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Michał Kwiatkowski and Team Sky’s Polish Mafia

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Michał, Michał and Łukasz: how three riders from one small city in Poland have risen to Team Sky and the top of professional cycling

Photographs: Russ Ellis

Toruń has just over 200,000 people living in it, making it Poland’s 16th biggest city. On a list of largest places by population in the USA it would sit 110th, having just a few thousand souls fewer than Des Moines, Iowa.

 

In the UK it would sit 40th, just behind Aberdeen but just ahead of Swindon.

 

Where are we going with this?

 

Three of those 200,000 are professional cyclists on one of the world’s best cycling teams. Two of them are called Michał and one of those happens to be Michał Kwiatkowski, former world champion, classics winner and one of the most gifted racers in the professional bunch. What are the chances?

 

“Maybe it looks pretty weird, no?” muses Michał Gołas, the eldest of the Toruń trio at 31-years-old. “You have one of the greatest teams in the pro peloton and you have three guys from the same country, from the same town, and they all train together.”

 

Kwiatkowski followed Gołas from the sports school in Toruń and up into the professional ranks while the third man, Łukasz Wiśniowski moved there having known Kwiatkowski for almost ten years at the Quickstep team; Kwiatkowski being in the WorldTour squad and Wiśniowski, a year younger, in the development squad.

 

“We are basically neighbours, the three of us,” Wiśniowski says. “We can train together, we can support each other, and the whole year is much easier.”

 

Add two Polish soigneurs on Team Sky – Marek Sawicki and Jacek Walczak – and you get a group that the rest of the team affectionately calls the ‘Polish Mafia.’

 

Despite the butch forearms and the weary faces of two men who spend their lives on the road rubbing legs – and the three featureless thousand-yard stares made by gazing at tarmac for hours on end – this lot look nothing like your typical gangland crooks.

 

But theirs is a pretty effective racket. A shared language, shared work ethic, shared background and shared interests – all three riders help out at Kwiatkowski’s Copernicus Academy supporting youth riders in Toruń – contributes to the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts, at least as far as Kwiatkowski is concerned.

Take a look down the former world champion’s palmarès. Amstel Gold Race, rainbow jersey, Strade Bianche, E3-Harelbeke: you name it, Gołas was his teammate at it.

 

“It doesn’t matter if I’m winning the race or having a bad day, he’s always there to support me, believe in me, calm me down if I’m over-excited,” Kwiatkowski says. “That’s what I need, he has massive experience. I think he’s one of the most experienced guys in the whole peloton. Having him just on my side, it’s amazing.

 

“It’s good to have someone who’s looking at you and always protecting you, not just inside cycling but on the outside too. Łukasz as well, we’ve got a good group of guys.”

 

“I’m a helper and I can give everything to any of my teammates, it doesn’t matter who they are. But when it’s your good friend you can just give something more. For friends you can always give something extra,” Gołas adds.

 

“It’s also that I try to motivate him for some races, and he motivates me during training because he’s always better and I’m trying to reach his level. It’s a relationship we have.”

Kwiatkowski now goes into a crunch season following a year blighted by recurring illness and injury that meant that, besides glimpses of brilliance early on in the season at Challenge Majorca and E3-Harelbeke, he never quite got out of second gear.

 

Foregoing the cobbled classics to put all his eggs in the Ardennes basket, it’s make or break for the potent Pole, who turns 27 in June.

 

“Of course he was too eager last year, he was new in the team and he wanted to prove that he could win every race, probably,” Gołas says.

 

“He started too early and he wanted to be in shape in January. It was a big lesson, he understands what he did wrong and this year he doesn’t want to make the same mistakes.”

 

Michał Kwiatkowski is in Rouleur issue 17.2, landing with subscribers from March 3.