It’s easy to malign the Tour of Poland. As the next significant stage race after the Tour de France, it has an impossible act to follow, serving as an unavoidable step down in grandeur, attention and big names.
People sometimes pay more attention to the garish inflatables lining the side of the road than the racing or the results. For some, it serves as the forgettable lull between two Grand Tours; for others, a refreshing change where new protagonists hit the headlines.
This year, it was arguably one of the WorldTour stage races of the season, helped by an enterprising route. The opening flat stage round Warsaw had a technical circuit, culminating in a tight corner 100 metres from the finish line: hell for the riders, heaven for spectators.
Marcel Kittel won, but nothing much was predictable after that. The German sprinter was denied more comeback wins by a Matteo Pelucchi brace. When the race hit the nagging hills of Małopolska, the lead changed four times in the last four days. It was a race constantly in the balance.
The fight for the overall went down to the wire, decdied by a 25-kilometre time-trial in Krakow, with ten GC contenders separated by 27 seconds. What a devilish way to conclude a stage race: it meant that the climber who proved the least bad at time-trialling would win.
Ultimately, the top three riders were separated by just three seconds: Movistar’s Ion Izagirre took victory, with Bart De Clercq (Lotto-Soudal, above) two seconds down and Ben Hermans (BMC Racing) a further second in arrears. It is the closest WorldTour stage race podium in history. It was just desserts for the Basque rider too, taking his first WorldTour success after finishing second in 2013 and 2014, a mere 13 and eight seconds down respectively.
Race organisers can only dream of such a finale when they plot such a route. If that denouement had taken place at Paris-Nice or the Tour of Romandie, people would be calling it one of the finishes of the year.
26-year-old Izagirre was one of many young protagonists to the fore: Caleb Ewan, Bart De Clercq, Davide Formolo and Sergio Henao all impressed, as well as world champion Michal Kwiatkowski.
Especially viewed in such proximity to the Tour de France, it was a B-string field, but that doesn’t make it a B-string race. It produced more enterprising action than many other more prestigious events this year. The combination of big names warming up for the Vuelta (Fabio Aru, for example), leg-heavy challengers still carrying over Tour de France form (Christophe Riblon) and young , fresh opportunists going for their own results and helped to make it open and anarchic.
The Tour of Poland has a history of serving as a testing ground for future stars: the likes of John Degenkolb, Dan Martin and Marcel Kittel all won here as relative pups before going onto greater things as big dogs of the bunch.
Cycling, especially the WorldTour, still needs events that serve as a bridge between the pack’s rank and file and its elite. In which similarly significant races do young riders get unshackled from working for a team leader and the chance to boost their confidence? How is it exciting if the same riders have a monopoly in the sport's big races?
Moreover, it is important for the continued development of the sport in Poland, which is quietly going through its own cycling purple patch, helped by the likes of Rafal Majka, Michal Kwiatkowski and its own Pro Continental team, CCC Sprandi Polkowice (above).
However, it was an invited composite Polish national team which led the way for the home nation this year. Britain-based Marcin Bialoblocki took a shock WorldTour win in the final time-trial and Kamil Zielinski wore the leader’s jersey for 24 hours after a daring breakaway. That’s progress.
I suppose it depends what you value more: top-class names competing or top-class racing; the two aren't mutually exclusive, but they rarely meet. I know which side I fall on: give me supposed small fry and riveting racing every day of the week.