attempts. On Sunday, Majka grimaced his way through the last laps and later admitted he had hoped to get the legs going in the first 150 kilometers.
"I lacked the power," he said. "I was hoping that I'll start feeling better after 3-4 hours of racing, that the rhythm settles in. It didn't happen. I could feel the fatigue accumulated throughout the year. I was trying to stay in the group, but I was hanging by the skin of my teeth. Three laps to go I knew I didn't have the legs. I can't remember the last time I rode an ascent that slow."
The unsuccessful road race on Sunday concluded a long season for Kwiatkowski, while Majka is still scheduled to race the Italian one-day races: Milano-Torino on October 10, Gran Piemonte on October 11 and Il Lombardia on October 13.
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