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‘Giant killer’ Kwiatkowski returns to form at MSR

You can’t get much closer than that. After racing for seven hours and nearly 300 kilometers, inches divided Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) from Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) at the end of Milano-Sanremo. But for the 26-year-old Pole, it might as well have been a country mile.

After describing 2016 as his worst season ever, cycling’s “giant killer” is back with a bang. Just weeks after winning his second Strade Bianche, Kwiatkowski delivered his most calculated victory yet Saturday in what’s already a stellar palmares. And if it wasn’t for Sagan’s gravitational pull both on and off the bike, it might be Kwiatkowski over whom the cycling world would be going crazy.

Granted, nice-guy “Kwiato” doesn’t pack the same natural charisma as Sagan, but he certainly matches him in terms of quality wins. In fact, his CV is only outshined by Sagan, his longtime rival, peer, and friend, against whom he’s been racing since they were teenagers a decade ago coming out of Poland and Slovakia.

“It’s always a pleasure to race such a guy like Peter,” Kwiatkowski said. “I’m probably in a better position than most of the other riders to race against Sagan because we’ve competed together since we were juniors. Half of the bunch thinks he’s from another planet, but I truly believe he’s beatable.”

Time and again throughout his young career, Kwiatkowski has delivered impressive results — and he’s taken down bigger names in doing so. As part of the fabled “Class of 1990,” Kwiatkowski’s resume is the envy of many. Just look at the quality races he’s won and the rivals he’s beaten. He is already a two-time winner of Strade Bianche (beating Sagan in 2014 and Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet earlier this month). In 2015, he beat Alejandro Valverde at Amstel Gold Race (a race the “Green Bullet” has never won), and last year beat Sagan (again) at E3 Harelbeke in what was the lone highlight of a season replete with illnesses, setbacks, and injury. His biggest coup, of course, came in 2014 on the hilly, technical worlds course at Ponferrada, Spain, when he dared to attack — in Sagan style — to fend off an elite chasing group by just one second, with Simon Gerrans taking silver and Valverde bronze.

More than a few people have grumbled that Kwiatkowski was “sitting in” as Sagan led the way down the Poggio in Saturday’s Milano-Sanremo, or have suggested that his win was somehow a fluke. But they’re wrong. Kwiatkowski was smart enough to have his radar turned on, and he moved at the right moment when Sagan attacked midway up the Poggio.

“I saw in the final stage at Tirreno, how Sagan attacked and then lost the sprint to [Fernando] Gaviria, that he might try something on the Poggio,” Kwiatkowski said. “I was awake.”

Following Sagan as he opened up his lethal acceleration up the Poggio is no easy feat, and had it not been for the chasing Alaphilippe, Kwiatkowski might not have made it across. Both of them had the advantage of having sprinters coming up behind — Gaviria for Alaphilippe and Elia Viviani for Kwiatkowski — so the pressure was on Sagan to do it alone. Kwiatkowski actually did come through for some short pulls on the flats after the Poggio, but with 1km to go, Sagan found himself at the front and was forced to lead out the sprint. Perhaps he went a few pedal strokes too early, and that gave the cool-thinking Kwiatkowski his opening.

“I was thinking about the sprint, and not worrying about the bunch coming from behind,” Kwiatkowski said. “There was big pressure on Sagan to go first. I left the gap to Peter in the final sprint, and I was gambling a bit. His acceleration is so impressive, I forced him to sprint first. In the end, it worked out. To win by so little after racing so long is amazing.”

Amazing indeed, proving yet again that while Milano-Sanremo might be the easiest monument to race, it’s often the hardest to win. With Sagan finishing oh-so-close, Giuseppe Saronni’s distinction of being the last rainbow jersey holder to win Sanremo in 1983 remains safe.

Kwiatkowski’s sublime victory Saturday was his most dramatic since the world title in 2014, but it perhaps holds even more significance for him. After a glittering start to his career, first as a highly touted U23 rider before earning impressive marks in his opening first years as a pro, things went off the rails last year.

He was under pressure to win after a big-money contract move to Sky. Things started well enough, winning E3 Harelbeke, but Kwiatkowski’s season soon fell apart. Poor spring weather took its toll and he struggled through the Ardennes classics, and then he pulled out sick at the Tour de Romandie. He got sick again at the Critérium du Dauphiné, costing him a spot on Sky’s Tour de France team and hampering his own preparation for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. On a course that was ideal for him, it was compatriot Rafal Majka who brought home a medal. He then crashed out of the Vuelta a España.

“Last year I had a difficult season, and I am thankful to Team Sky, they always believed in me,” he said. “Last year was the worst season for me, but I never gave up, I never believed that I lost my talent. And here I am, winning two races this year, and that’s incredible.”

His Sanremo win marks his first monument, and it makes him the first Polish rider to win “La Primavera.”

Kwiatkowski’s road into cycling is quite similar to Sagan’s. Both grew up with humble roots in small towns (Kwiatkowski’s father was a small farmer and later worked in a factory) and found solace and escape on the bike. Both were born with uncommon talent on two wheels and they grew up familiar with each other’s racing styles, often knocking heads in junior and U23 races.

“I have good memories racing against those guys. I have been racing against Sagan since we were teenagers. He jumped up faster than me from U23, but it’s nice to see him doing well,” he said. “Now we are all racing at a high level. It’s been funny how far all of us come from those days.”

Sagan’s been far more prolific, winning seven stages at the Tour de France (and racking up five straight green points jerseys), but in other aspects, Kwiatkowski is more well-rounded than Sagan. He can time trial better and climb deeper into the high mountains. So far, Kwiatkowski has only won one stage race (the 2014 Volta ao Algarve). He’s been close in others and has seven runner-up finishes in week-long stage races — including Paris-Nice in 2015 and the 2014 Tour of the Basque Country. In 2013, he placed 11th in his Tour de France debut.

Sagan is a gift that keeps giving and cycling should be thankful that the sport has a star of such magnitude, but Kwiatkowski’s victory Saturday proved that even the king can be taken down. Kwiatkowski is a “giant killer” who keeps improving with age.

The Ardennes are waiting, and the way he’s riding now, Kwiatkowski could be a threat to sweep all three. He’s been close before. In 2014, he was fifth at Amstel Gold Race and third at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

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