Having finished in the top 10 of the Giro d'Italia three times, stood on the podium of the Vuelta a España, and won three stages of Tour de France along with two polka dot jerseys, Rafał Majka has been busy co-editing the latest chapter of cycling history in Poland. On Saturday, he managed to add a new paragraph, winning the nation's first medal of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The 26-year-old claimed bronze in the elite men's road race, marking Poland's first individual Olympic medal in cycling since Czesław Lang's silver in 1980. Majka, flanked by former world champion Michał Kwiatkowski, time-triallist Maciej Bodnar, and Team Sky's Michał Gołaś, safely arrived to the final ascent of the Vista Chinesa to showcase his climbing abilities.
While Lang battled two Soviet Union riders on the streets of Moscow, 36 years later Majka was the only one to keep the wheel of Italy's Vincenzo Nibali and Colombia's Sergio Henao on the final climb of the gruelling race on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Both of that duo crashed on the descent and Majka miraculously avoided hitting the deck himself. The incident left the Pole with a shot at the gold medal but on the other hand took away two riders who could have shared the workload and helped fend off the chasers.
The 237km route turned out to be just one kilometre too long for the Polish national champion, who was caught by Greg van Avermaet and Jacob Fuglsang in the home straight and had to settle for 3rd place.
"Yes, so I think the tactics…" he started in English after the decoration ceremony, before realising that he was speaking to a Polish television crew – confusion after over six hours of racing was understandable but Majka was not in despair over losing the fight for gold.
"I was going full gas on the final climb. I didn't want to let Nibali go. I was tired, sure, but everybody was. I had cramps in the final but now I'm happy. So happy. I always give it everything; I always go full gas. I did it for my team, for my wife and my whole family," he told TVP Sport, trying to find words in his mother tongue.
Marker pen, scissors, and team tactics
The race in Brazil might have felt like a journey back in time, and not just because Majka and Kwiatkowski worked together in national colours once again. Since hardly any of the squads had a minibus in place, most of the riders spent their last moments ahead of the start sitting on the pavement or in cars, just like during junior or U23 times.
The Polish team had to improvise even further since, with minutes to the official start, Majka only had one race number pinned to his jersey and the other one was nowhere to be found. Sports director Piotr Wadecki turned out to be prepared for it and used scissors and pen marker to quickly paint and adjust another '60' on a spare bib with the Olympic logo, ensuring the team leader could start the race.
The cooperation between Kwiatkowski and Majka was a subject to considerable discussion in Poland ahead of the Games. A rider well suited to the Classics (Kwiatkowski) had to work out the question of leadership with a strong climber with 3rd place in Il Lombardia (2013) in his palmares. Both strongly declared that under the national flag there is no room for disagreement.
"Why wouldn't we agree? If Michal is stronger, I will sacrifice myself for him. That's not a problem for me; we are after a medal and we need to perform as a team. We are a team and a team is responsible for the final result," Majka said ahead of the Games.
The cooperation was never an issue as the race got underway. As the leaders took on the penultimate descent, Kwiatkowski slowed down and waited for Majka, and the Polish duo then pushed the pace and, together with Italian team, organised a smaller group that hit the final climb to fight for the medals.
"We had a plan for the race, Michal was in the break as we agreed. He then waited for me and helped me quite a bit. We went fast downhill, really fast. He was working hard although I could see he was cramping already," Majka told TVP Sport.
'I have 10 more years'
Heading to Brazil with the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia under his belt, Majka admitted that the fatigue was already showing, yet he was also confident the shape he carried out of France would allow him to stay with the very best.
"I spent like a week in breakaways at the Tour. Eight days full gas from start to finish. That's more than the whole Tour of Poland," he laughed.
"I was 5th in the Giro. Well, it didn't work out as I wanted – I was obviously going for the podium – but I still have 10 more years. I was even stronger at the Tour, going uphill felt a bit lighter. I like the race, the atmosphere, it's much warmer [than the Giro]."
The Climber from Zegartowice, 3rd in last year's Vuelta a Espana, was originally supposed to help Alberto Contador in July, but as the Spaniard's bid for the maillot jaune went down in crashes and illness, Majka was given a chance to make his own luck.
"I wanted to win a stage at first. It didn't work out and later we decided to focus on the [polka dot] jersey. I have already won stages at the Tour; a second polka dot jersey is something special," he said after the Olympic Oath ceremony in Warsaw.
With the Tinkoff Team folding at the end of 2016 season, Majka is understood to be of interest to three teams. The 26-year-old has been strongly linked to German outfit Bora-Hansgrohe, a new WorldTour outfit with whom his friends and teammates Peter Sagan and Maciej Bodnar have already signed.
Prior to the Olympic Games, Majka only confirmed that no agreement has been inked and declined to comment on any of the speculation. He stressed, however, that in a new environment he expects to be the leader for three-week races.
"I want to climb my way to the position of Tour de France contender. Winning a Grand Tour is one of the big goals ahead," he said, naming the Tour and Vuelta as his favourite races.