The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
For one, victory was met with an overwhelming surge of relief; for the other, a pervading sense of disbelief.
At polarised ends of their careers, Bradley Wiggins and Michal Kwiatkowski are both worthy world champions in their respective disciplines – although we’ll see the rainbow stripes of the Polish youngster much more than those of the famously cantankerous Brit next season.
Wiggins’ win in the elite men’s time trial last Wednesday ended the three-year rainbow rein of Kwiatkowski’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step team-mate Tony Martin, the German powerhouse coming home for the silver medal 26 seconds in arrears (that’s almost half a second for each of the 58 teeth on his infeasibly large chain ring).
With the time trial route in Ponferrada featuring a testing climb after a flat opening 30km, Wiggins knew that if he played to his strengths he stood a good opportunity of seizing the gold medal from the wide neck of Der Panzerwagen.
“I realised that if I was ever going to beat Tony again it was gong to be on a course like this,” Wiggins said after regaining his composure in the finish zone.
Since Martin took the world ITT title for the first time in 2011 we’ve seen him take time trial scalps while decked out in a rainbow skin suit in two Tours de France and a Vuelta, as well as in the Volta ao Algarve, Tour de Romandie, Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de Suisse (to name but a cluster).
Next year, there’ll be a notable absence of coloured stripes from the season’s main time trials. While Wiggins’ role at Sky remains very much up in the air, it’s safe to assume that he won’t ride any more Grand Tours, perhaps not even another stage race – bar, perhaps, a final sentimental stab at the Tour of Britain.
There was, indeed, a sense of finality about Wiggins’ win – the same sense of finality that we can now (in retrospect) align to his Tour victory in 2012.
“My last world time trial championships and I’ve finished with a gold medal,” he said. “To add this world title to the British title and the Olympic title… now I have got the set.”
Pressed on his next target, Wiggins then confirmed that it would probably be a pop at breaking the new Hour Record recently set by German veteran Jens Voigt – something for which the British 34-year-old would not be able to do (officially) while wearing the rainbow stripes.
In fact, we now face the rare scenario of a rider perhaps not once racing in the rainbow jersey during his tenure as world champion.
Oddly enough, this is the kind of record that would probably fill Wiggins with some kind of warped sense of pride – a kind of ‘been there, done that, two fingers to it all’ sentiment that would be utterly inconceivable when it comes to Kwiatkowski.
A decade Wiggins’ junior, Kwiatkowski was a mainstay pretty much throughout the 2013 season – stage racing in the Algarve, Tirreno-Adriatico, Basque Country, Romandie, the Criterium and in Britain, as well as the Tour de France (for which Wiggins was – cruelly, according to many – omitted in July). The Pole also had an impressive classics campaign with victory in Strade Bianche, podiums in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Fleche Wallonne, and a top five in Amstel Gold.
An attacking force able to win on all kinds of terrain, Kwiatkowski – injury permitting – should not only race more than both Wiggins and his predecessors but also register more success in the rainbow stripes than the likes of Rui Costa and Philippe Gilbert.
I actually missed the men’s elite road race because I was cycling in Italy myself. When I watched the rerun of the closing 10km (fittingly on a Polish feed with some lively commentary the gist of which was easy to fathom despite an absence of basic Polish linguistics on my CV) I was struck with how predictable Kwiatkowski’s win had seemed – primarily because how masterfully he dealt his killer blow.
Of course, this was clearly affected by my prior knowledge of his victory: those watching the race live will surely have expected him to be reeled in and for Simon Gerrans to take the win.
Poor Gerrans. Like Rodriguez last year – and Wiggins this year – you sense that this was the Australian’s one opportunity to strike gold: something Purito, unlike Wiggo, failed to do. The Australian was in solid form after back-to-back wins in Canada, he had the strongest team and the fastest legs of the chasing riders.
The only thing Gerrans didn’t have was a desire to help chase down Kwiatkowski – and that was his undoing.
Gerrans was not the only one. Such was the calibre of a chasing group featuring the likes of Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde, Tony Gallopin, Matti Breschel and Greg van Avermaet, it’s easy to see why Gerrans perhaps thought he could rely on his enviably ubiquitous talent of remaining invisible until the last moment – something he employed with great gusto in San Remo in 2012 and Liege this spring.
Unfortunately for Gerrans, only Gilbert seemed prepared to work in the chasing group – and a golden chance of taking the world title went begging by one slender second.
With next year’s course in Richmond, Virginia light on climbs and the following year all-but-destined to be a bunch sprint in pan-flat Qatar, Gerrans may never have another similar opportunity to top the podium in the world championships again.
But we shouldn’t take the focus off Kwiatkowski too much. Sure, his win perhaps came down as much to what he did as what others didn’t do – but regardless of how his opponents performed, he still needed to put in a winning performance himself.
Attacking on the descent of the Confederacion climb 8km from the finish, Kwiatkowski caught his rivals napping; he then shed the remnants of an earlier break on the final rise before putting in a Martin-esque pull to hold off the chasing pack.
Calling his victory lucky – or even predicated by the tactical bungle of others – is doing this exciting talent a gross disservice. You don’t beat Peter Sagan in Siena and fail to finish outside the top five in the Ardennes in one spring by merely relying on others falling flat.
Granted, Kwiatkowski’s tactics in the Tour de France often left a lot to be desired – but understanding the nuances of three-week Grand Tours is very different from one-day races.
It’s in this domain that the Pole could really excel as world champion: he’s capable of winning all of the major classics – and it just remains to be seen whether or not he rises to the challenge of being a marked man, or if he wears the stripes like a stigma in the same vein as most of his predecessors since Cadel Evans.
Kwiatkowski’s victory capped a superb season for Polish cycling – in a year that started with Colombia being everyone’s preferred nation of choice. With Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran on the top rungs of the Giro podium and Carlos Betancur winning Paris-Nice, it seemed that the new world was ready to step up and take over the reins from the old world in cycling’s hierarchy.
But Kwiatkowski’s solid performances in the spring, plus Rafal Majka’s sixth place in the Giro, sowed seeds that later flourished (an apt analogy: “Kwiatek” actually means “flower” in Polish).
Where Colombia’s season started to taper off amid under-performances and notable absences in the Tour, and collarbone cracks, bronchitis and tubby waistlines in the Vuelta, Polish cycling has gone from strength to strength.
Majka won the polka dot jersey and two key mountain stages in the Tour and followed that up with another double salvo and the yellow jersey on home soil in the Tour de Pologne; Przemyslaw Niemiec rode to victory in Lagos de Covadonga in the Vuelta; and now Kwiatkowski has added both the cherry and the icing to the cake.
While Wiggins’s victory was the culmination of a career’s worth of hard work, you get the sense that Kwiatkowski and his Polish pals are merely warming up.