Michal Kwiatkowski's build-up to the Tour of Flanders took place a long way south of the grey steeples and low skies of the Flemish Ardennes, but even from the remove of his training base on the Côte d'Azur, the lie of the land was clear. The road to victory in Oudenaarde on Sunday runs through his old teammates at Quick-Step Floors.
"Maybe you can't name one guy as a main favourite, but I would give five stars to Quick-Step instead of to any one surname," Kwiatkowski told reporters in Kortrijk on Friday evening. "But there are plenty of other strong guys, like [Tiesj] Benoot or [Peter] Sagan, and it wouldn't be a surprise if they won the race. If you just make the right move, it might be your day.
"For sure, Quick-Step play a really big role and have won so many Classics by using the team's strength, and they'll try to do it again in Flanders. It's going to be hard to fight against them, but we have to use our possibilities."
Kwiatkowski arrives in Belgium as a dark horse for Ronde victory but is a curious sort of a contender, given that this is his one and only cobbled race of a spring campaign built around the Ardennes Classics. He has also lined out in the Tour of Flanders on just three previous occasions, with a best finish of 27th two years ago, but his 2016 E3 Harelbeke victory and his startling recent form mean that he will be marked closely by Quick-Step, Sagan et al in the finale.
For his part, Kwiatkowski has been watching them carefully over the past two weeks since his last outing at Milan-San Remo, planning his training rides in Menton to ensure he had ample time to sit down in front of the television and watch the finales of E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
"I was watching those races, and I even started some training quite early to see the finals so I never took a nap after training," Kwiatkowski said. "There are no regrets that I wasn't here. I think it was the best decision to skip those races because they look really tough. If I had raced Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars and then Flanders, I would never have recovered in time for the Ardennes."
Kwiatkowski has already won the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico this season, though Team Sky's performances on the road in 2018 have been rather overshadowed by Chris Froome's still-to-be-resolved salbutamol case and the criticism of the team contained in the Parliamentary Select Committee report published earlier this month.
The Pole will lead Team Sky's challenge at the Ardennes Classics, and will look to convert last season's consistency – he placed 2nd at Amstel Gold Race, 7th at Flèche Wallonne and 3rd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège – into a major victory. That lofty objective meant that his Tour of Flanders participation had to be shoehorned into a pre-established programme. On Sunday evening, for instance, Kwiatkowski will fly to Bilbao in order to line out at the Tour of the Basque Country on Monday morning.
"My biggest goal this year is to be in really good shape in the Ardennes so when I planned my calendar, I was thinking what I should do to be in the best shape possible at there," he said. "The last two weeks have been the period where I could train the most before the Ardennes. I spent two weeks in Menton and I think this period was great, with good weather."
On Friday morning, Kwiatkowski joined his Sky teammates, which includes Dylan van Baarle and Gianni Moscon, for a reconnaissance of the Tour of Flanders course, though it was interesting to note that he had already visited Flanders in February for a more careful study of the parcours. He may have opted out of the fray over the past ten days, but the Ronde is no mere afterthought.
"I already did the proper recon of the last 120 kilometres after Algarve, when I came here to test the equipment, so today was pretty much rolling with the boys to talk about the race and the weather," said Kwiatkowski, who downplayed the idea that missing all the cobbled races to date will put him at a disadvantage on Sunday. "I believe not, and when I'm on the start of Flanders, I won't care."
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