Michael Kwiatkowski jumps away from a furious pursuit to first join, then drop a breakaway and ride alone to the rainbow jersey in Spain

PONFERRADA, Spain (VN) — Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) soloed to victory just one second ahead of a furious pursuit to win the elite men’s race on Sunday at the UCI World Road Championships in Ponferrada, Spain.

The 24-year-old Pole jumped away from a desperate chase of a four-man breakaway, then left the quartet behind to ride alone to the finish, just inches ahead of a late surge from several of the race favorites.

Simon Gerrans (Australia) was best of the rest in second with the home favorite Alejandro Valverde (Spain) taking his fourth third-place finish at a world championships.

“I saw some of the riders there were still calculating. And I won. That was incredible,” a breathless Kwiatkowski said. “Two days ago I was watching the U23 race and I knew it was possible to ride in a smaller group. especially with the rain which we had today, it was very risky. I made my effort on the climb.

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The Polish team’s strategy was a simple one: “We decided just to continue racing, to stay in the front,” said Kwiatkowski, the first Pole to win the elite men’s title. “I felt great from the start. What our guys did was just amazing.”

It was the Italians who were very busy in the final two laps of the 254.8km race. Giovanni Visconti (Italy) had a go, followed by Peter Kennaugh (Great Britain). Then Alessandro De Marchi went for Italy with 30km to go.

Finally, a break formed including Michael Valgren Anderson (Denmark), Cyril Gautier (France) and De Marchi, with Vasil Kiryienka (Belarus) in pursuit. The peloton was less than a minute back with 20km to race.

Kiryienka caught on going through the start-finish with one to go and it was a four-man break with perhaps 45 seconds’ advantage.

Kiryienka was on the front of the escape and Gautier at the back as the chase closed in on the Confederación climb, driven by the Spaniards. The Italians were holding their fire.

With 12km to go the break was clinging to a lead of less than 20 seconds, chased by a 60-man peloton.

The Italians finally took a hand, with an assist from Belgium, and the gap shrank to eight seconds as the escape dropped down toward the dam.

As the catch approached, the 24-year-old Kwiatkowski jumped out of the pursuit and crossed to the leaders. He immediately began pushing the pace, and then accelerated, leaving the others behind with 6km to race.

There was no reaction, either from the break or the bunch. Finally Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) attacked, followed by Gerrans, Valverde, Matti Breschel (Denmark), Tony Gallopin (France) and Rui Costa (Portugal).

But Kwiatkowski already had 18 seconds on the six-man chase.

Valverde and Gilbert were leading the hunt with a kilometer to go, but it was too little, too late. Valverde slipped to the back of the chase, intent on salvaging something from the day, as Kwiatkowski looked over his shoulder to gauge the pursuit.

The others opened a furious sprint to try to catch the Pole, but it wasn’t going to happen. He had plenty of time to sit up and enjoy the moment as he crossed the line for the rainbow jersey.

Brent Bookwalter was the top American in 25th in the front group, with Alex Howes crossing the line 30th at 14 seconds back.

Early breakaway

Rain and fog welcomed the elite men’s peloton for the start of the 2014 world championships. That put riders on edge ahead of the most important one-day race of the season. Attacks came early in the first lap before a group of four pulled clear: Carlos Quintero (Colombia), Matija Kvasina (Croatia), Zydrunas Savickas (Lithuania), and Oleksandr Polivoda (Ukraine). That quickly set up the day’s main early breakaway.

The gap quickly grew to the leading four, to more than 15 minutes four laps into the 14-lap race. Each lap featured two climbs. The first, dubbed La Confederación, was a big-ring grinder; the second, coming after a tricky descent to a narrow dam, called El Mirador, was shorter, but much steeper. From the top, it was a quick, technical descent back to Ponferrada, with less than 2km back to the start-finish area.

