Time to leave 2016 behind: An interview with Team Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski

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Although the team presentation for the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana begins in 20 minutes, Michal Kwiatkowski is relaxed. It’s only January, and the Polish rider for Team Sky has had what he describes as “a great, calm winter, with no problems at all.” A couple of training camps in Majorca with Team Sky, and another block of preparation in southern France with Chris Froome and teammates, have got him in decent shape.

The resurrection of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana was among the best news of the 2016 cycling season — a race with quite a bit of heritage, celebrated in the heartland of Spanish cycling, well organised, with an interesting course, and a solid field that was enhanced by the late, sudden cancellation of the Tour of Qatar.

Kwiatkowski was set to begin his season in Mallorca, but saw his schedule switched to Comunitat Valenciana due to the race’s 38km team time trial. He rode well, helping Sky land in the runner-up spot, 21 seconds behind BMC Racing Team.

Like Comunitat Valenciana, Kwiatkowski is hoping for a bit of a resurrection in 2017, following a 2016 season that saw him take just one victory, the E3 Harelbeke, in March.

After first cutting his teeth with the then-Continental outfit Caja Rural, getting to know the WorldTour with RadioShack and excelling with Etixx-QuickStep, Kwiatkowski joined Team Sky during the winter of 2015-2016. His maiden season with the British ‘Galácticos’ had its up and downs.

A promising victory at Harelbeke was subsequently dampened by a disappointing Ardennaise campaign and a series of DNFs, first at the Tour de Romandie and then the Critérium du Dauphiné. Laryngitis at the Dauphiné left him sidelined from Sky’s winning Tour de France squad. And even if he wore the red jersey in the Vuelta a España after Stage 2, he failed to stand out in the late part of the season. Laryngitis at the Dauphiné left him sidelined from Sky’s winning Tour de France squad. And even if he wore the red jersey in the Vuelta a España after Stage 2, he failed to stand out in the late part of the season.

Now, as he said in an exclusive interview with CyclingTips, it’s time for him to hit the road and leave 2016 behind.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) won the 2016 E3 Harelbeke ahead of world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff). Photo: Cor Vos.

2016: Sport is like this

CT: What do you take out of the 2016 season?
MK: It was an interesting year. New team, new motivation, new coach, new staff and riders around… Everything was new. I had an excellent beginning after a great winter pushing myself to the limit, and everything was going in the right direction. But, by the end of the year, we realised it was very difficult for me to approach the season that way. I had some ups, but also a lot of downs. It was hard to start the season in great fashion and keep on for the rest of the year. I suffered from several sicknesses, couldn’t finish a lot of races, and all in all it made for a difficult year. But, yeah, that’s sport. And, you know, I’ve learnt something from those mistakes and that’s why my approach for 2017 is a bit different. Of course, 2016 was the kind of season you don’t really enjoy, with so many bad periods. But, at the end of the day, I had a great support from the team to get through all this sicknesses and injuries. That was great. They trust me and showed it. I don’t want to say I want to forget about last season. I can take useful knowledge out of these mistakes and bad experiences.

CT: Did you spread yourself too thin during the season?
MK: No. I don’t think so. I didn’t reach my limits. I see myself as someone who can do everything and wanted to prove it. I wanted to impress in every race, in every training ride, in every domain. I wanted to be at my best and was confident that 2016 was going to be my best season ever. That was my motivation. But, at the end of the day, if you over-motivate and don’t stay calm, then shit will happen. If you push too much on training, diet and everything, then you are going to pay the price sooner or later. We are not robots. That’s what happened.

CT: Team Sky riders are usually the fittest of the peloton, but also tend to fall flat as the season goes on. Are the team’s methods too demanding?
MK: I don’t think so. It is our own mind that drives us beyond our limit. We just want to be better and forget that we are just humans. And, if you try to train like you’ve never done it before, then you will eventually pay the price. I think injuries and sicknesses happen in every team. There is always some bad luck around. I for one have had difficult moments in RadioShack and Quick-Step, too. [Last year] I just had a bad approach. But so far I’m happy that it happened, as I got such a great support from the team. All I can say is that sport is like this.

