On the 31st of March, a 23 year old Polish rider joined the break that jumped away on the Molemberg climb some 130 kilometers from the finish in Oudenaarde. It was, in fact, the same move that eventual podium finisher Jurgeon Roelants was briefly in, one that jumped away as the first break of the day was caught and helped define the second portion of the race before the final ascents of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterburg.
When Fabian Cancellara came thundering by on the penultimate climb, the leg-sapping and cobbled Kwaremont, the break could only glance at Peter Sagan, perched on Cancellara's wheel, with envy. All except for one man, the focus of our narrative, a young Michal Kwiatkowski. The Omega Pharma - Quickstep rider pushed his legs further than his companions, holding onto the Cancellara express until a mere 100 meters from the top of the climb. It was a display of stamina and raw power that was impressive enough to make commentators stop and take note, even though he finished 40th at the end of the day.
Several months later and over halfway through the Tour de France, Kwiatkowski is wearing the white jersey awarded to the leader of the young rider's competition. He leads Colombian climber Nairo Quintana by 34 seconds after reclaiming the jersey in Wednesday's time trial, where he finished fifth. He has finished in the top five of 4 other stages, including finishing second in the bunch sprint behind solo winner Jan Bakelants on Stage 2. Three of those came in bunch sprints, but he also defied gravity to finish 16th on the only summit finish of this year's race on Stage 7, only 3 minutes and 25 seconds behind a flying Chris Froome.
Who is this man who can finish so highly in the sprints and the mountains, to pound the cobbles and fly in the Ardennes?
Surprisingly, Kwiatkowski turned pro with the Spanish continental ranked team Caja Rural, a squad notable mostly for its attempts to be in every breakaway in the Vuelta a España and other major stages races in the Iberian peninsula. The next year, he signed for RadioShack and raced extensively in the low countries. He took third overall in both the Three Days of De Panne and Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, shorter stage races in Belgium characterized by fierce crosswinds and short, punchy climbs. Though the time trial often decides the winner in these races - or more specifically, selects the winner from a select group who survive the races of attrition on every other stage - one must be tactically savy and astute to even survive the selection each day, much less place well in the overall.
Performances in Belgium rarely go unnoticed and Omega Pharma - Quickstep quickly moved to sign Kwiatkowski for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. In his first year on the Belgian powerhouse team, he won the prologue of Driedaagse van West Vlaanderen and finished 8th in the Eneco Tour after surviving hills, cobbles, and winds. But for the young Pole, neither of these would mean as much as finishing second in his homeland's Tour of Poland behind Moreno Moser. He led the race for two stages and his loss was due entirely to time bonuses after finishing immediately behind Moser on several occasions.
Those who noticed him thought Kwiatkowski was destined for the classics, thriving in tough conditions and possessing a powerful sprint at the end of selection inducing racing. But, surprisingly, he thrived most in the longer, smoother hills this season. Following his strong ride at Flanders, Kwiatkowski finished fourth at Amstel Gold, surviving the more than 30 steep climbs on the route and leading home the bunch sprint that caught late escapees Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde on the line. Days later he finished an even more impressive fifth in La Flèche Wallone atop the murderously steep Mur de Huy, demonstrating that his placings were the result of strength rather than mere luck and savvy positioning. Later in the season, he won the road race in his national championships and finished second in the time trial, further proving his one-day abilities.
Stage races, too, welcomed the versitle talent. In February, Michal placed second in the time trial of the Volta ao Algarve and tenth on the stage running over several notable climbs, a performance good enough to secure second overall. Against stiffer competition in March, he won the young rider's competition and finished fourth overall in a rain-soaked Tirreno - Adriatico. Again, his placing was the result of a strong time trial, which should come as little surprise for a former junior world champion in the discipline. But, impressively, he also out-paced Alberto Contador and Rigoberto Uran Uran among others to take fourth place on the queen stage's summit finish on Prati di Tivo.
With talents so diverse, it is hard to tell which development path offers the best prospects for Kwiatkowski. He has expressed a desire to become a stronger stage racer and even contend for the overall in grand tours in the years to come. At only 23 years, there is much time to mature and develop his nascent climbing ability into something more. But with a sprint so powerful, it would be foolish to bet against him winning one of the Ardennes classics soon, perhaps even Liége - Bastogne - Liége.
The question of whether Kwiatkowski can remain durable over the course of three weeks remains, for the Tour is four or five notches above the Volta al Algarve in terms of difficulty. Some riders can handle two or three days of climbing and time trials, but the fourth and fifth are too much to ask, sending them plummeting down the overall standings in the final week of a grand Tour. There may be hope for the young Pole, though. Last year, he rode the Giro d'Italia, the first grand tour of his career. Though he finished well back in the overall, he did finish a strong 12th in the final time trial stage in Rome, indicating his capabilities for recovery and durability may already be here. If so, we could have a very intriguing battle for the white jersey on our hands. Even if he loses out to Quintana, a top ten in Paris might just be doable.