Nothing ventured, nothing gained: Michal Kwiatkowski gambles and wins
PONFERRADA, Spain (VN) — Michal Kwiatkowski dared to attack while the others waited, making a risky bet that paid off in a rainbow jersey, Poland’s first in the elite men’s road race.
The 24-year-old attacked over the top of the penultimate climb on the final lap of the 14-lap, 254km race Sunday, bridging out to an attacking foursome, then riding alone across the line ahead of a superstar chase group, celebrating his audacious victory and leaving his rivals to wonder what they had done wrong.
Without question, it was an attacking victory worthy of a world champion.
“I felt so much pain on the last descent. I cannot describe what I felt,” Kwiatkowski said. “I saw the guys coming to me. I had a little bit of an advantage. It was all or nothing. I risked it all. I just didn’t know how I made it. It was a really risky attack.”
Kwiatkowski’s panache overturned the carts of the five-star favorites, leaving heavily favored Australia and Spain to settle for silver and bronze, respectively, with Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde coming home second and third at one second back.
“We didn’t make any errors. We made a good race. Kwiatkowski rode a fantastic race,” Valverde said. “We made the last part of the race very hard. [Joaquim Rodriguez] attacked, and I countered, with the idea to get into a select group. That worked perfectly, we just couldn’t reach Kwiatkowski.”
Poland took the race by the scruff of the neck, putting four pairs of legs on the front of the race early on, setting tempo in the opening 10 laps to control the day’s main breakaway of four non-threatening riders.
Italy opened up the action with four laps to go, with Fabio Aru attacking to commence the “real” race for the rainbow jerse, which quickly put the main pack on notice.
A breakaway of 12 riders, fueled by the motor of three-time world time trial champion Tony Martin (Germany), was reeled in with less than two laps to go. Another four-man group pulled clear going into the bell lap, with Alessandro De Marchi (Italy), Cyril Gautier (France), Michael Andersen (Denmark), and Vasil Kiryienka (Belorussia) opening a promising gap of 45 seconds.
Spain, Australia, and Belgium came to life, sending its riders to cover a string of attacks that set up the decisive moves in the closing 10km.
Kwiatkowski did his homework. After watching the U23 men’s race, he realized a solo breakaway over the final climb with less than 5km to go could deliver the rainbow jersey.
Kwiatkowski confirmed his descending credentials in dramatic flair when he attacked down the twisting, rain-slickened roads toward the narrow dam road to latch onto the De Marchi group. After a short breather, he rode straight through the group on the final climb, dubbed Mirador, holding a promising eight-second lead over the summit.
Realizing the attacks were coming from behind, Kwiatkowski kept churning the pedals. When he hit the red kite nursing a four-second lead, the race behind him became one for the podium. The rainbow jersey was his.
“I knew that a little bit of advantage on the top of the climb would be difficult to close down. After watching the U23 race, I knew that it would be possible to win alone,” he said. “I am not the best sprinter, and I knew sprinting out of a group against riders like Simon and Alejandro, it would be difficult. I risked a little bit, and in the end, it worked, and it’s just incredible.”
Breathing down his neck was a superstar chase group of five-star favorites. Joining Gerrans and Valverde were perennial podium challenger Matti Breschel (Denmark), Tony Gallopin (France), and 2012 world champion Philippe Gilbert, who buried himself to try to chase down Kwiatkowski to set up Belgian teammate Greg Van Avermaet.
Spain played a solid tactic by sending Rodríguez in a searing attack up the final climb that fractured the pack. Valverde countered in his wake, drawing out the attentive Gerrans and the others.
Left in their wake was another elite chase group featuring such heavyweights as Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), John Degenkolb (Germany), Nacer Bouhanni (France), and Alexander Kristoff (Norway), who eventually led the bunch across at seven seconds back.
Kwiatkowski had time to look back before celebrating his historic victory, barely a second ahead of the sprinting Gerrans.
“I can’t say I am completely satisfied, because the legs felt good, and I think I could have won today. We rode a perfect race, except that Kwiatkowski got away with his attack,” said a disappointed Gerrans. “He rode not only a perfectly tactical race, but he was strong enough to back it up. He is a very worthy winner today.”
Valverde took his sixth career worlds medal with bronze, and helped save the day for the Spanish team, which started under heavy pressure, racing the worlds on home roads.
“Once we were together in the chase group, we all worked together well. We understand the situation well,” Valverde said. “The only who didn’t work was Van Avermaet, because they had two Belgians. Kwiatkowski had a good gap, but it wasn’t possible to bring it back. Finally, we were looking at the silver and bronze.”
Kwiatkowski, meanwhile, was putting on the rainbow jersey, confirmation of his arrival as one of the top young talents in the peloton.