This Saturday in the Tour of Pologne's opening stage in central Krakow, many of the cheers will be for local star Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky), who is expected to be one of the main challengers in a race where victory has yet to form part of the Pole's considerable palmares.
Could this be the year Kwiatkowski cracks his home race? On the plus side for the Pole, albeit somewhat eclipsed by the spectacular debut of Sky teammate Egan Bernal in the Tour de France, Kwiatkowski showed solid all-round form throughout July - and this was fully exploited by his squad. Indeed, with two leaders to look after, a team time trial, a yellow jersey for half the race, and one less rider on the line-up compared to 2017 (two less after Gianni Moscon went home unduly early), Sky's support riders had a demanding ask on their hands throughout the three weeks, and, as in 2017, Kwiatkowski rose to the occasion once again.
Even more encouragingly for his morale for his country's biggest race is that exactly a year ago, Kwiatkowski had shown extremely strong post-Tour form: even as Pologne's first stage was getting underway in 2017, Kwiatkowski had been in the thick of the action of the Clásica San Sebastian, eventually winning Spain's biggest one-day Classic.
"Compared to last year, my form is quite similar, but this is a very different kind of race," Kwiatkowski told Cyclingnews on Friday. "San Sebastian is a one-day race, very tough, and the Tour of Poland is much more dynamic, with much shorter stages."
"Here there are a lot of people who have come here with very different race calendars, too" - unlike in the Clasica, often described as the Tour's 'stage 22 ' because it has so many participants from cycling's top Grand Tour taking part - "and so there are a lot of options on the table."
"Some riders are preparing the Vuelta too, here as well. But what I did in San Sebastian gives me a bit of a boost, for sure, when it comes to thinking I can perform well here."
"Mentally I'm up to the challenge of racing a stage race, even if physically after the Tour de France, you don't know how you'll do."
Although out of the limelight all this week since the Tour de France in the build-up to Pologne, Kwiatkwoski remarks, "I have done a similar kind of recovery program to 2017 in the last few days, even if here it'll maybe not be so easy with all the fans here!"
Indeed, as - no disrespect intended to Rafal Majka (BORA-hansgrohe) - Poland's most successful all-round racer of recent years, Kwiatkowski can hardly avoid spectacularly high expectations when making a relatively rare appearance on home soil. As if he was not going to stand out enough for the local crowds, anyway the 28-year-old will be riding in the Polish National Champion's jersey, after winning the road-race for the first time in his career this June.
Kwiatkowski's best result in Pologne was in a distant 2012, when he finished second overall and led the race for two days, but neither of his following two participations, in 2015 and 2016 were particularly remarkable. However, in all the fuss over Team Sky's Grand Tour success since May, it's almost been forgotten that Kwiatkowski has been one of their steadiest values in week-long stage races - and before he joined the British team in 2016, with Quick Step, too.
In 2018 alone, Kwiatkowski has been a winner of Tirreno-Adriatico this spring, and he also took the opening prologue of the Criterium du Dauphiné, leading the race for three days. He won the Volta ao Algarve in February.
As for Pologne and his second place in 2012 in his debut year for Quick-Step, Kwiatkowski says, "it was a kind of completely new experience for me, racing at WorldTour level, a bit unexpected. We started in the south-west of Poland not here, but it was a similar course, no time trial that year either, and it was very dynamic. I know the [traditionally decisive] climbs in Bukowina very well. The fourth stage, in Szczyrk, where Dylan [Teuns, BMC Racing Team] took the lead last year, I don't know that uphill finish at all, but it's pretty much the first checkpoint for the GC guys so let's hope I can be amongst the favourites there. You won't make big gaps on any stage, in Poland it's all about the seconds [of time difference] so you always have to be up there when it's necessary."
Some of the considerable indirect pressure currently heaped on Kwiatkowski's shoulders may lift thanks to his teammate Sergio Henao. Although not 100 percent certain given he hadn't had his final pre-race team meeting, Kwiatkowski said that he believed that the Colombian, winner of the tough Bukowina stage in 2015 and with an eighth, fifth and third place in Pologne in his palmares, would have co-leader status. "Let's hope I can make the race, but if at any moment Sergio can win the race, then we'll collaborate."
"Right now, though, I want to go for GC. That's what you have to have in your mind from the word go, otherwise it doesn't happen."
For Kwiatkowski, Pologne will be his first race after the Tour but also his last stage race before a return to the Vuelta a España, which he briefly led in 2016, becoming the first ever Pole to do so, before abandoning with back problems. With a very hilly World Championships looming on the horizon, the Spanish Grand Tour has partly regained the status it once had in the peloton as the ideal build-up event for a crack at the rainbow jersey, and Kwiatkowski will therefore be on the start-line in Malaga on August 25th.
"I didn't finish the Vuelta in 2016 and it wasn't the best experience for me, but this year, it's good preparation for the Worlds, and I think I will go for stages," Kwiatkowski argues. "That said, I don't know the team plan for Spain at the moment."
But even if, he agrees, the pressure on Sky at the Vuelta in after their success in the Giro and Tour might be lower than usual, "it's still a Grand Tour and you still have to be 'on it'." And for Kwiatkowski at the Tour of Pologne this year, local hopes and expectations will be equally unrelenting.
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