“I aimed for this race for so long. Woke up every day thinking, ‘what can I do today in order to make myself better?’ Everything revolved around this one race.
“You care for something so much, you anticipate it, it comes closer and closer, and then all of a sudden it happens and it doesn’t go your way. There are so many emotions and feelings that you just go with it, and then the next morning you wake up alone in your bed and you’re like, ‘is that it? Now it’s over?’ It was so weird, such a bizarre feeling that left me so empty and so confused.
“Maybe it’s just passion and love for this sport. It’s really hard to explain. It’s not about speaking English, it’s just about finding the right words for certain feelings. Profound feelings. I guess you know with love, sometimes you feel this strong love like when you say ‘love’, it doesn’t really express what you mean, right?”
August 26th, 2021. The day after the Olympic Games road race in Tokyo. Five years have passed since Rio de Janeiro and, for those five years, dozens of riders have thought of little else. In the end the event was one of the best one-day races of the year, won in some style by thousand-to-one outsider Anna Kiesenhofer, but it was certainly not what any of those riders were expecting.
This is the comedown. It’s not the afterparty following the Rolling Stones headlining Wembley. There’s no hedonistic binge in the green room. It’s just a disparate collection of individuals for whom the race was full of bathos and anti-climax.Image: Paolo Martelli
“Compare artists to cyclists,” says Kasia Niewiadoma. “Artists go on the stage to do their thing and they always get applause. But there are so many cyclists racing their bikes and they don’t get that. It’s quiet.”
And lonely. It’s lonely in the hotel room in Japan. The noise of the race is replaced the hum of a mini-bar and air-conditioning unit, the crowded peloton is replaced by spaces made even more empty by Covid-friendly distancing.
“Cycling is an interesting sport that when you prepare you’re surrounded by so many people and everyone is there to help you and listen to you. But for the most part after a race, you have to process the feelings on your own.”
Pro cyclists are not alone in having to deal with this sort of thing but certainly possess an irrepressible ability to pick themselves up again afterward an agonising defeat. It’s something that Kasia Niewiadoma has had to do a lot over the past three seasons. Since winning the Amstel Gold Race and a stage of the Women’s Tour in 2019, she has finished in the top 10 at a WorldTour race a staggering 39 times. Dealing with disappointment has become a regular task. This year, 2021, she feels that the Olympics road race was the one that stung.
“After every single disappointment, lost chance, I struggle a little inside and wonder where I am going with my life,” she wrote in a lengthy post on Instagram. “I know that I train hard… I lose, I get disappointed but then I grow stronger in love with cycling which is so hard for me to comprehend why?”
Flèche Wallonne, where she finished second, was the one that got away. And the one that still lingers the most was the World Championships road race, where she finished third.Image: Getty
“I got second [at Flèche Wallonne] but I was kind of happy, the team rode amazingly, we had a good atmosphere, everyone was really chill,” she says. “I feel sad, let’s say, about Worlds. I was in such great shape. One of the greatest shapes of my life. I didn’t really give my all. I wish maybe there had been one more lap, or I had tried to attack earlier.”
So how does a rider deal with it? How does she move on? In Niewiadoma’s case, delving into books. Her off-season was delayed by a crash at the women’s Roubaix in October, with those first two weeks of recovery from a knee injury shunting much needed rest and family time later into the winter. While her boyfriend Taylor Phinney, who retired from the pro ranks in 2019, continued to pursue his various creative outlets (the latest is woodworking), Niewiadoma picked up some books about psychology.
“We can’t take up a different sport, yet it’s very good for every athlete to keep their minds occupied, not with scrolling Instagram but exploring themselves in a way so that once you decide to say goodbye to sport and your career you don’t feel that you’re alone or that your world is about to finish because you don’t know what to do,” she says. “Having Taylor retiring a couple of years ago makes it so much easier for me, to see him happy doing whatever he’s doing. I always see that there is still a life, to fulfil yourself. I’m trying to get deeper into my interests.
