Former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski was the last rider to wear the rainbow jersey before Peter Sagan’s three-year reign in the one-day championship race. The Pole is looking to seize an opportunity to reclaim the title in the elite men’s road race at the 2018 UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck on Sunday.
"Am I a realistic contender? I always start the race thinking about ways that I can win," Kwiatkowski told Cyclingnews after placing fourth in the individual time trial on Wednesday. "And I believe that I can fight for the victory."
Kwiatkowski will lead Poland’s six-man team in the road race, but he is one of two potential contenders for the nation, together with Rafal Majka. That roster also includes Maciej Bodnar, Michal Golas, Lukasz Owsain and Maciej Paterski.
Despite having two cards to play, Kwiatkowski is aware of rival nations; Colombia's pair of Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana, France’s trio of Julian Alaphilippe, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, along with Spain’s Alejandro Valverde and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and Gianni Moscon.
"Maybe my team is not as strong as France, or some of the other nations that have bigger teams, but at the end of the day, if our team gives 100 per cent of themselves, then we should be proud of ourselves," he said.
"It’s going to be up to the stronger nations like France, Spain and Italy to decide how the race is going to go – they are here to think about how the race can go. Then we will plan our race around it."
The elite men will race 258.5km on a parcours that includes one long loop from Kurstein and takes the field up to Gnadenwald, a steep 5km ascent. They then descend onto the six Innsbruck short circuits that are roughly 10km and routed over the climb to Igls. The toughest challenge is at the end of the race, where the course kicks up over the decisive Höll climb, with pitches as steep as 25 per cent, before the descent to the finish line in downtown Innsbruck.
Kwiatkowski and Majka have prepared for the challenges of the parcours at the Vuelta a España, with their respective trade teams, Sky and Bora-Hansgrohe. In Spain, Kwiatkowski was second in the two opening stages and wore the red leader’s jersey for three days. Two crashes on stage 7 to Pazo Alcon and stage 15 to Lagos de Covadonga put a dent in his three-week race.
Majka also had strong performances, finishing three stages inside the top 10 and reaching Madrid in 13th place overall. Both riders believe that their efforts at the Vuelta will pay off in Innsbruck at the World Championships.
"Majka was very good at the Vuelta a España,” Kwiatkowski said. "Together we will be thinking about getting the best result for Poland at Worlds."
Tour, Vuelta, Worlds
Over the last few years, Kwiatkowski has moved into being a key support rider at the Grand Tours for Team Sky. In an interview with Cyclingnews in August, he said he planned to race two Grand Tours in one season, for the first time in his career, at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, before turning his focus to the Worlds. Around these ambitions, he won shorter stage races at Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Poland.
In Innsbruck, he lined up with Team Sky in the team time trial, where they placed fourth. He then went on to place fourth on his own in the Individual time trial, a strong performance and a good indication that he is feeling strong at the end of a long and somewhat experimental season.
"It was always my plan to race the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Worlds, and so I was pretty much ready for such a long period," Kwiatkowski said.
"I didn’t have the best feeling between all these races - sitting on the couch, the recovery, especially after the Vuelta where it was 35 or 40 degrees, and then you come to Austria and its 5 degrees in the morning. Maybe it was something with the weather, but I’ve been here a week, raced the team time trial and the individual time trial.
"I felt really good on Sunday [in the team time trial], and I felt really good in the individual time trial, so let’s hope that with all the adrenaline of racing, that I can feel good again on Sunday."
Although he has successfully built a place for himself in the Grand Tours, his aggressive racing style and past victories at the Ponferrada Worlds, Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold and Clásica San Sebastián, point to him as a likely contender to win a second world title in Innsbruck.
"I’ve been quite successful at one-week stages races and at the Tour and the Vuelta, but I believe that I can still win smaller Classics in the future, even if I am aiming to progress myself in climbing and time trialling - I can still be a one-day winner."