Michał Kwiatkowski: "it's all about patience"

Note: This interview has been conducted three days AFTER TOUR DE FRANCE 2013 and published a little later.

He's been called a star in the making, the hope of Polish cycling. Some call him "Flowerman" - his name is impossible to pronounce for foreigners and as "kwiat" means "flower", a nicknamed has been coined. Michał Kwiatkowski, former junior world champion, Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider, enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2013, showing that he is one of the most versatile young rider in the peleton, in July 2013 proudly presenting Polish National champion jersey in France and taking 11th place in his Grand Boucle debut.

Three days after evening decoration ceremony in Paris, we meet in Toruń, big city situated 20 kilometers from his hometown - Chełmża. It's warm but there is something in the air that tells every city-dweller that the strom is coming. 10am, the waitress in the restaurant seems to be a little astonished - she has probably never seen a hungry cyclist and has no idea how much work OPQS's cook puts into preparing breakfast for Patrick Lefevere's boys. Big breakfast is a must - 4h training is on schedule in the afternoon and even an interview cannot change it.

Kwiatkowski looks relaxed, shows no sign of exhaustion after the hardest three weeks of his career. In fact, he doesn't look as a cyclist at all. Dark jeans, striped t-shirt, black jacket, Iphone - an ordinary young man. No showing off - at a car park he's looking for a space for his beloved old Seat Leon. Cycling is not as popular as football in Poland (before 2013 Google knows only a singer named Kwiatkowski, finding a cyclist takes time), so no one is paying attention to us sitting in the corner and only a dictaphone lying on the table may indicate that two young guys talking for couple of hours are not students or rookie businessmen.

The first thing you notice is shyness, interspersing with acceptance that there's still a lot to learn ahead. Technology geek, he knows what he's talking about as we move on to discussing training with power meter. He's not the most talkative cyclist in the peleton, speaks rather slowly but with reflection and you can see confidence hidden deep inside. The Tour is a main thread of course but we touch upon different issues.

How to pronounce the name: Michał Kwiatkowski.

fot. OPQS/Tim de Waele

photo credit: OPQS/Tim de Waele

It's been three days since Champs Elysees and your first Tour de France. I guess everyone is now asking you about the race and debutant's feelings...

Yes, certainly. I'm really satisfied, I never thought I can do so well. If somebody had told me that before the race, I wouldn't have believed him. I wasn't going for the GC, I just wanted to gain experience. I started the race really focused and vigilant. And of course motivated to perform well over three weeks. I admit, there were moments of crisis but I was never resigned, there was no giving up.

Three weeks among world's best riders... your performance was stable over this period of time, that's a good indication for the future, isn't it?

The preparations went really well and as a result I was in a great shape. Had it not been for the loads of work I did, the crisis would have been there, that's for sure. It was my second Grand Tour and it was completely different from 2012 Giro d'Italia, when I was not well-prepared and not sure about my condition. You remember, I didn't finish any of Ardennes classics, went to Italy for my Grand Tour debut. I suffered so much... it was a fight to survive. Also, I had some health problems in 2012 before Giro and that influenced my preparations. This year my calendar was perfectly-designed, no health issues and it's all going in the right direction.

Some people say you raced too much. Before the Tour you had 32 racing days but the calendar was giving you longer periods between races to focus on training. Is this the way?

Yeah, I think that's the key. I don't need that much racing days to be in good shape. Look at Criterium du Dauphine - I was in a resonably good form, then a month of training, national chmapionships and I was in perfect shape during the Tour. I think a lot of things have changed in recent years - people started training with power meter and thanks to that you can precisely see your progress and there's no need to do so many races.

So, you look at your power curve...

Right, power curve and training with power meter is enough to determine the state of preparations and specify how much work you have to do before reaching the given level.

We all remember times when, as a junior, you battled Peter Sagan in almost every race. In one of the interviews you said that it had taken you more time to get to highest level in elite category. Your transition from junior to U-23 was beset with difficulties, wasn't it?

Sometimes I even joke that I came back to the level I was on during junior years. It was a good period, I was really well prepared. And then, you know... school, final exams, first year in U-23 category. It was hard, I'm not going to lie. This is probably the most challenging moment in career - many riders decide to quit because they see no opportunities, there are many reasons.

For me it was hard - I was a junior world champion, everyone expected me to have the results. I moved to Italy. Riders were going faster and I didn't know what to do. I was all by myself, nobody was telling me how to train and develop. It was all about patience, patience that was given to me in RadioShack. And I could focus on what I like most - simply riding my bike.

Right. When did you start working with power meter?

I had one in RadioShack but I had no coach. Michał Gołaś was the one who helped me and gave me some guidelines at that time. When I signed with OPQS, I started working with our coach Koen Pelgrim and today my training is planned day by day. I don't do so many races, I've got time to recover and train.

You have signed a contract extension with OPQS. Is Patrick Lefevere building a team around you in any way?

