When second feels like a win

Niewiadoma's gutsy racing style finally paid off on the queen stage of the Tour de France Femmes.

Demi Vollering congratulates Kasia Niewiadoma atop the Col du Tourmalet after the seventh stage of the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.

When Annemiek van Vleuten attacked on the Col d’Aspin everyone expected Demi Vollering to follow. What they perhaps didn’t expect, was for Kasia Niewiadoma to stick to the two. She’s an incredible bike racer, no doubt, but in last year’s Tour it was on the long ascents of stage 7 that the Polish rider struggled.

“All the races so far I was taking note what were my weaknesses, why was I dropping from Demi’s wheel and finally when I had the time to go to a training camp together with my coach we just focused only “on my weaknesses,” Niewiadoma said after Saturday’s stage.

Over the top of the Col d’Aspin, for the second time this week, Canyon-SRAM took advantage of SD Worx’s cagey tactics and sent Niewiadoma on the attack. On the technical descent, Niewiadoma did what Niewiadoma does best. With every corner she gained speed and time as the Dutchwomen behind her faded into the distance.

An attack by Annemiek van Vleuten is followed by Demi Vollering and Kasia Niewiadoma on the Col d’Aspin.

While the two chasers were busy playing mind games with each other, Niewiadoma rode her heart out.

It was touch and go, but as Van Vleuten and Vollering refused to work together and Niewiadoma’s gap grew, hope flared worldwide for one of the most loved women in the peloton.

Dreams of a stage victory would be dashed once the powerhouse that is Marlen Reusser brought the gap down to eight seconds, and even after the Swiss rider was dropped, the damage had been done. Vollering’s predicted attack with 5 km to go ended Niewiadoma’s chances of a stage win, but atop the Tourmalet, surrounded by her team and friends who had traveled from Girona to cheer her on, Niewiadoma couldn’t help but be thrilled about the day.

“To be honest, I am so happy that all the hard work paid off,” she said, before she’d even really had time to catch her breath.

Weeks and months spent honing her weaknesses was how Niewiadoma stayed with the two best climbers in the world. Dedication, and a never-ending desire to win races; to be the best. On Saturday, it showed.

“I knew the moment that normally I would drop but I promised myself that I wouldn’t stop riding out of the saddle until Annemiek would do so, because normally that’s how I would get dropped – from her out-of-the-saddle hard pace,” she said.

Niewiadoma on her own, in the mist.

In the beginning of her career Nieiwiadoma was an exciting prospect. Scooped up by Rabobank-Liv in 2013, she’s been teammates with all the greats. Anna van der Breggen, Marianne Vos, Lucinda Brand, even Van Vleuten herself.

Over the years, she achieved the success her younger self had promised, but when she made the switch to Canyon-SRAM in 2018 things started to plateau.

This kind of career development is by no means a bad thing, nor is it only Niewiadoma who experienced it. Often times, so many years into a career, the same training doesn’t work like it once did, and tactics are marked by other riders. Niewiadoma’s attacking style is one the peloton knows all too well, and no matter how strong she is, it’s hard to get anywhere when every move you make is marked.

Unless you’re riding with the two best in the world and they are busy looking at each other.

“I knew [the attack would work] because I did it on purpose,” Niewiadoma explained. “I saw how they were competeing with each other.

“In Polish we have this saying ‘If the two are fighting the third one is winning’ so I was just hoping for them to get involved with themselves and look for my own opportunity.”

And finding opportunities is what Niewiadoma is best at. For the last three years it hasn’t worked – after she won Amstel Gold Race in 2019 she’s been unable to force the peloton to let her go. It’s not for lack of trying though. Again and again it’s Niewiadoma who animates the races, testing various moments in the race to attack, different compositions of the peloton. But the years of the peloton allowing her any kind of freedom ended long ago.

As she dangled out front of a chasing group on Saturday, the Swiss champion leading the charge, Niewiadoma never faltered. Her determination was evident even through her glasses and the mists of the Col du Tourmalet.

Niewiadoma looks over her shoulder on the bottom slopes of the Col du Tourmalet to see Marlen Reusser pulling a group of favourites up to the solo attacker.

Without Reusser, a very different story might have been told on Saturday – the story of a win four years in the making. But for all the Kasia fans around the world, for everyone who has cheered as she has lit up race after race, second place felt like a win.

“The pity was that the group behind got back and Marlen was chasing me down and the first part [of the climb] is steady and very powerful so I just didn’t want to go back to the group,” Niewiadoma explained. “I knew that I prefer to keep my own pace; mentally I feel stronger when I am on my own.”

Even after Vollering passed her in the final kilometeres of the mountain, where the fog was thickest and the fans were lining the roads, Niewiadoma kept fighting. The Dutchwoman who would eventually take yellow was the only one who mananaged to catch the Canyon-SRAM rider.

“I’m just fucking proud of my team and myself,” she said when the day was done. “So fuck yeah.” (Niewiadoma then apologized for her swearing, noting that English is not her first language, in a moment that was as endearing as it was hilarious.)

As other GC hopefuls trickled in they congratulated Niewiadoma, all of them damp from the ride up, the sweat, and the clouds. Vollering was the first to come over to tell Niewiadoma how strong she looked. In her post-race interview, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, who finished fourth on the day, praised the move by her rival.

“I have to say really really big respect to Kasia, she really put herself all out there, and it really paid off,” the South African said. “She didn’t win but she stayed ahead and that’s a massive ride from her.”

Niewiadoma was swept to the podium, to don the climber’s jersey; a jersey that Vollering won the year before. Last year, Niewiadoma stood on the third step, just behind Van Vleuten in yellow and Vollering in polka dots. Depending how the final-stage time trial goes, she could take Vollering’s place from last year and finish the Tour second overall. One step up from last year.

It might not be the top step, but it’s progress, and if there’s one thing we know about Niewiadoma it’s that she never gives up. That promise she showed in 2013 is still there and she is still a fierce competitor who never lets anything stand in her way. And if she does figure out a way to win again, Kasia fans everywhere better get their lungs and tissues ready.

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