“I’m extremely interested in what’s happening in our heads. How our subconscious works, how our thoughts affect our realities,” she adds. “Very interesting stuff. But our brain is incredibly complex. And I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand it.”Image: Paolo Martelli
This psychological study has a practical purpose too. She herself has noticed the impact of practising mindfulness regarding a back injury that had been plaguing her for the past three seasons. She had put it down to the natural wear and tear from a decade at the top of her game, but her coach suggested her mind might have something to do with it too.
“He was like, ‘it’s not that your body is wrong, you just need to be connected with your body and let it relax and believe that everything is good’,” she explains. “It might sound crazy but now I have no back problem. I’m trying to practise mindfulness and before I to go to bed I have this little thing where I say to myself that everything is OK, I’m healthy, I have no problems. For some weird magical reason I think that as long as you believe it, you can feel it.”
Niewiadoma is a deep thinker. Not in an obsessive-compulsive analytical sense but in a bigger picture sense. She is still only 27 but has raced at the top of the sport for eight years. And she’s critical of it. She has to be, because that youthful do-anything eagerness has been replaced by wisdom and experience. She wants to walk to the shops to get groceries, even though cycling’s perceived dogma states that walking will impact recovery which will affect her performance. She wants to enjoy food. Her life. A balance.
“After doing those things for years and years you realise you’re losing your happiness and passion towards the sport because you’re doing those things that you don’t wanna be doing, that you don’t believe in, but somehow you think are right,” she says.Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
But changing habits and patterns is very hard, and all the while pro cycling is getting younger, more enthusiastic, more obsessive, and further down the road to burnout. In a recent podcast, BikeExchange rider Luke Durbridge spoke about how the men’s peloton has become a place where riders seldom talk to each other. Where young upstarts show less and less respect to their elders. Niewiadoma has spotted a similar crescendo in intensity within the women’s peloton too. The dedication. The unhealthy obsessions. The general eagerness to go more and more extreme.
“It’s hard to express it because I don’t want to sound like a weird old woman, but you feel like the new generation is bringing this… professionalism, or stress, or everyone is crazy about things that you shouldn’t be crazy about, there are a lot of people being obsessed with things you shouldn’t be obsessed about,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “I was paying a lot of attention to it but then I realised it was just making me feel bad so I don’t pay attention to it anymore.”
With 2022 rotating into view, Niewiadoma is desperate to win Strade Bianche, where she has featured on the podium four times in six starts and never reached the Piazza del Campo lower down than ninth. Then there’s the Tour de France Femmes and the World Championships. But her goal goes a little deeper than winning this or that race, even though it would bring that 34+ month winless streak to a close. That win will come sooner or later, she believes, but above all she wants to help her team tap into the power of the mind.
Image: Paolo Martelli
“For the first time I really want to be a leader in a team, not a leader in that everyone has to ride for me but a leader who helps women feel better on my team,” she explains. “We all spend so much time together and for the most part everyone supresses their feelings.
“Maybe they don’t want to put out any bad energy, but eventually when you supress your feelings it always comes out. I feel like I wanna communicate with everyone, let everyone know that as a team we have to support each other on every single level and create this honesty and trust within the team. I would like it to be normal that no-one has to hide anything.”
This winter, Niewiadoma has learned that perhaps all those lonely hours dealing with another near miss have helped make sense of it all.
“This year for the first time in my life I felt like I want to be racing more. I felt this huge hunger. Me wanting to win Worlds so badly and being close made me feel like I want it more and more. That was interesting. After riding for so long it was nice to feel that it’s my eighth season and I still want to be racing.
“I feel like maybe finally I just grew up as a person and I understand finally what I am doing, and I enjoy doing it, and I don’t let anything bother me like before.
“Cycling is such a fragile sport that if your mind isn’t fully there it’s so easy to turn into this grumpy person who just complains about their life. It’s beautiful but you don’t see it.”
Cover image: Paolo Martelli
Rouleur's content is supported by Zwift. Find out more about riding with Zwift this winter here