He finished 11th overall in his first Tour de France and this year more is expected from Michal Kwiatkowski especially after the Polish rider’s great start to the season. There’s every reason to be optimistic but the rider is keen to play down his chances for GC in a team that’s very much based around winning sprints. Rob Arnold caught up with ‘Flowerman’ to get his thoughts on the race, the weight of expectation, and what the future holds for Polish cycling…
Two days before the start of his second Tour de France, Michal Kwiatkowski was repeating a well-practiced line: “The tension is on Mark,” said the 24-year-old, “but, of course, I have my own ambitions.” He was talking about Cavendish, the obvious headline act of a star-studded cast on the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team. But after Cav’s crash on Saturday the former Polish champion inherited a little more “tension” of his own. Or so you may think…
The original plan was for him to continue his Grand Tour education, to learn a little and see if he could carry on the form he put on display in the early-season. He was a regular on the podium at the start of 2014 winning sprints, climbing stages, time trials, a points classification and a GC title in a range of races in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. He’s a dynamo with a lot of talent and he’s content to be just another cog in the impressive OPQS machine.
“It’s nice to be on a team that has winners of Paris-Roubaix, like Niki Terpstra,” he told RIDE last week. “Then, of course, there’s Mark Cavendish and Tony Martin. I can learn a lot from them. And that’s something that I really like about this team: you can get experience from every kind of rider.”
He was the Polish road race champion in 2013; this year he took the TT title at the end of June while fine-tuning his form for the Tour.
The list of successes is growing quickly and he’s pleased with his progression but also happy that his team has given him the luxury of time before being dubbed leader for a race like the Tour. “At the end of the day, I know that this is my second start in the Tour de France – and my third Grand Tour – and I think I need to work a lot to gain experience.
“I’ve shown that I can really fire well in the Classics but I think I’ve got more to learn at the Grand Tours.”
He’s one of the more versatile riders in the bunch and expectations are growing.
The third-place finisher in Liège-Bastogne-Liège this April recognised the similarities of the parcours for that race and the second stage of this year’s Tour beforehand and it’s fitting that he was also third in the race from York to Sheffield on Sunday. He had a chance to race for himself and duly proved that the form from April has indeed carried over to July. “After a successful first part of the season I was not sure about my form for the Tour,” he said beforehand. “I was really focussed on what I have do to prepare to be good for the Tour but I had a pretty hard first part of the season.”
It would be the first of two successive third-places finishes in stages for OPQS. This is a line-up of proven winners in a range of disciplines at the Tour – and throughout the season. Five of the nine have previously claimed at least one stage victory at the Tour de France and more are expected in 2014. On the approach to Lille in stage four, the eight remaining members of the team were at the front of the bunch. They have practiced their lead-out so often that it has become second nature to set things up as they have so often done, only now the work is for an Australian rather than a Manxman.
Third in London and seventh in Lille for Mark Renshaw are the rewards.
Cavendish may be out of the race and in need of surgery but plenty of options still remain. Stage wins are great but one thing Patrick Lefévrè has always said he sought was cycling’s equivalent of the “witte merel”. The elusive bird which is referenced in Dutch as something that’s particularly hard to find and it’s the title the team manager has given for the one element that’s been missing from his teams over the years: a genuine GC rider. Kwiatkowski may be that man, but he doesn’t believe it’s going to happen as soon as his second appearance.
Eleventh overall in 2013, ‘Kwiatek’ was a regular at the podium in his first Tour. The white jersey was the reason and while he has the qualities to one day wear the yellow, he doesn’t believe that it’s going to happen this year. And he says others are more motivated for the the youth classification than he is. “I heard I’m one of the favourites for the white jersey,” he said, “but I’m not keen to go for the GC or target the youth classification. I just want to explore myself and gain experience. If you see the riders like Thibaut Pinot and Andrew Talansky, they are really contenders for the white jersey.”
Although he tends to animate the action, Kwiatek says he relies on his power meter to judge his efforts rather than emotion, and that this is just part of what modern cycling has become. “I really like numbers,” he says about the propensity of riders to stare at data while racing. “I’m following my power during training and in the races. Honestly, it helps me a lot and that’s my style of riding as well.”
