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Kwiatkowski achieving his dreams en route to the top of cycling

Omega Pharma's breakthrough Polish rider has started 2014 where last year left off, and appears on the verge of notching a major win

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Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has blasted out of the start gate in 2014, raising the bar another level from his impressive 2013 campaign.

The 23-year-old Pole won two stages and the overall at the Volta ao Algarve last week, setting the tone for what he hopes will be an even better season than last year.

“Last year was full of so many big surprises. I never dreamed I could finish 11th in my first Tour de France,” he told VeloNews. “Now I am even more confident, so let’s see how far I can go.”

The sky’s the limit for the Polish national champion. Last year, he punched into the elite ranks across the calendar, riding to near-podium performances at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Ardennes classics, following that up with an ever-steady debut in the Tour.

For 2014, it’s all about building on that momentum.

“I’ve worked hard over the winter. This year, I want to be even better than last year,” he continued. “I am still learning, but I also want to perform well. I just love racing my bike. I don’t care if it’s sprints, echelons, time trials — I just want to race.”

At his season debut, Kwiatkowski proved he was picking up where he left off last year, winning a race at the Mallorca Challenge before dominating Algarve, where he beat world champion teammate Tony Martin in the time trial and defended well against an attacking Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) to hold onto the leader’s jersey in the decisive mountain stage.

Up next are some quality races where Kwiatkowski hopes to keep the ball rolling, with Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico in March, and the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) lined up before a return to the Ardennes in mid-April. After that, it’s a short break before racing either the Critérium du Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse before the Tour.

“This year I would like to win something big,” he said. “Last year, I proved to myself I can do it. Now I know I can be there. I will try to win.”

Steady march to the top for Omega Pharma’s breakout rider

Kwiatkowski grew up in a small village of about 1,000 people where, he said, riding bike was just about the only thing a young kid could do.

“There was nothing to do at all. My brother was riding his bike, so I started to follow him. From the first days on the bike, I started to feel great,” he said. “My parents were farmers, but now my father works in a factory. The bike was always special for me.”

Kwiatkowski started to race in regional junior and under-23 races, where he soon locked horns with the likes of John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).

“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.”

A junior European road champion in 2008, Kwiatkowski turned pro two years later, at 19, with Spanish team Caja Rural. He rode with RadioShack the following season, giving him two years to learn the ropes without a lot of pressure.

By 2012, he joined Omega Pharma, and things started to fall in place. Kwiatkowski made his grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia that year, making it all the way to Milan, where he quietly finished 11th in the final time trial. He was second at the Tour de Pologne, and won his first pro race, taking the prologue at Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen (Three Days of West Flanders).

“That 2012 Polish tour was when I really found my wings. That result was what I needed to find my wings,” he said. “It was during that race that I could see I could compete at a high level in this game.”

That steady progression set him up for his breakout 2013 season, when he bumped shoulders will the best all season. Though he didn’t win, he was close, with two third places in his Tour debut, en route to 11th overall, along with second at the Volta ao Algarve, fourth at Tirreno-Adriatico, and fourth at Amstel Gold Race, and fifth at Flèche Wallonne.

“I was very satisfied with how my season went last year,” he said. “I was very confident going into the season. I was consistent at my major goals, so that’s something to build on.”

This is year is about hitting the repeat button, with return trips to Tirreno, the Ardennes, and the Tour. He’ll likely skip the northern classics, where he rode in a long breakaway at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) in 2013, but there’s nothing but open pavement looking forward.

Kwiatkowski a danger in all terrain

Omega Pharma is not letting Kwiatkowski go, and the team recently extended his contract through 2015.

“Michal has big potential in many types of races,” said Omega Pharma sport and development manager Rolf Aldag. “He is still young and developing. We don’t have to push him too much; he is already very ambitious. That’s good to see in a young rider. He wants to work, and he wants to race.”

Kwiatkowski is an all-rounder in every sense of the word. He can time trial, climb, ride classics, and even sprint. He popped for two top-five results in sprint stages in last year’s Tour, and then rode into the top 10 in both time trials.

“I am still trying to find my limits. I know I can do pretty well in GC. I still don’t have a lot of experience in the biggest races. This year I will have more support from the team,” he said. “At some point in my career, I will have to decide on what I want to do. That’s my good point: I am not such a bad rider in everything.”

At Omega Pharma, a team already replete with big names, Kwiatkowski, Velo’s Most Improved Rider of the Year for 2013, knows he will have to earn results to find his place. He said doesn’t see the arrival of Rigoberto Urán, who is slated to lead the team at the Giro, as a conflict. In fact, he views the Colombian’s arrival as a plus.

“I have the best teachers on this team: Boonen for the classics, Cavendish for the sprints, and Martin for the time trials,” he said. “Urán is an experienced rider in the big races. So I can learn from him, too.”

Kwiatkowski is part of a new wave of Polish riders making headway in the peloton. The sport has steadily grown there over the past two decades, and the inclusion of the Tour of Poland in the UCI WorldTour only helps. Zenon Jaskula, who rode to third in the 1993 Tour de France, remains the only Polish rider to reach the Tour podium, but the likes of Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Kwiatkowski seem intent on rewriting the history books.

“I remember the 2005 world championships. I was there as a junior, and [Tom] Boonen was world champion,” he said. “He was my idol, now we are teammates. The dreams from that time have come true.”