Kasia Niewiadoma: Pole position
Feisty, fun and very fast, Katarzyna Niewiadoma takes her inspiration from Vincenzo Nibali at Sanremo: "He showed that if you attack, you just have to believe in yourself."
It was just Kasia Niewiadoma, alone on the road and alone in her own mind, doing it her way. The rain pelted down and the Italian roads around Lake Maggiore were jet black and slick with late winter grime, but she was in her element.
This was an unbridled attack and nobody could follow her. Rider after rider came tantalisingly close to latching on to her wheel on the hairpins of the climb to the village of Orino in the finale of the Trofeo Binda. They got close enough that they could probably read her race number and see the itinerant wheel tracks before they were swamped by the water, but never close enough to enter that fleeting little pocket of air she had opened up behind her.Binda is a while ago but it is as good a place to start as any; Niewiadoma stayed clear for ten kilometres and earned her first big one-day win after knocking on the door with 14 top-tens in the Women’s WorldTour (and World Cup, as it was formerly known) since 2015, not to mention in two World Championships and the Rio Olympics. Earlier in the spring of 2018, in similarly hibernal conditions, she had finished second in Strade Bianche for a third consecutive season.
But this was so much more than the realisation of what had become an impending statistical certainty. This was something more. It wasn’t particularly pretty – Niewiadoma heaved and strained at the pedals after 131 sodden kilometres of racing – but her win resonated with anyone watching. It was gutsy, passionate and unbounded. A bit of an analogue rebellion in a digital, power-metered age. Even if she hadn’t won, raw aggression like hers is why people get into the sport. If she had looked back, she would have seen Amada Spratt come within a few metres of her wheel. But she didn’t. In 9.2 kilometres, she didn’t look back a single time.
“No, I didn’t.” Niewiadoma reaffirms it from her home in Girona a few weeks later. “I wasn’t focussed on who was on my wheel, I was focussed on being my best.”
Twenty-four hours earlier she and her team-mates, like the rest of us, had watched Vincenzo Nibali solo to victory against all the odds in Milan-Sanremo. It’s one thing to watch it; to do it yourself against the crème de la crème of the professional peloton is another matter entirely.
“We saw him attacking and riding full gas without looking back. And he just kept on pushing. Without any hesitation,” Niewiadoma says. “He showed us that if you attack, you just have to believe in yourself. The best is just to be closed off in your own pain zone and to keep pushing.”
At the same time the words of Connie Carpenter, Olympic gold medallist and the mother of Niewiadoma’s boyfriend Taylor Phinney, were milling around in her head: ‘when you attack you should never look back’. Last spring, she had finished third in La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège; in both races she drew clear of the winning group but, on both occasions, Anna van der Breggen clung on, attacked herself and won.
“I thought, ‘maybe I should try once not to look back’.”
Funnily enough Niewiadoma was looking back, albeit in another way. As she gritted her teeth and pushed on, she was thinking of her grandfather and her first ever edition of the race in which she battled similar conditions as an unknown on the Polish national team, just a few weeks after he had passed away.
“He motivated me to keep cycling and not to give up, even if I was just 19 years old then and didn’t know anything about the racing,” she says. “That was a stressful and hard race for me. And then this year I had this flashback of what I went through five years ago. I was like, ‘wow, maybe this is a sign that I really have to do something here now’. He kept me motivated.”
She saved any display of emotion until she crossed the line – sprinting flat out without looking back to see that she had ample time to freewheel and showboat – and then it all came out as a huge yell of delight. She reckons that is genetic; at home her parents were watching on TV and when she spoke to them later that afternoon her father, Stanisław, just screamed down the line to her. She had to hold the phone away from her ear lest it aggravate an infection that hadn’t been done any favours by what, in aural terms, had been three and a half hours of swimming.
“I don’t know if you’ve had much contact with Polish people before, but everyone is so expressive. And I live in the mountains, where people express their feelings by shouting, screaming, laughing out loud… just being themselves without any barriers.”
Niewiadoma had won before – most notably the overall 2017 Women’s Tour after a solo attack on the opening stage – yet she and her family were celebrating what felt like the culmination of a journey that had begun in late 2013 when a Polish teenager rocked up on what was then the biggest outfit in women’s professional cycling, Rabobank, as a stagiaire. She remembers sitting at the dinner table, speaking little English and being overawed by the galacticas of the sport: Marianne Vos, Anna van der Breggen, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, Megan Guarnier and Annemiek van Vleuten. It was a sink or swim apprenticeship.
“I think they could see that I was kind of a feisty girl,” she says. “The first thing that they saw in me was my character, the fighting character. They saw my test results too and they knew I had an engine, as they described it.”
That feistiness had been there since the very beginning. One afternoon when Niewiadoma was about 15, her father came home with a road bike. She looked out at it through the window, thinking that it was too small for him and wondering who it was for. He explained it was for her so the two of them could compete in a local father and daughter race. She didn’t need much persuading.
