Michael Kwiatkowski’s emergence as an exceptional young talent continued at the Strade Bianche when the 23-year-old Omega Pharma-Quickstep rider destroyed the formidable Peter Sagan (Cannondale) on the brutal final climb of the Strade Bianche to win the eighth edition of a race held in large part on Tuscany’s white gravel roads.
Kwiatkowski, winner last month of the Volta ao Algarve stage race, added a prestigious one-day victory to his palmares and may now represent the Belgian superteam’s strongest candidate for the hilly Ardennes Classics. Despite an impressive performance in last year’s Tour of Flanders, he is unlikely to supplant three-time champion, Tom Boonen, as OPQS leader for the Ronde.
The Polish rider broke clear in Tuscany with the heavily fancied Sagan with a little over 20km remaining, after the Cannondale leader initiated an attack from a leading group that contained the strongest riders in the race, including two-time winner, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing).
At the denouement in Siena, Sagan was the first to stake a claim for victory on the brutal ramp of the Via Santa Caterina, but Kwiatkowski responded with a vicious acceleration of his own, for which the Slovak sensation had no answer. “When I came around the final corner to the finish line in Piazza del Campo, it was absolutely beautiful,” Kwiatkowski said.
The Pole, now arguably the cream of a superb crop of young talent in the WorldTour, revealed that two vastly more accomplished team-mates had played their part in his victory, guiding him back to the peloton when a puncture appeared to have put paid to his chances.
“I was thinking I really need to be in the front,” Kwiatkowski said. “But Peta [Alessandro Petacchi] stopped with me, gave me his wheel, Mark [Cavendish] took me back to the front and I caught the front at 3km left in a 10km [gravel] section. It was a nervous moment because about half of the peloton was already dropped and with a strong crosswind it was really dangerous. I could lose the race there. But I made it back thanks to my teammates.”
With 25km remaining, it was another OPQS rider, Matteo Trentin, racing on local roads, who was the first of the Belgian super team to try his luck, but he was hauled back by breakaway companions that included Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Team Sky’s Ian Stannard, winner last week of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. ‘Yogi’ appeared to be labouring, however, whenever the road in Tuscany went upwards, while Evans looked comfortable. In the pursuing group, Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), tried to bridge, but was quickly chased down by Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Sagan.
Just one kilometre later, as the leaders were caught by the pursuing group, Sagan detonated the race with an audacious attack from the rear of the newly-united bunch, and only Kwiatkowski had the legs to go with him. Two-time winner, Fabian Cancellara (Trek), positioned at the front, could only watch as Sagan flew past and Kwiatkowski joined him. Spartacus could scarcely have hoped for a better position from which to respond, but was unable to do so.
A brief conversation, conducted in perilous proximity to the chasing group, in which Sagan and Kwiatkowski agreed to work together, saw the pair take an equal share of the work and pull out huge handfuls of time on the elite chasing pack; a trend that would continue almost to the finish, where they finally focussed their attentions on each other. Both took a final look over the shoulder with 1.3km remaining and the Via Santa Caterina in sight. With just 40 seconds on a pursuing group reduced to Cancellara, Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Merida), Kreuziger, and Valverde, they would not have time for cat-and-mouse antics.
Sagan led beneath the flamme rouge, and in a far from expected turn of events, the Slovak, the superior sprinter, launched his attack on almost the toughest section of the Via Santa Caterina, where gradients reach 16 per cent. Kwiatkowski, perfectly placed on Sagan’s rear wheel, needed no second invitation, responding almost instantly with an unmatchable acceleration that perhaps lasted no more than five seconds. Finding himself almost immediately at the top of the climb, the Pole returned to the saddle and expertly negotiated his way through a series of tight corners to the finishing straight.
“I know Sagan has much more experience on a final like that in the big races,” Kwiatkowski said. “I was watching even the chainring he was using to make sure I didn’t make any stupid mistakes. I was actually surprised speeding up on the last climb, he didn’t wait until the sprint. He started slowing down a little bit and I saw that he was really suffering. So I went full gas until the end and that’s how it was won.”
A disconsolate Sagan finished second, while Valverde, the most aggressive of the four pursuers, finished third. Cunego swept past Kreuziger in sight of the line to claim fourth. Cancellara, perhaps saving his best form for the impending cobbled Classics was sixth, while Evans gave every indication of an impressive build up to the Giro d’Italia with a creditable seventh after providing a strong presence in an early breakaway.
Kwiatkowski’s triumph, hard on the heels of his overall victory in the five-stage Volta ao Algarve, showed the Polish road race champion to be a true all-rounder. He will be a marked man for the remainder of the season, but it is doubtful whether many will have the power to stop him should he attack in the impressive style shown in Tuscany.
Strade Bianche 2014 – result
1) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep – 5.20.33
2) Peter Sagan (SLO) – Cannondale Pro Cycling +19″
3) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +36″
4) Damiano Cunego (ITA) – Lampre-Merida +40″
5) Roman Kreuziger (CZE) – Tinkoff-Saxo – ST
6) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – Trek Factory Racing – 59″
7) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing – 1.44
8) Warren Barguil (FRA) – Giant-Shimano – 2.02
9) Wout Poels (NED) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +2.11
10) Simon Geschke (GER) – Giant-Shimano +2.51