CT: And what about the highlights of last year?
MK: The victory at E3 and the team time trial on the Vuelta kept me motivated, as both prove that my talent is not gone and that last year I just did something wrong with my training and my health didn’t have the right balance.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), team presentation, 2015 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

2015: Learning from great champions

Before joining Sky, Kwiatkowski spent three seasons becoming one of the sport’s brightest stars at Etixx-Quick Step. During his spell at Patrick Lefevere’s team, the rider known as “Flower Power” delivered consistent, dazzling performances all over the calendar, from 11th at his debut Tour de France, to victory at Strade Bianche beating Peter Sagan and Alejandro Valverde, to a handful of podiums in World Tour stage races and classics and, above all, a rainbow jersey claimed in Ponferrada, Spain, in 2014.

Yet Kwiatkowski decided to leave the Belgian outfit at the end of 2015. Months of speculation and the subsequent departure led to some rather sour remarks by Patrick Lefevere about both Kwiatkowski — “not my Tour de France winner” — and his manager, Giuseppe Acquadro. “The importance of the agent is greater, sometimes, than I wish,” Lefevre said.

CT: What differences have you found between Etixx and Team Sky?
MK: Both teams are on a pretty similar level, but the biggest difference you perceive straight away is that Sky is the best team when it comes to stage racing, and Etixx was more focused in classics. Because of that, one has Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra and the other has Chris Froome. In other aspects, I’d say both teams work at a very high level and have an international approach. Overall, I’m happy I’ve been there, learning from great champions like Mark Cavendish and Tony Martin, and I’m happy to be here, learning from Froome, Geraint Thomas, or Vasil Kiryienka. I’m content I’ve had both experiences, and I’m trying to get the most out of this different environment.

CT: So you are glad you left Etixx?
MK: I think it was a good moment to close that chapter in order to encounter different experiences and different people. I always said I wanted to improve myself as a climber and stage-race specialist, and I think Team Sky is the best team in that domain. Moving to Sky was the best possible decision, even if my first season resulted badly. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, about training, about nutrition, about my behaviour, about how to manage myself through bad times. I hope to use this knowledge during my career.

CT: During the 2015 Tour de France you told the media you wanted to stay at Etixx.
MK: I actually never said that I wanted to leave the team, because that wasn’t the case. I wasn’t in a situation where I was asking around for a chance. But, when you have better offers and the opportunity of joining a better team, it is just hard to pass them by. I was fine at Etixx, but it’s normal that my agent spoke with other teams and tried to find me a better contract in a different team.

CT: Do you have a bittersweet taste in your mouth after all the controversy created by Patrick Lefevere regarding your decision to leave Etixx-Quick Step?
MK: Not really. I know Patrick very well and I think it’s just his way of being. When you are speaking with the media you might be angry, or you might be playing with the riders and their managers. It’s like that. I didn’t have that many opportunities to express myself in the media during that period. Patrick had more opportunities.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) won the 2014 world road championship in Ponferrada, Spain. Photo: VK/PN/Cor Vos.

2017: Skipping the cobbled classics

One of the fundamental reasons alluded by Lefevere to explain the departure of Kwiatkowski was his desire to become a stage racer. Lefevere advised his then employee not to pursue it and, according to the Belgian, that created a “disagreement” which upset the Polish rider. According to Kwiatkowski, this exchange did not occur. “Maybe it was Patrick’s idea,” he told Wieler Revue a year ago.

Either way, Kwiatkowski’s stage-racing ambitions were one of the hottest topics when discussing his decision of joining Team Sky. “We think he can definitely progress in stage racing, and we’re quite excited to have that opportunity to explore that with him,” Sky’s mastermind Dave Brailsford told Cyclingnews. The first year of this quest didn’t go well, as the Pole failed to finish the only Grand Tour he took part in, the Vuelta a España.

CT: Is your goal of developing your stage-race potential still ongoing?
MK: Yes, I want to improve on the climbs and to one day have a chance of fighting for the victory on stage races coming in is as a leader. If that’s with Team Sky, great. Lefevere said he didn’t believe I could win a Grand Tour. And maybe he is right. But I think it is worth to try. If I had never tried by the end of my career, I would regret it.

CT: In terms of Grand Tours, what are your goals for this season?
MK: I want to do the Tour de France, as I was intending to last year but was unable to due to illnesses and injuries. I would love to go there and help Froome defend his title.

CT: And what about the Classics?
MK: Amstel, Fléche, and Liège. Those are the goals. I’m skipping the cobbled classics this year. Instead of those, I’ll head to País Vasco. The rest of the season is yet to be planned.

These last answers were sharper as Kwiatkowski ran out of time, kindly addressing questions while walking towards Team Sky’s bus, where his teammates waited in order to take off to the team presentation. This conversation was just the prologue to a key season for the former world champion, who, at age 26, still has much to discover about himself.

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