“He knows me,” she smiles. “He knew that I was always super competitive. I think he kind of expected me to agree, and he knew that if he got me the bike that I would feel guilty if I didn’t ride with him.”
If you’re looking for a metaphor, here’s one served up on a plate. In Polish, ‘niewiadomy’ means ‘unknown’. Katarzyna Niewiadoma translates as Katherine Unknown. It sounds like a bohemian literary creation but there has been no deliberate attempt to concoct a romantic identity; as far as she understands, during her grandfather Wladyslaw’s generation, a dispute between two surnames led to ‘unknown’ being written on an official form and it stuck.
Making a name for herself is something Katie Unknown has had to do for her entire life. Growing up in rural Poland, deep in the mountains and somewhat isolated from her country’s post-communist political transition during the 1990s, she enjoyed a bucolic, traditional upbringing surrounded by kids. Lots of kids. Her grandfather parcelled up his land and it passed to her aunts and uncles when they got married, meaning that she grew up surrounded by a huge family network. Niewiadoma’s was a wild and competitive childhood in a quiet rural community, “running around the village, getting into trouble and running away”. She admits now that one of the main reasons she started cycling was because she wanted to stand out amongst her friends.
“I’m 23 now but I sometimes miss that feeling,” she says, recalling the scrapes and japes that she and her cousins would get into. “Putting yourself in danger…”
Her parents never pushed her into one career or another, but since her siblings went to work on the family roofing business and remained close to their childhood home, she had a clear path laid out in front of her. She deliberately chose not to follow it.
“I never got told that I couldn’t be a rider. That’s the Polish mentality. Everyone is always positive and pushes you to pursue your dreams. I was always competitive – at sport, in school – and I always wanted to be the best. That’s what is showing now in cycling. I don’t know where that comes from. It’s just nature.”
Niewiadoma casts her mind back just a decade but it seems a million years and a million miles away. This evening the sun is setting on a beautiful Catalan spring day and the warm glow is pouring in through the vast windows of the home that she and Taylor Phinney recently began renting precisely to escape the lack of light in many of the flats in Girona’s old town. The pair met at the World Championships in Qatar at the end of 2016, their romance blossoming from smiles exchanged at the hotel breakfast buffet. At least something positive came out of that event.
Their new shared home is the sort of minimalist, concrete cuboid that easily could belong to an architect or a product designer. It has a lift down to the garage. Its walls are adorned with Phinney’s artwork, its shelves by his trophies and memorabilia. He’s got a keyboard, decks and a drum kit. Beside the TV, close to a crucifix belonging to Niewiadoma, there’s a DVD box set of idiosyncratic British comedy Peep Show. “That’s his. I’d never even heard of it. Maybe I should try it.” Your correspondent, who has watched every episode and spent five years working in Croydon, the town where it is set, feels duty bound to warn her that it’s not to everyone’s taste.
By all rights she should have a trophy of her own to display, except the winner of the Trofeo Binda was – ironically – awarded a medal. Niewiadoma hasn’t put hers on display because she was handed one that said ‘junior women’ on it. She didn’t bother to send it back.
Her influence is stronger in the front room, another spacious box of light that leads onto a small balcony and contains yoga mats, foam rollers and a stereo. We still have to step around a big abstract painting sprawled out on the floor whose artist left it unfinished before heading off to Belgium for the EF-Education First Classics campaign. But this is where Niewiadoma likes to be: to put on some ambient music, stretch, exercise and unwind. She has paintings of her own – “just messing around with colours… it’s a nice way to relax and calm your soul and free your mind” – but they’re in their other residence in Phinney’s home city of Boulder, Colorado.
“I’ve been a completely different person,” Niewiadoma says, reflecting on their relationship. “In terms of being a cyclist, I was completely focussed on myself… everything was self-centred. With him I realised there is so much other than cycling and how important it is to appreciate everyone around you, and to be open to them and present.
“He’s teaching me stuff all the time. Before I was thinking about one thing – cycling – but now I’m interested in many different topics. He keeps talking about something new all the time, he wants to develop and learn all the time.”
Phinney went through a total metamorphosis following a severe crash in 2014 that shattered his left leg. That is a story for another time, but when the child prodigy of two ex-professionals – Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter – was told he might never ride again, he prepared for a totally new life outside of cycling. He began painting. He took up yoga and meditation. When he did return to racing, against the odds, it was as a different man. The guy whose career had hitherto been his by right had learned a new outlook on life. Many felt the born racer had gone for good, though a top ten in Paris-Roubaix this spring suggests otherwise.
“He actually told me that he’s more motivated to ride his bike when he sees me training and he sees me racing,” Niewiadoma says. “It keeps him motivated.”
Chatting to Niewiadoma, you have to keep reminding yourself that she is only 23. She could easily be a high-flying executive, or maybe the architect or marketing manager whose house this could be. Funny without being flippant; serious without being deadpan; competitive without being arrogant. And capable of some perceptive observations out here listening to Coccolino Deep and looking west to the hills.
“One of the biggest things I’ve noticed I have stopped doing since being with Taylor is using my phone,” she says. “Before I could spend an hour just lying on the couch and checking Instagram and Twitter and then I realised how bad it made me feel.
