This article is from Rouleur Issue 110, March 2022
See Kasia Niewiadoma and a host of other cycling stars, and the latest kit, at Rouleur Live on November 3-5. Buy your tickets here.
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.
Last 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?
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“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?
Besides the bad luck and strength of rival teams, her answer for why she lost those races is because she is perceived as, and perceives herself as, a rider who cannot sprint. “I feel like I built that barrier in my head when I would always think that I was not a good sprinter so I would never train it or pay attention to it,” she says.
Niewiadoma is a relative veteran of the top of the sport but she’s still only 27, and it’s never too late to change. Her solution this winter has involved working with a new personal trainer in Girona, with a regime that involves lifting weights and regularly sprinting during training. It’s a simple solution with a powerful outcome.
“Now, having the opportunity to train with my team-mates and sprint against them or just play around, finally I feel like I’m powerful, like I can sprint somehow. Now, I have the confidence that I am a better sprinter, I just need to put in the practice so that I know how to position myself.”
Ever since she burst onto the scene in 2014, Niewiadoma’s exceptional climbing talent stood out. It’s what has brought her a career in the sport and her biggest successes. But she believes it has also placed blinkers around her development. If that were the case, she wouldn’t be the only one. The sport’s preoccupation – in fact, its complete obsession – with power to weight and watts per kilo leads many riders to the conclusion that the only way to go faster is to lose weight. Not only is this dangerous in a personal sense, it is often counterproductive.
“Whatever is being shown out there on the internet or TV, we just blindly want to follow or try to imitate,” Niewiadoma says. “For so long I actually believed that the skinnier I got, that was the best solution for me to win races. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that for everyone: just skipping breakfast and going for four hours and then next day, you’re flying. Usually for me, that does the opposite.”
In Niewiadoma’s case, she feels that the sport had prematurely pigeonholed her as a climber and set her on a prescribed course to get better at climbing. Yet she admits she hates climbing, or at least hates climbing anything over a few minutes. What’s changed recently is the realisation that all that climbing was bringing her diminishing returns.
“I was doing all this training just for it, but I could feel that I wasn’t improving as much as I was whenever I did two-minute efforts,” she says. “The older I get, the more I realise I’m the one who should define myself, who I am. I am the only person that feels my body.
“With that I’m like, how many races are out there when you win on top of a climb? And how many races are there where you have to sprint? When I think about all my goals, which are Classics, it’s most likely that I’m going to have to sprint. My chances to win are either solo or from a small group, and in that case I have to be a good sprinter. I feel like that’s the thing I have been paying attention to over the last couple of months, and not the long climbing.”
Pumping iron and sprinting for town signs on your own is one thing. Outsmarting the canny bunch of professional con artists that are the sport’s best sprinters is something else altogether. Niewiadoma generally trains alone; the effort of organising a group session amongst different riders with different schedules and programmes is seldom worth the rewards, she says, deflecting for what must be the umpteenth time the suggestion that training with a group will naturally develop sprinting skills and race-craft. “I definitely agree that riding with others would help me with sprinting, that’s what Connie [Carpenter] always says. The reason she was always so good at sprinting was because she was sprinting against Davis and his friends.”
She does have a Phinney to sprint against, though. Since retiring in 2019, Taylor has spent as much time creating music and art as he has riding his bike, and whenever he does, he does so in his Vans. But he can still smoke her in a sprint.
“He hasn’t been riding for such a long time, but then he gets on the bike with flat shoes, no preparation, and he always knows how to use me, mentally. Like, I always open up the sprint and he sits behind and comes around. I try to learn from him.”
Pole under pressure
Tiffany Cromwell has been racing with Niewadoma since 2018, when Kasia made the move from WM3 Energie. Canyon-SRAM’s Aussie road captain agrees that when it comes to a five-minute all-out attack, there are few who can match her Polish team-mate. Her style is generous, expressive, and like the people of the Polish mountains, if you ask Niewiadoma herself. That rapid automatic fire of punchy attacks is tailor-made for the Ardennes Classics and Strade Bianche, the latter a race Niewiadoma desperately wants to win (she has finished second on three occasions). According to Cromwell, team directors tell Niewiadoma to be more calculating, more cool, more reserved. But it’s just not in her style.
“Her way to step up and be the rider that she is, to make herself feel bigger, is shooting off a few bullets before her big attack,” Cromwell says.
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Such a style of racing is very attractive, which is why Niewiadoma is a popular racer, but also very demanding. Success requires her to be at the very top of her game and even the best racers in the world – there’s no doubt that Niewiadoma is amongst them – cannot be expected to repeat such feats on a weekly basis. Cromwell suggests that Canyon-SRAM have relied too much on their pole star in recent years, heaping pressure on her shoulders and diminishing her returns.
“Kasia can sometimes feel the pressure too much, especially if she doesn’t believe in herself,” Cromwell says. “Rightly so. If you go to every single race with that same pressure, without the chance to play that other [support] role, for sure it builds up. That continual build-up of pressure has been a major factor in every race.”
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Niewiadoma has considered joining other, stronger teams in the past, but “the moment I even tried to talk to somebody [from another squad] I felt like I was cheating on my team.”
The result? What Cromwell wryly calls Niewiadoma’s need to “go to the forest and be away with the fairies” – or what the rest of us would probably call burnout. In Niewiadoma’s eyes, it’s a simple need to step away from the spotlight, to recalibrate and reconnect.
“I feel like… mmm...” she says, pausing for thought. “It’s just so good to be away, especially from social media. And I feel like the current world, when you think about how much time we spend on computers and phones, being involved in the ‘not real’ world, the fake world, it really puts me off. I really don’t like it.
