It’s an unusual nickname for a professional cyclist but perhaps Michal Kwiatkowski’s friends knew what a rider the man they dubbed The Flowerman would blossom into. Yesterday the Polish national champion took on Peter Sagan at his own game and won after a move so ruthlessly swift that it killed off his breakaway companion instantly.
That the Strade Bianche has only been run since 2007 seems incongruous for its epic roads, the beautiful backdrop and that fantastic final kilometer or so, that sees the participants twisting and turning over the ancient streets that lead to the Piazza Del Campo, have ‘classic’ written all over it.
It may be the slightly brash gatecrasher to the Classics party but none could argue that everything about it makes it worthy of invitation, and though Kwiatkowski takes home a scalp that hasn’t got the established nobility of Flanders say or Liege, there is little doubt that this victory feels like a Classic win and will do his state of mind and confidence no end of good.
Not, however, that he really needs it. If Sagan is a heavyweight Kwiatkowski weighs in as a lightweight, but it was his single killer punch that saw the Slovakian hit the deck.
And yet it could be argued that it was Sagan that effectively won the race for the Pole because when Sagan made that powerful attack with some 22kms to go he was begging anyone strong enough to go with him. Only one man could, and it was only one of two men (the other being Alejandro Valverde) that could beat Sagan.
He must have looked back and uttered an expletive or two, for this was not the man he’d have wanted to force out of the pack, not with the steep section of road just before the finish being the place where the race was always going to be decided.
But would Kwiatkowski have made the move alone if Sagan hadn’t? What if instead he’d have waited to attack a larger group, closer to the finish, that would have contained the 3rd placed Valverde? We’ll never know, but we do know that is was Sagan’s aggressiveness that took the OmegaPharma-Quickstep rider to the line.
What about Sagan? He’s almost grotesquely talented and is only 24, but he is making quite a habit of racking up 2nd places in races like this. He was 2nd at Gent-Wevelgem in 2012, and in 2013 followed this with 2nd at Strade, Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders.
Imagine what we’d be writing about him if he’d have pulled off the win at those races. Perhaps he pulls too hard in the break, or perhaps, given his deep reserves of energy and an innate knowledge of just how good he is, he attacks too early. It may be spectacular to watch (and didn’t yesterday’s attack look a little like Cavendish on the Champs against Hushovd a few years back), but he could learn a lesson perhaps from Valverde.
No, not in how to deny in the face of overwhelming evidence all charges of doping, but in remembering these words of the Spaniard:
‘When you are not feeling good, take a chance. But when you are good, do nothing until the end.’
Might his exciting style of riding be depriving him of wins? Sure, it’s very much part of the reason that he’s been so successful and is admired by so many, but there is a time and a place for conservatism.
Kwiatkowski was not on anyone’s list of men to watch before the race but he’s shaping up to be one hell of a rider. He’s built like a muscled climber but he can also time trial, winning the time trials in the 2012 Driedaagse van West Vlaandren and in this year’s Volta ao Algarve, a race he also took the overall in.
Dropping a certain Alberto Contador in the mountains of Algarve
Add to that a 2nd at the Tour de Pologne in 2012, Best Young Rider at the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico, 4th in the same year’s Amstel Gold and 5th at La Fleche Wallone and you can see that there’s no arguing with the fact that this kid can ride.
A future Grand Tour contender? Sure, why not, after his 11th on the GC at last year’s Tour he now has the confidence that he can break the top ten, maybe the top 5, and then who knows? That he has that climbing and TT ability, and a proven one-day pedigree, means he has a shot.
Time trialling his way to victory in Algarve
One rider who is still some way off his top form – troubling for fans who are wanting to see both himself and Tom Boonen smash ten bells out of one another at Flanders and Roubaix – is Fabian Cancellara. He looks tired, as though his early season preparations have not quite gone to plan. I don’t want to do it and my words may well come back to haunt me but I see an uninspiring Classics campaign coming from the Big Swiss. Boonen just has to maintain form, whereas Cancellara has to chase it.
I know which position I’d rather be in.
However, graceful as ever, Cancellara had kind words at the end for the man who won the day. “Kwiatkowski was playing with us,” he said. “When I saw him get back, I knew who’d win. Riders know when another rider is on a great day, we can see it. He was pedalling really easy and his team was strong too. He was the only one to get across to Peter and then dropped him.”
“To make things worse, both me and Alejandro Valverde punctured and had to chase at one point. I spent a lot of energy to get back on. I don’t know if that cost me a chance of victory but I have to be satisfied. I got back on in the same place where Peter attacked but he made a clever move. That’s racing. The strongest rider won Strade Bianche. We all saw that.”
Speaking of Sagan, Kwiatkowski said that “I didn’t expect to drop him. I knew the final pretty well. As a team we were so good today, we had five riders in the front with 50km to go and we controlled the race. I can’t describe how I feel. Winning in Siena is an amazing feeling. I didn’t have any problems in the winter and was focused on my work. I started late compared to last year but I’m really happy with my condition.”
Life seems pretty good for the Flowerman right about now.
I personally feel that the attendant pressures of having to stay close to top shape for so long now in this modern era, with races kicking off in February as opposed to mid March as traditionally was the case, often deprives riders of the rest they need. Some fare better than others of course, and I’m sure the guys that check their watts probably don’t see much of a dip, but it is the mental department, where it is more difficult to monitor fluctuations, that can also suffer from too much concentration and not enough relaxation.
In any case, starting late certainly worked for Michal Kwiatkowski. The Flowerman came up smelling of roses.