“Sometimes you get into this weird zone where you’re checking things you’re not even interested in, you just want to see something, but you’re not paying attention. It’s an addiction.”
We say that we have heard that Facebook and the like have whole teams of smart people dedicated to making their platforms more able to trigger addictive behaviour. Our simple monkey brains can’t keep up. They don’t know what’s hit ‘em.
“Yeah, but that’s happening. Sometimes I catch myself when I’m travelling, I don’t reach for a book, I reach for my phone. And then I realise, shoot, I’m holding my phone in my hand again…”
When you think about it, professional cycling and healthy lives are uncomfortable bedfellows. Physically speaking, of course, pro cycling is not good for you. And elite success demands a certain emotional ignorance: time away, self-focus, sacrifice.
On the other hand, physical and emotional wellbeing – which are also vital to success – come from conscientiousness, compassion and balance. The two aspects are not easy to combine.
Niewiadoma is able to reflect on professional cycling, and her place within it, with an objectivity that is rare in elite athletes. There’s an obvious physical distance between her and the cycling hive of old town Girona; she lives at the top of a mini Mur de Huy of a climb and mostly prefers to train alone. There’s a healthy psychological divide too; she still sees herself as a person, first and foremost, and a cyclist second.
“This sport, it can sometimes make us really weird people,” she says. “Sometimes I can recognise it. When my body is tired I don’t like my version of Kasia, because I’m pissed with little things that I shouldn’t be angry about, but it triggers me. I just need to take a break, breathe, and realise that I’m okay, I’m just tired.”
Niewiadoma is no stranger to victory but crossing the line at Trofeo Binda reinforced the fact that pro cycling is stuck in a procedural straitjacket and often blind to emotional common sense. As a jobsworth official was trying to immediately whisk her away for anti-doping, media and podium ceremonies, riders continued to flood onto the slippery finishing straight. All she wanted to do was share the fleeting moment with her team-mates. One of them, Alena Amialiusik, sprinted to fifth and immediately floored someone – a photographer or an official – who ran out in front of her without looking where he was going.
“I felt that these cool feelings about winning a race were taken away from me,” she says. “I don’t know if it happens in every race, and guys’ races, but there’s this magic moment after crossing the line. It’s not that magical when you are taken away and surrounded by a lot of strangers. I know there are rules but, I don’t know, just give us a few minutes to breathe, to be happy about what just happened.
“I was racing for my team, for my family, and I wanted to be there for them.”
In 2017, Niewiadoma became the sole leader of WM3 Energy in the hillier races; Rabobank had pulled out of cycling sponsorship altogether and her team-mate Marianne Vos, returning from an overtraining injury and out for a chunk of the season to a collarbone break, focussed on flatter courses. Rather than liberate her to race for herself, it placed the burden of marshalling the peloton and responding to moves squarely on Niewiadoma’s shoulders.
Twelve months on and these responsibilities are now shared with team-mates at Canyon-SRAM, although watching the team race brings to mind a family group more than colleagues with the same employer. Take Trofeo Binda: Alena Amialiusik was in the penultimate move and when she was brought back, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot slowed the pace at the front of the small lead group, drew the riders to the outside of the bend and opened the door for Niewiadoma to attack. “I felt relatively fresh and it made a huge difference.”
Niewiadoma has another family support network from her mother, Lucyna, and Connie Carpenter. The former provides emotional replenishment in the form of words of support and comfort before a race, the latter more cycling-specific advice.
“I always feel huge support from them, even if during the season you feel overwhelmed by everything, you feel like, I don’t know, like you just want to run away from the cycling word because it’s just too much,” she says.
“They never say I should stop or change something, they give me their opinion and they help me think about the positive side of things and to remember that it’s life, and you’re not always going to have flowers around you.”
Niewiadoma’s future is full of excitement and sweet possibility, the cycling equivalent of being stood in front of the Woolworths pick and mix armed with a plastic shovel, a paper bag and a crisp five-pound note. She might target the Ardennes races, the Giro Rosa (surely the everlasting gobstopper of women’s cycling), the world title, or even the Flemish Classics. She’s not a sprint or a time-trial specialist but anything else is arguably fair game. What now tempts her fancy?
“I don’t want to set certain goals any more,” she responds. “Of course, the ideal would be to win everything, but there are so many situations that could happen and you can’t control them all.
“So I think I just want to be myself and have fun. That’s the most important thing. As long as you are happy on the bike, I think you can win a lot.”
This is a more sustainable, a more enduring, a more potent thing. Niewiadoma’s satisfaction isn’t going to be measured in trophies. Bad news if you’re a rival; good news for the rest of us.
“I would love to be someone that young girls can look up to, to be a mentor, to show them, you are a girl but you are powerful. You are independent, you are strong, you can make a lot of things happen around you.”
Really, it’s always been about her, in her element and on her personal quest for perfection and happiness. Kasia Niewiadoma is doing it her own way. We need only sit back and watch.