Michal Kwiatkowski punched the air several times as he arrived alone and victorious in Siena's Piazza del Campo, celebrating a well-deserved win at Strade Bianche but also enjoying his return to success after a difficult first season with Team Sky.
The 26-year-old Polish rider had not won a race since last year's E3 Harelbeke. He started the 2016 season very skinny, but failed to finish a long series of stage races. He seemed a shadow of the rider who soloed to victory at the 2014 World Championships and won the 2015 Amstel Gold Race.
Kwiatkowski cuts a diminutive figure compared to the bulk of the Cobbled classic contenders. He is also softly spoken and clearly emotive yet was not afraid to reveal he had endured a difficult 2016.
"I'm very happy to win, but it wasn't all or nothing," Kwiatkowski said during the winner’s press conference with the written media at Strade Bianche. "I'm very happy with how it went. I had a lot of difficulties last season, but now I’m happy with the current situation.
"I was maybe pushing myself to the limit too much to impress everyone last year. I'm not a machine, and sooner or later you pay the bill. I wasn't happy but had great support from the team with my health problems and not finishing races, they always believed in me. I didn't lose my talent, I just had to wait and work hard to get back on the level.
"Before I started training [for 2017] I tried to stay calm. My main goal was to be back at my level. I'm just happy to be having fun on my bike again."
A moment of doubt proves to be decisive
A slight doubt about his form and his chances against the Cobbled Classic riders at Strade Bianche made Kwiatkowski hold back before he launched his solo attack with 15km to go. While the other riders took turns to knock lumps out of each other on the dirt roads and country roads of Tuscany, Kwiatkowski waited for the right moment.
"It was a very difficult race," he pointed out, explaining that the cross winds caused more problems than the rain and the wet dirt roads.
"When Lotto Soudal went hard after Montalcino [with 100km still to race], it exploded everything so early. Everyone was stressed and so the big crash happened. I managed to stay up and go across with Jasper Stuyven. We were in the 14-rider group, but I was alone because of the crashes, so I was trying to stay concentrated. I knew that the Sante Marie sector is far from the finish and that the best thing was to stay calm.
"I actually had some difficulties on Sante Marie when Wellens and Stybar pushed hard. I didn't feel good and I thought my race was over. But that wasn’t a smart move because it left everyone on their own, without teammates. It was risky to open up the race so early. After that, I tried to avoid going deep and saved my legs for close to the finish."
"It's great idea. I'm just jealous because Cancellara took Monte Sante Marie," he concluded
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