“Taylor and I have realised that we don’t really need much in order to feel happy. Having some adventures where we basically pack some food and a tent into our bags and jump on our mountain bikes and go and sleep somewhere. You realise you don’t need much in order to survive, in order to feel happy.
“It’s nice to have the two extremes and when you feel like you’re done with it, you come back to reality. It’s the feeling that we’re normal human beings, and this is where we came from. All of us. I feel like with the speed of the world, we forget that the simple things are the most pleasurable.”
More than a feeling
Niewiadoma’s influences come from a range of places. She admires the calm confidence of former team-mate Anna van der Breggen. She feeds off the creative perspectives of Taylor Phinney – the couple met at the 2016 World Championships in Qatar – not to mention the racing mentorship from his mother, Connie Carpenter. Niewiadoma finds inspiration and guidance in more unusual places too – most recently from her friend Marion Crampe, an artistic pole dancer based in Girona.
“She’s helped me become a woman and grow up and understand what I wanted in my life,” Niewiadoma says. “She has her own values and makes her own choices, and speaks openly and honestly with everyone and about everything. There are no secrets in her life, she just always communicates what she feels.”
In 2022, Canyon-SRAM have signed a host of new riders with the aim of taking some of the pressure off Niewiadoma. It’s a way of repaying her loyalty to the squad, where she says she has always felt at home and with whom she extended her contract last spring to take her through to 2024. The new arrivals have instantly added extra dimensions. Italian Classics powerhouse Soraya Paladin, 28, joins along with the vastly experienced Sarah Roy, 36. Elise Chabbey, 28, enjoyed a breakthrough debut season with Canyon-SRAM in 2021 and this year we will see the full racing return of Chloe Dygert, who has enormous potential. The former TT world champion spent most of last year on the road to recovery from a severe leg laceration sustained while trying to defend her rainbow jersey in 2020.
But all the while, the margins are getting smaller. The competition is becoming tighter. Other squads are getting better too. Racing is becoming more intense. Niewiadoma has spotted the trend towards obsessive behaviours in the younger generation. She admits that she sometimes finds it hard to understand the sport’s natural introverts, for whom silence does not indicate something is wrong. The challenge is also this: how can she turn her nature into an advantage? How can she lead her team, both to improve her own results and to challenge the likes of SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo at the top of the WWT tree?
“I think leadership is caring about others. Letting others know that they are appreciated and valued within the team and encouraging them to go beyond their own boundaries. Just listening to them,” she says.
“What I like about the leadership role is you’re basically helping others to help yourself. By listening to others, you realise that… as human beings we tend to think that we know best about everything. When you let go of those feelings and allow others to tell their own opinion and be who they are, you change yourself in a good way. That creates a good environment in a team and then everyone feels happy. That gives you extra energy and then you perform. The more you give, the more you receive.”
Tiffany Cromwell agrees that this is Niewiadoma’s style. Always talking, always communicating, always expressing what she thinks and what she needs, never flying off the handle.
“These days, she will try to connect with people, not so much in a spiritual way but in a deep talking way,” Cromwell says. “Let us know your true feelings.”
Are good vibes enough to win at WorldTour level? To make that extra difference, that oh-so-crucial marginal gain? Niewiadoma believes they are.
“I remember Amstel Gold Race in 2019 and the dinner before that race. Everyone was laughing, smiling, we forgot about the fact that we were racing Amstel the next day. I feel like that gave me so much lightness. There was nothing on my shoulders. It was just, fuck yeah, let’s go and do it.”
Niewiadoma genuinely believes this year could be the year. But winning isn’t the only thing that matters. Doing things in the right way. Having a good time. Smiling. Some things are more important.
Over to you, Kasia
Kasia Niewiadoma is never short of ideas or opinions on the big issues. Passing the mic over to her, what is on her mind? What is going on in the sport? What do we need to talk about? Her answer: maternity leave and the deep-rooted anxiety amongst the women’s peloton that riders face an inescapable choice between family and sport.
“How crazy is it, as a woman, when you’re an athlete and you think that you want to start a family and have babies, maybe 99 per cent of examples, it means you have to finish your career?” she says.
“I was talking with the girls and we would say ‘how long do you think you will be riding for?’ And the answer was often ‘it depends when I want to have a baby, or when I will be ready to have one.’ It’s so insane that’s the indicator for when we will stop riding our bikes.”
The issue of maternity leave in women’s cycling hit the headlines when Lizzie Deignan took a break from racing in 2018 in order to start a family. She signed a contract with Trek-Segafredo while six months pregnant and returned to racing seven months after giving birth to her daughter, Orla. In February 2022, Deignan announced her second pregnancy and intention to return to racing next season.
In 2020, the UCI mandated a maternity leave clause in Women’s WorldTour rider contracts allowing women to take three months leave on full pay followed by an additional five months at 50% salary. Despite these steps in the right direction, Niewiadoma believes riders – as with many women in the workplace in wider society – still feel that pregnancy is likely to harm their careers.
“There is a fear within the riders still. Like: ‘I would get pregnant and it would be hard to find a team when I want to come back.’ You know that you would have to come back through some real hassles.
“It’s not that I want to have a baby and then come back to this sport, because I don’t know. But having this thought in your head that you know once you have a baby you finish riding. It is deeply rooted inside you, but then you wonder, why? Why is it that we have to give up our careers if we want to start a family?
“But every woman is different. Some women couldn’t imagine coming back to the sport after having a baby, but that’s my point, just the simple thought – I retired because I wanted to have a baby. There should be a different thought: I retired because I’m ready to move on with my life.”