Rain made for treacherous conditions early in the race. None other than Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) and outsider Ramunas Navardauskas (Lithuania) both hit the deck in lap four. Nibali didn’t seem too badly hurt, and promptly regained contact with the lead group with some help of his Italian teammates.

Poland takes charge

Poland took control of the pacing early in the race. Riding for pre-race favorite Kwiatkowski, riders such as Michal Golas, Bartosz Huzarski, and Pryzemyslaw Niemiec set the tempo at the front of the main group. They would eventually abandon with four laps to go, their job finished for the day.

The gap hovered around 14 minutes, and road conditions improved dramatically as the sun poked out of the Spanish skies. Riders started to remove the leg warmers and jackets as temperatures rose going into the middle part of the race. With eight laps to go, the powerful Australian team moved up, with Rory Sutherland, Mathew Hayman, and Heinrich Haussler slotting in behind the Polish team.

The chase begins

After a few relatively routine laps, the inevitable surge of the peloton began to chip away at the leading gap. Weather conditions also deteriorated, with wind kicking up and light rain beginning to fall. With 90km to go, the difference was down to a manageable five minutes.

Poland continued to work at the front, but some of the favorites were nudging to the nose the peloton. The likes of Dan Martin (Ireland), Gerrans and Valverde were all visible at the front. The Italians took over the chase, with Daniele Bennati, Fabio Aru, Alessandro De Marchi, and the Damiano Caruso leading the way over the final climb of the lap, quickly trimming the gap to 2:12 with four laps to go. A few big names lost the wheel, including Tejay van Garderen (USA) and Rohan Dennis (Australia).

Changing gears

The Italian surge completely altered the race. With 67km to go, the race saw its first real acceleration from the main pack. Slinging clear were Aru and Visconti, Christopher Juul Jensen (Denmark), Michael Albasini (Switzerland), Kennaugh and Tim Wellens (Belgium). Behind them, the main pack completely blew up.  A chase group of about 15 riders also took up the chase, with Spain bridging out with Valverde, Nicholas Roche (Ireland), among several others.

Kennaugh attacked again, taking Visconti and Juul Jensen with him. The surges swept up the day’s breakaway, with Quintero hanging on briefly. Others bridged out, with Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Gianpaolo Caruso, Albasini, Wellens, Rein Taaramae (Estonia), and Simon Geschke and Tony Martin (Germany), Dani Navarro, Yury Trofimov (Russia), Sep Vanmarcke (Belgium). Behind, the main peloton regrouped, with Australia taking up the chase at 22 seconds.

Martin dropped the leading 12 on the descent of the Mirador climb. With three laps to go, Martin led the chasers by eight seconds, with Australia at the front of the chase group at 30 seconds, led by Hayman, Adam Hansen, and Sutherland leading the chase.

With three laps to go, Martin headed up the Confederacíon climb, nursing a 25-gap to the chase group. Sutherland led five Australians at the front of the main pack. The race settled into a cease-fire, and with 40km to go, Martin was reeled in at the top of the Mirador climb by the Kennaugh-Vanmarcke group. France took up the chase in the GC group, trimming the gap to 29 seconds with two laps to go.

More attacks

Visconti nudged clear with Kennaugh giving chase, but the French-led main pack neutralized the remainder of the Martin group on the Confederación climb. Behind them, more counter-attacks came out of the main group. Albasini and Aru once again bolted clear, but that was quickly smothered, and the pack came back together as the Spanish team surged to the front for the first time in the entire race.

De Marchi shot clear, with Gautier and Andersen marking his wheel. There were more surges, but each time they would be quickly marked and neutralized. The leading trio held a promising, 38-second lead, with Kiryienka trying to bridge across at the base of the Mirador climb.

With the bell lap, Kiryienka caught the leading three, and just behind them was the chase group, just ahead of the main pack, 44 seconds back.

But Kwiatkowski would outfox and overpower them all. In the end, he had enough of a gap to freewheel across the line and into the rainbow jersey.

Full race results.