Tactical astuteness and raw climbing strength both played a crucial part in keeping Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) in the bright yellow jersey of Tour de Pologne leader for a third straight stage on Thursday.
The Pole was gapped, albeit briefly when George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) launched what was the most dangerous attack to date on his lead, a blistering late three-part acceleration by the New Zealander on the draggy, uphill finale to Bukowina resort.
But Kwiatkowski, well-supported by his Sky teammates, kept his cool and maintained a steady pace, retaining his resources to ensure he could follow the later surges by his GC rivals which saw Bennett reeled in.
As if that was not enough, the Pole even managed to out-sprint second placed Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing Team) in the finale, snatching another four seconds with the time bonus.
Kwiatkowski's lead has thus inched open a little more, to 16 seconds over Teuns, but as the Pole said afterwards, "in terms of bad luck, a flat tyre or whatever, it's just nothing. It's nice to have that gap, but we have to be clever to keep that yellow."
Point number one in the Pole's favour is that time gap - small, but in his favour - and a second is obviously his own considerable racing talents and current form. But the collective strength shown by Sky on the Tourde Pologne's hardest climbing stage to date represents another big boost to his chances of a second overall victory in a WorldTour stage race this season to add to Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
"We've got a super strong team here, and after an amazing last few days we were confident about what we could do," the Pole said about the stage. Kwiatkowski singled out Sergio Henao, Pavel Sivakov and Salvatore Puccio for their hard work in the finale, although he broadened out his thanks to the whole squad in the successful defence of his lead.
"The guys did an amazing job in the first part of the race, keeping things under control early on when just about the whole peloton was trying to get into the break, which wasn't easy. Finally, the break went and we controlled the pace for 80 per cent for the distance," he recounted.
In terms of the GC battle, the most complicated part of the stage came when Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team) unfurled a powerful, sustained acceleration in the last half hour of racing, with brief bursts on the front by LottoNL-Jumbo, too. Then there was Bennett blasting away to contend with, followed by Dylan Teuns' sustained challenge in the last 500 metres, and, to cap it all, a sudden, savage lunge by Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), the first time the Frenchman has shown his colours in this year's race.
But Kwiatkowski insisted that it was only on the final climb itself that he had begun to suffer, or as he put it, "I was in my comfort zone until the last metres of the last ascent."
What had been less predictable - but in a good way for Kwiatkowski - was his taking third in the frantic final charge for the line by the small front group. "I didn't expect I could take another four seconds bonus because it was a really hectic sprint, so I'm happy," he concluded.
Just 24 hours remain between Kwiatkowski and an increasingly likely victory, but with such narrow margins time-wise and 17 riders at less than a minute on GC, the race is far from over.
"Friday is the last chance to win the Tour de Pologne, probably plenty of guys lost a lot of time today so it'll maybe be easier to control the GC guys," Kwiatkowski reasoned, "but of course it's going to be a big fight until the end."
At the moment, though, the 2018 Tour de Pologne is Kwiatkowski's to lose.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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