She descended the switchbacks like magic. She was not riding on the road, but she and the tarmac beneath her were at one, moving together in harmony, sweeping, curving, bending in a pair. Her body was arched low like an animal waiting to fight, steady and in control but at the same time acutely alert to the danger of the situation. When the gradient began to level out, her head was tucked and her back was flat and she pedalled in a mesmerising rhythm, her position on the bike so perfect it was like she had been born to ride it. This was Kasia Niewiadoma in her element, at her very, very best.
The Canyon//SRAM rider, in her hypnotic descent of the Col d’Aspin during stage seven of the Tour de France Femmes, had distanced the two pre-race favourites Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering, the former seemingly unable to follow Niewiadoma's wheel as she finessed the corners with such alluring skill. While she settled into her pace on the long valley roads approaching the Tourmalet, the duo behind began to look at each other, the politics between the two riders that have shaped this season of women’s cycling being physically represented on the roads in front of us. They argued and Van Vleuten pulled the brakes, Vollering stretched her back and shook her head. If you don’t work, I don’t work, the two riders seemed to be saying.
While they stewed in bitter rivalry, Niewiadoma’s gap was only growing. “She is a great descender so I said to her on the radio: descend on the front as you’re not spending any more energy to go down this mountain fast. Choose your lines and then she got down to the bottom and had a gap already,” Canyon//SRAM sports director, Magnus Backstedt, said after the stage.Niewiadoma was riding harder and harder towards the slopes of the Tourmalet, and at that moment, it looked like she might just do the impossible. There was the slither of a chance that she could rewrite it all and trump the two favourites, the underdog coming out on top.
One, big problem, though, was that SD Worx’s Marlen Ruesser was in the group behind which had regained contact with Van Vleuten and Vollering. The Swiss rider is a supreme time trialist and is likely the one rider out of the entire peloton you would not want chasing you down when in the position of Niewiadoma yesterday. “I didn’t know that Marlen was actually in the group behind and that was the biggest misfortune for me,” Niewiadoma confirmed afterwards.
“We were thinking: do we commit or do we not commit?” Backstedt added. “We all know how strong Reusser is when she starts to close that gap then that ultimately brought them back into play. But Kasia kept on believing that she was going to do her climb at her pace and see what happened and she did a phenomenal ride.”
As she hit the bottom of the Tourmalet and the road sign showed 17 kilometres up and up into the mist, Niewiadoma clung onto her belief. Reusser brought the gap down to eight seconds before she pulled off the front of the bunch – the chasers were so close they could even begin to make out the pink jersey of the Canyon//SRAM rider out in front on the fog. Yet still, Niewiadoma rode. This was her race, it was her chance, the actions of other teams were not going to change that.
In the end, when Vollering launched her detonating attack with five kilometres remaining to the summit of the climb, Niewiadoma was caught. The SD Worx rider passed her and there was little she could do to respond, other than keep going. Newiadoma fought to the summit, holding off Van Vleuten to finish second on the stage, the filling in the sandwich of two of the biggest stars in women’s cycling. It wasn’t the stage victory or the yellow jersey, but it was a ride to be proud of all the same, and one that had encompassed everything that Kasia Niewiadoma is as a bike rider.“You can always, in hindsight, think maybe this or maybe that, but she is a rider who prefers to be in front and be aggressive and when it is like that, she gets that next level of energy and she really showed that today,” Backstedt said. “She really believed this was possible.”
“F*ck! What the f”ck!” Niewidaoma exclaimed as microphones were flung at her while she sat in the mist atop the fabled climb, a towel draped around her neck and the salt marks from sweat visible as the result of her effort. She stuffed her mouth with Haribo as she continued with an outburst of profanity, before apologising bashfully and with a giggle that English wasn’t her first language.
Niewiadoma’s second place finish on one of the hardest mountain top finishes the women’s peloton has ever faced is a career best result for the Polish rider and one that she earned rightfully with her brave race. Afterwards, her raw and honest reaction was as real as they get, and represented everyone’s feelings after a stage of such epic proportions, with so many stories and so much drama. There was a little bit of all of us in Niewiadoma’s performance today, she was the underdog among the favourites, the gutsy attacker who risked it all, who showed the pain on her face, as well as the vulnerability and emotion that comes with living life at the very top of elite sport. And all she wanted at the end were some fizzy sweets. She was human, she was Kasia.