He is the team’s GC rider but it was originally planned that he would form part of Cavendish’s train. “I will be part of the lead out and I will do it with pleasure,” he said in Leeds last week. And he was there on the approach to Harrogate, London and Lille. He is also a fast finisher himself and he recognises that this offers him significant advantages in a race like the Tour. “I’m not a sprinter but I know how to do it and I think a lot of GC guys tend to spend their energy to be in the front and stay out of trouble. I can spend my energy by working for the team and that’s something I don’t mind doing.”
* * * * *
Despite his humility there are expectations, yet Kwiat isn’t letting this change his approach. Instead he’s doing his job, learning his lessons, taking his chances, and hoping to inspire young riders in Poland to follow his lead. Last October he set up a cycling academy named after him in his hometown and within weeks there were 120 members, a number well beyond his expectations. “The idea was to get more children into cycling,” he explained about the ‘Akademia Michala Kwiatkowskiego’. “I think there are a lot of talented riders in Poland and we are doing what we can to give even the young guys a chance to discover their qualities. What I do in races like Liège and the Tour helps because it gets exposure for our sport and the kids recognise me.”
Still, the academy reflects his approach – it’s not all about winning.
“We started the academy last year and we really planned for it to give some hope and a future for the kids whether they are dreaming to be professional cyclists or even just to ensure they enjoy their sport.”
RIDE published a feature on the rise of Polish riders in the pro peloton in 2013 (issue #62). Written by Pawel Gadzala, it explained that ‘Kwiatek’ is Polish for ‘flower’ and thus the rider has earned the nickname of ‘Flowerman’. It’s a stark contrast to the typically rugged monikers of other cyclists, particularly one of his peers in the peloton who is promoting himself as ‘The Wolverine’ at this year’s Tour.
Peter Sagan has been a rival of Kwiatkowski since their teenage years and the pair continue to act as each others’ shadow in this year’s Tour. But they are developing into riders with entirely contrasting styles… and approaches to their trade. Flowerman is happy doing what he can and waiting for results to come, while the Wolverine doesn’t hide his ambitions – it’s clear that he wants the green jersey for a third successive year. Meanwhile, the Polish rider refuses to be drawn in on speculation about his qualities as a potential team leader. “I don’t have really specific dreams. I’m really focussed on my work and what I have to do to be at my best to improve from day to day and that’s important.”
There is a list of riders who were brought to the Tour in 2014 to ride in the service of Cavendish but, as OPQS’s GC man, Kwiatkowski is happy to have just one: a compatriot and friend, Michal Golas. That’s sufficient, he believes, for him to do his job this July. “Having Golas here is really important because he’s my friend and we train together,” he said. “We live in the same town and having the support from a friend is important when you have crazy days. He really can support me. We’ve known each other since 2007 and from that time he was supporting me really well and I really need him here.
“Last year I just had Peter Velits (now with BMC) with me, and I think I did it well. Riding for the GC you have to be deserving of the support of the whole team. I still need to prove that I’m worthy of that. Having Golas is already a sign that I’ve got support, and I can get a lot of help from my friend. I think it’s much better than last year.”
* * * * *
There are five Polish riders in the Tour this year and, according to Kwiatkowski, the sport is enjoying a halcyon time in his homeland. Still, he’s coy when it comes to suggesting that he’s a man of influence. “I’m not like a star, but I think I have a little mission to lead Polish cycling.
“Cycling in Poland is really growing, there is much more funding than ever before and they really need the riders at the top like Rafal Majka, Przemyslaw Niemiec and others. To stay at the best level it’s really what they need and I hope I can show my possibilities here at the Tour de France.”
What comes from the Akademia Michala Kwiatkowskiego in Torun remains to be seen. But Polish cycling continues to evolve. The country is yet to produce a Tour champion but there are more riders from Poland in this year’s race than there are Brits. And surely that’s a sign that the scene is growing. Kwiat, Rafal and others are given their compatriots reason to cheer.