Michał Kwiatkowski drops the last of a four man group on the final climb of the Mirador above Ponferrada. He’d slipped the bunch on the descent with risky move, both for his safety on wet roads but tactically as there were four riders to get in his way up ahead. He seemed to take a breather before accelerating again and now solo he was never caught again. This was the moment the race was won.
Four riders went up the road, surprisingly few given the bunch was going to huddle in the rain, a rare chance for some to get on TV as they weren’t going to feature otherwise. It meant little to watch and you suspected a significant share of the audience for the first four hours comprised immobile hospital patients with limbs in traction, the remote just out of reach. The action was confined to crashes, with Vincenzo Nibali The Shark in dire straits after a fall plus the Norwegian team car hit a tree badly injuring the occupants and a spectator.
Little happened in the race for a long time. The Polish conformed to the stereotype of Europe’s hard workers by toiling on the front of the bunch for lap after lap. It wasn’t a fierce pace but it was visible presence. While they took up the tempo everyone else sat tight.
With four laps to go Fabio Aru upped the tempo on the Confederación climb and it had the effect of poking a hornet’s nest. Suddenly the bunch buzzed as if the race started after 10 neutralised laps. Seemingly because there’s nothing neutral about 10 laps in the rain. Aru was joined by Peter Kennaugh and a whole drawer full of what the French call “second knives” or secondary lieutenants and captains. Australia missed the move and chased. Tony Martin then went solo but it was too early for him to strike out alone so who was he working for, his German team mates or OPQS colleagues? Kwiatkowsi was sat tight, often with a bodyguard like Michał Gołaś.
Three laps to go and about 90 riders were left in the mix and a lap later only a few more had been ejected as the pace started to rise, jumping above 41km/h a lap for the first time. Giovanni Visconti struck out alone with Peter Kennaugh in pursuit and it seemed like the Italian and British had a plan. The same for the Swiss with Michael Albasini covering plenty of moves and making up for the Swiss team’s minimal presence.
With a lap left a move containing Alessandro de Marchi, Cyril Gautier and Michael Valgren was joined by Vasil Kiryienka. De Marchi was getting angry with Gautier for not working but Valgren was good, aged 22 he’s won the Tour of Denmark this year but having the strength to power a break after 240km is equally impressive. The quarted led by 40 seconds at the bell. If they weren’t a threat they were a problem. Why? Because anyone behind trying to surge clear of the bunch would have to ride across to the breakaway only to find four flagging riders sitting on their wheel like wet baggage. Spain took up the chase, for them the foot of the final climb was the finish line, they had to launch Valverde clear of the sprinters over the Mirador climb.
The last time up the Confederación climb saw no moves but the tension was obvious, as if one rider standing on the pedals was enough to make ten more do the same in case he was going to jump.
Then came the descent and with 7km to go, a sneak attack by Kwiatkowski. This wasn’t an all out, guns blazing “look at me” move. He accelerated off the front and, tucked low, quickly took a few seconds as he threaded through the bends. Over the dam and the Pole was halfway between the bunch and the De Marchi-powered quartet. He quickly got across to them and seemed to sit on the back rather than blast past. A breather? It seemed so as he went to work, powering up the climb with Valgren the last to pop.
Over the top and Kwiatkowski led by less than 10 seconds but behind the chasing group was a perfect cocktail of tired legs, rivalry and marking. Philippe Gilbert had put in trademark move over the final climb but this was marked and on the descent he was working for Greg Van Avermaet while Alejandro Valverde was accompanied by compatriot and arch rival Joaquim Rodriguez. The Belgian and Spanish tandem also had Tony Gallopin and Simon Gerrans with them, two riders you don’t take to the line for free. These chasers made few calculations but a couple of hesitant pulls was all that was needed as Kwiatkowski descended just as you’d expect from someone with ski in their name, nor did he wilt on the run in into Ponferrada. The chasers started their sprint knowing silver was the best they could get. Kwiatkowsi had time to sit up, kiss the eagle on his jersey and take a proud win.
A thrilling finale after a long race that required endurance from riders and spectators alike. Michał Kwiatkowski went when others were waiting and took a deserved win to finish a hard day’s team work. Sometimes the title of champion can be accidental, the winner of a late season race is labelled the world’s best but Kwiatkowski is surely the moral winner today as there’s no little doubting the manner of his win nor that he’ll be a good world champion in 2015 both as a champion on the bike and an ambassador off it. Some will have to spell his name right – with the ł – but there’s an easy way to avoid mispronouncing his name. Just call him “The World Champion”.
2014 has been a great year for him with a very strong spring but he returned to racing at the Dauphiné and was burned out and it’s taken the rest of the season to get things together. A strong Tour of Britain and then an altitude training camp in Italy helped shape the win. It ends a big year for Polish cycling following Rafał Majka’s Tour success and it’s Poland’s first pro World Championship win on the road after amateur titles for Joachim Halupczok in 1989 and Lech Piasecki in 1985 when the Iron Curtain prevented them from racing with the pros.
The way the race all came down to the final climb lent it an air of Milan-Sanremo, if the climbing wasn’t hard the distance did the selection. We saw the shorter races often end in sprints but the 250km did what was required. Instead of Sanremo the final podium was a replica of the 2014 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Alejandro Valverde gets his sixth world championship medal but still no gold, a record to outdo Raymond Poulidor. Simon Gerrans perhaps paid the price of his status and was unable to pounce at the end. But both should be satisfied with the result given the long list of names close behind. Their break made it while the bunch sprint won by Alexander Kristoff ahead of John Degenkolb and Nacer Bouhanni suggested another medal combination.
1 Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland) 6:29:07
2 Simon Gerrans (Australia) 0:00:01
3 Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spain)
4 Matti Breschel (Denmark)
5 Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium)
6 Tony Gallopin (France)
7 Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) 6:29:11
8 Alexander Kristoff (Norway) 6:29:14
9 John Degenkolb (Germany)
10 Nacer Bouhanni (France)