Look, it's not like that. No one is going to say "we're riding for Kwiatkowski during Tour de France". Everything depends on my shape. Besides, I don't need additional pressure of having the whole team working for me. In fact, we work together well, I'm neither a leader nor a great cyclist, I need to work a lot and gain a lot of experience. So I keep calm and do my job, I've got two more years.

Seems you found yourself a place to develop as a profesional bike rider.

Spot on.

Rigoberto Uran signed with Omega for next year. What difference does it make for you?

The difference... well, I'll have an experienced climber on a team, so I can learn something from him. That's good because there are not many pure climbers in our outfit.

And what about Petacchi? A super lead out man for "Cav"?

I don't really know. There were voices that Cav's sprint train is not working well during the Giro but he won 5 stages. Same with the Tour. Remember, most of us have never done that before, so I don't think we made any major mistakes.

Your perspective may be slightly different but did you get the impression that Cavendish was a little slower than he used to be?

Slower? Well, he was the only one to do the whole Giro in rain and bad weather. Plus, he did a lot of races, was ill before the Tour - that must have influenced his performance.

Before the Tour you said you're going to see how it is and learn. During three weeks we enjoyed seeing you deal with all the obstacles pretty well.

I try to keep near the front, always watching what's going on. That's how I raced when I was a junior. I do everything to grasp the chances, whenever I can. So if I only can, I fight. If I can't... well, I try to. If at the begining of the race I had known that I'm going for the GC, I would have changed some things...

Like what?

Well, for example sprinting from the peleton. Tactically the race was well riden but there were moments where I could have saved some more energy.

Hold on a second, when exactly did you make a decision of going for the GC?

When? It was day-by-day. I was up in the GC, one day, two days, three days... I thought - "Pyrenees - ok, here we go, 1st stage." Next one - "oh, I'll probably be 20 minutes down." I wasn't, so I just kept going.

We talked about 9th stage earlier but I'd like to ask you about it again. It was quite impressive - five huge mountain passes, you were dropped on the first climb, chasing for the whole stage and then you caught Froome's group and finished the stage 3rd.

I lost the contact with the first group on the first climb. I ended up in the second group where Team Sky was setting the pace. I thought: "it's over", I wasn't feeling good, it was hard to pull myself together, I don't know why. I lost confidence but my teammates - Peter Velits and Matteo Trentin - stayed with me. We were in Porte's group, meaning, I was going my pace behind them and joined them near the summit of Peyresourde. The descent was kind of technical so we left Porte and went full gas. Trentin did all the work on the flat part leading to preultimate climb. I started feeling better and we were able to see Froome's group. It was still over a minute but that helped us. Velits was pacing me on the 4th climb and then I went on my own and caught them near the summit. Then I just kept my pace and managed to stay with Froome's group. On the final descent I was trying to push harder but Martin and Fuglsang were too far and we had a headwind.

For the final part of the race you entered the Alpes...

Alpes seemed a little easier. We all knew that riding in the same way as in Pyrenees could cost us a lot.

And Double Alpe d'Huez ascent?

Oh, I wasn't feeling good that day either. Velits helped me again, I was dropped 4km before the top but managed to get back on Sarenne. And I was dropped again and chased down on the descent.

Tony Martin was complaining about the lack of barriers and dangerous road on Sarrenne descent...

Tell you what, crashing there would be a darkest nightmare, death on spot. I rode this road during Dauphine, earlier this year so I had an idea how it looks like. We were lucky it wasn't raining!

I wanted to ask that for a long time. How is it? I mean, riding on the wheel of Sky's train in the mountains?

That's different style of racing. But it is not about doing a huge show and coming second. They go for the win, they have 9 riders, personally I think each one of them could be top20 TdF. I also think people often talk about doping basing their opinion only on what they see on the tv, having no knowledge on cycling performance.

Did you get the impression that Team Sky was not that strong as in 2012?

It was not looking good for them in Pyrenees - Kennaugh crashed, Froome was a little isolated, Movistar and Garmin-Sharp were putting them under pressure. But at the end of the day they managed to win the Tour - good job.

What was the biggest surprise for you during the Tour?

Fans from Poland. I mean it, I didn't expect to see so many of them.

After 2013 we know that you're good in every specialty. Is there a field you want to improve even more, apart from, of course, climbing?

Time-trialing. I will benefit from improving time trials and climbing in the future. It's just a matter of hard work, patience and being consequent. It is not as easy as sprinting...

One moment, do you train sprints?

Ehm, well, yes, sometimes. Meaning, no, not really. A couple times a year, just to stimulate the body.

Ok, back to time trials. During le Tour you placed twice in top10, both in flat and hilly time trial. How much do you think you can improve?

It's all about improvement. The thing is - once you get to a certain level, you are usually able to keep it to the end of the year. It was like that when I raced as a junior, you can see it with Tony Martin, for instance. There were ups and downs but the time trials were always good.

So, the decision is made, you want to focus on Grand Tours in the future?

It's not only about Grand Tours. Stage races. This is my goal. I made the decision in 2012 but I just wanted to taste the cobbles of Flandres and try my luck in other races. Next year my schedule will be better adjusted, to allow me to prepare to my goals.

photo credit: OPQS/Tim de Waele

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