Mihi is the name for the traditional introduction amongst the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand. During a mihi, visitors introduce themselves not only by naming their iwi, or tribal group, but by naming the river and the mountain closest to where they live, or with which they most strongly identify. It’s a simple and wonderful way of expressing one’s proximity to nature. The hills and the rivers define who we are just as much as our genes. Some things go deeper than our most recent achievements or our latest Instagram handles. Some things are more important.
Within a few minutes of talking with Kasia Niewiadoma, this is what we’re discussing. Not racing, not training camps, but deep feelings about identity and our connection to the natural world.
“I get reminded of what my grandfather would always say,” she says. “In Poland, especially where I grew up, a lot of people would own part of the forest or part of the land in the mountains. When they talked about their land, it was like they were talking about their kids: ‘It needs to be preserved, it needs to be taken care of, we need to clean it up.’
“They had this completely different approach to mother nature compared to what we have now. Unfortunately, I feel like over the years we have completely lost this deep appreciation for the mountains, for mother nature, right?”
Niewiadoma spent her most recent winter in the mountains surrounding Boulder, Colorado, with her boyfriend Taylor Phinney and his parents, former bike racers Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter. It’s just one of the multiple worlds that she inhabits, along with her seasonal base in Girona, a new place in Andorra, her home in Poland and whatever cheap hotel she occupies on any given day as a racer on the Women’s WorldTour with Canyon-SRAM.
This winter, the usual Rocky Mountain snows were replaced by spring-like sunshine – undoubtedly a knock-on effect of our collective failure to preserve our cosmic neck of the woods, so to speak – but the uncanny good weather gave her a profound sense of contentment that forms the basis of her complex answer to a cycling journalist’s lazy opening gambit: how’s the off-season been?
“I grew up in the mountains. I feel like whenever I have a chance to be in the mountains, there is something special about being there. I feel contentment for no reason,” she adds. “You wake up, everything is still, you don’t have noise. I kind of felt I was able to just feel happy all the time, that’s an amazing feeling. I haven’t had winter camps like that, without any worries or stress or nerves for a long time.
“Usually when I go somewhere on my own, even at home alone, I kind of get lonely and not sad, but I have this weird urge that I have to go out and socialise and see people. When I’m in the mountains, I’m just so happy on my own. I feel so independent. I feel like mountains are giving me what I’m looking for in people. I feel like the mountains in some way complete me. They make me feel calm. Sometimes just staring at the mountains makes me feel good.
“And saying ‘feel good’ doesn’t really express your real feeling. It helps you reflect on your life. You lose yourself in yourself, you have those smart thoughts and you just dive into it. You never feel alone. It’s more cosy. It’s a very special feeling.”
This is Kasia Niewiadoma, who in one answer tells you what you need to know about her. Deep thinking, expressive, intelligent. Unafraid of opening up and discussing what’s going on in her life. And instantly rather likeable. But that is just one side of the story. Who is Kasia Niewiadoma the bike racer? For that answer, let’s look at two editions of the same race: the 2019 and 2021 Amstel Gold Race.
The first Kasia is aggressive. Forthright. Ferocious. Fastest. Up the Cauberg, at least, a two-minute test of outright punchy strength and climbing finesse. In 2019, nobody else could go with her once she let rip with the final knockout blow in a flurry of punches with which she had peppered the remnants of the peloton on the choppy course. She soloed the remaining kilometres of flat road through Dutch suburbia to win, just holding off the chase of Annemiek van Vleuten.
In 2021, she was all those things again, and just one rider could follow her acceleration in the same place on the same climb – Elisa Longo Borghini. But this time she was unlucky too. For some peculiar reason the Italian refused to pull, allowing Ashleigh Moolman Pasio to sacrifice herself for her SD Worx leader Demi Vollering and heave a small group of favourites back up to the front of the race inside the final kilometre. Marianne Vos sprinted to victory. Niewiadoma was swamped and got 10th. Longo Borghini was eighth.
“I think in 2021 I was stronger, when I look at the power. In 2019, I had more luck,” Niewiadoma says. “Sometimes I feel like the races where I was close to the victory, I lost because of the others.”
Unfortunately for Niewiadoma, what happened in 2019 has been the exception to prove the rule. Since winning the Amstel Gold Race and a stage of the Women’s Tour that year, she has finished in the top 10 at a WorldTour race 39 times. That track record of near misses includes all the big ones: Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Giro Rosa, World Championships, La Course, Women’s Tour, Strade Bianche, Trofeo Binda. And so on.
It’s the big question. How does Kasia Niewiadoma start winning again?