“I just wanted to win and I didn't do it. I'm happy that I accomplished one of my goals, which was getting the podium at the Tour de France, but winning feels different. It's a different story. It’s annoying that you put so much time, effort and sacrifices into this one thing that somehow cannot come. I just have that urge to feel satisfied or proud of myself, that's the feeling I've been missing.”
Kasia Niewiadoma has, unequivocally, been very good at cycling for a long time now. She was the U23 European Champion in 2015, and has rarely gone a season since then without at least a couple of podiums at the Women’s WorldTour level. Think of the top performers in the women’s peloton, and Niewiadoma always comes to mind. Make your predictions for the top-five in any Ardennes Classics, and Niewiadoma will be on your list. She’s always there, fighting for the win, securing a respectable position, but the top step of the podium is somewhere that the Polish rider rarely sets foot.
The Amstel Gold Race in 2019 is an anomaly to this trend, it’s here where Niewiadoma secured her only WorldTour level win, beating Annemiek van Vleuten and Marianne Vos in a punchy sprint to the line. Since then, it’s been a solid run of second, third and fourth places for Niewiadoma every year in the Ardennes Classics and the Canyon-SRAM rider has been left to puzzle over how to close that gap to the very top. What’s she doing wrong? What can she do differently?
Kasia Niewiadoma at Amstel Gold Race 2022 (Image: Zac Williams/SWPix)
“I think I might miss the element of surprise,” she says. “When I think about how Annemiek attacked at the Worlds, it's not that she was the strongest but she read the race properly. I think that usually when I go it's in such an obvious moment and I'm so visible, everyone expects me to go. Everyone is still strong these days so you have to be either extremely powerful or strong and surprising.”
I ask Niewiadoma if she finds it frustrating that she can often be seen in races instigating a breakaway, but once the group is established, a lack of cohesion can mean that it doesn’t stick. “I’m more annoyed with myself,” she says. “Why do I ride with them when I could attack again? But I never go again because I feel like I need to wait for something. I could be like an Annemiek, sit in the back and then attack when no one's watching but instead I'm like, let's go everyone.”
Annemiek van Vleuten’s dominance in the women’s peloton is a hot topic, most notably in the Tour de France Femmes, where she eventually won the general classification by nearly four minutes. Niewiadoma notes that many riders, including herself, aren’t prepared to, or able to, undertake the huge training hours that the yellow jersey winner does.
“When you think about her lifestyle, she spends so much time on altitude training camps and I love cycling but I'm not going to sacrifice my normal life for training camps otherwise I would go crazy, go nuts and finish riding my bike,” Niewiadoma explains. “I definitely will keep on trying because there must be a way to beat her and I beat her once already [in the 2019 Amstel Gold Race] so why can't I repeat that?”
I make the point that Van Vleuten was beaten recently by Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio on the Thyon 2000 climb at the Tour de Romandie, the final women’s WorldTour event of the season. Niewiadoma doesn’t put this down to a physical weakness in Van Vleuten, though, rather a mental one.
“The thing is, it depends if Annemiek cares about the race or not,” she says. “Because if she doesn't care about the race, I always feel that she's not even there, not fighting for position. At the Tour de France she started sick, but then she won the race. If she cares, she can move mountains.”
Next year, Niewiadoma sees beating Van Vleuten at the Tour de France Femmes, a race where the Polish rider finished third this year, as an even bigger challenge due to the introduction of an individual time trial stage. Niewiadoma isn’t suited to a race against the clock in the same way that her rival is.
“It will give me extra motivation, because preparing for the same thing each year is, in some ways, boring,” she says. “Having the time trial I feel like, okay, I need to change this. I'm already 28, I feel like over years of repeating the same thing, you really need to have a few different distractions or motivations.”
Having her Canyon-SRAM teammates supporting her is something that Niewiadoma sees as a crucial factor to her success in 2023. She notes that Magnus Bäckstedt joining the team as a sports director will give it a new lease of life which could make all the difference on race day. "He's gonna definitely be helpful having a different voice in the ear, something that allows you to open your mind to a different scenario,” she says.
The 28-year-old explains that a lack of cohesion and confidence within her team was one of their limiting factors to success this season, and they hope to remedy this over the next year. “We need to have more riders at the end so we can create more scenarios ourselves, not just waiting for something that never happens,” she says. “This year, Elise [Chabbey] would be there and Pauliena [Rooijakkers] would show up, but I feel like we need the consistency to be there at all times.”
As the off-season draws to a close, Niewiadoma explains she feels mentally refreshed ahead of beginning her winter training. She’s spent the last few months travelling with her partner, visiting friends and family, with “the freedom in my mind that I could go out without having to think what's going on tomorrow,” she says.
Niewiadoma’s big goals will come early in 2023 with the Ardennes Classics. “I love Classics. I feel like Classics are my favourite style of racing. The Tour was amazing but the Classics are very special,” she says. “For the first part of the season, I’ll only focus on Classics until April and then I re-change my training plan towards the Tour de France but I'm not obsessing about the Tour yet.”
Unsurprisingly, Niewiadoma believes she has most to prove when it comes to Strade Bianche. She’s now finished second on the white Tuscan roads three times, and believes that a refreshed team spirit and attitude could help her reach the top step of the podium.
“Winning Strade Bianche is my main goal,” she says. “It’s hard to plan that because I also want to be good at Ardennes. You never know how it’s going to be but I have my eyes on it.”
Cover photo by James Startt