Michal Kwiatkowski took the Tirreno-Adriatico leader's jersey after stage 5 to Filottrano and now believes he can hold it to the end of the decisive 10km individual time trial on Tuesday and so win the weeklong Italian stage race. Kwiatkowski was arguably Team Sky's third choice for team leader but has emerged after Geraint Thomas lost time with a chain problem and Chris Froome's true form was revealed on consecutive days of hard racing.
Kwiatkowski used his Classics skills and fast finish to take third place in the hilltop town behind lone winner Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) who won the bunch sprint some seven seconds down on the Briton. Kwiatkowski was in Sagan's shadow and so collected a four-second time bonus, enough to lift him past Damiano Caruso (BMC) and pull on the leader blue jersey.
"We knew that this stage can suit riders like Peter Sagan and we were 100% sure that Bora would take control and try for the stage win," Kwiatkowski said, revealing Team Sky's tactics for the stage.
"I said in the meeting I could go for the stage win if everything comes together in the finale. That's the mentality. I race to win. I was not able to win, Sagan beat me and Adam Yates was up front too, but I took a really important four-second time bonus. It's a nice feeling to have this blue jersey back in Team Sky. We're happy that we didn't give up after G (Geraint Thomas) had bad luck on stage 4. We are still in the game."
The Italian is now three seconds back with just Monday's expected sprint finish in Fano and Tuesday's 10km individual time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto. Last year Caruso was six seconds faster than Kwiatkowski but neither were racing for overall victory. Kwiatkowski is the current Polish time trial champion, is clearly on form and fancies his chances.
"I definitely think so. Why not?" he said when asked if he believes he can retain the blue jersey until Tuesday afternoon.
"I think I'll have the motivation to not lose any time. For sure I'll ride 100% to defend the blue jersey in the time trial."
"With my position after yesterday's mountain stage and with me just one second down on Caruso we felt that there was an opportunity to have a go with me for time bonus at the finish. Now we have to defend my position and I have to do everything I can to win Tirreno-Adriatico."
A rare combination of abilities
Kwaitkowski's rare ability in both Classics and stage races makes him the ideal rider for an unpredictable and aggressive race like Tirreno-Adriatico. He and Team Sky have ensured he has been in the right place at the right time on each stage, giving him his shot at overall victory.
Team Sky lost just 10 seconds to BMC in the opening team time trial, then Kwiatkowski avoided the high-speed crash in the sprint into Follonica that cost Adam Yates so dearly. He surprisingly lost 16 seconds on the steep finish to Trevi on stage 3 but was strong on the important mountain stage to Sarnano Sassotetto, finishing only six seconds down on winner Mikel Landa (Movistar).
The polish rider admitted that Geraint Thomas was Team Sky's designated team leader for Tirreno-Adriatico. However, he can only really hope of finishing on the podium after a chain problem with 1.4km to go to the finish at Sarnano Sassotetto cost him 40 seconds. Thomas is currently fourth overall but should be able to move past Landa in the 10km time trial as a consolation for his misfortune.
Kwiatkowski has now usurped Thomas twice in stage races this spring. He won the Volta ao Algarve after dominating the final stage from a breakaway that stayed away. He was embarrassed to beat his teammate that way but bore no fault this time, rightly staying with the other overall contenders as Thomas tried to untangle his chain and then chase with Chris Froome who had been distanced earlier.
"Geraint has really bad luck yesterday. He was our main guy but when you lose 40 seconds it's a real pity. But we played it really well. We kept me close in GC," he pointed out, confirming his own ambitions and desire to pay back his teammates.
"It's about opportunities now. I liked our approach to this race; there was no pressure about my results. I know how much it takes to stay really focused every single day, to not lose time and to maybe gain time on your GC rivals. Maybe I don't need that right now but when you are there in the GC, you have to do it. You have the entire team riding for you and all the boys doing an amazing job. You have to finish it off for them. I'm happy with my shape for the upcoming Classics and for defending this jersey."
Kwiatkowski denied he raced conservatively to save his mental and physical energy for next Saturday's Milan-San Remo and his long spring Classics campaign, that will end with the Ardennes but also include the Tour of Flanders plus the Vuelta a Pais Vasco stage race.
"Tirreno could have looked way different with different weather. We did 220km with the mountain finish and the day before 240km. If it had rained, I don't know if it would've been the best decision to try to keep pushing and fight for a GC placing," he admitted, seemingly happy to go with the flow of racing, without the weight of team leadership on his shoulders.
"We rode an amazing team time trial and we should be happy about it. When you do that you create opportunities to win other races beyond your actual goals. I just have to be happy about it.
"Last year I was aiming to be in best shape for the Ardennes and then I won the first monument in my life at Milan-San Remo and the amazing race Strade Bianche. When the opportunities are there, you have to take them, as I've done here."
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