There’s no doubt the level of women’s cycling is on the rise. Over the last season and a half, we’ve seen Annemiek van Vleuten dropped on a climb, Lotte Kopecky evolve from a sprinter to a Classics specialist, and the old tactics overpowered by a new style of racing. Van Vleuten isn’t the only rider who is feeling the force of a rising tide. Canyon-SRAM’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma – who goes by Kasia – is also feeling the shift, especially when it comes to the spring Classics.
“Before the beginning of this season I felt confident and I felt like I made progress over the winter time and I felt strong and I was definitely hoping for different results,” Niewiadoma told the Wheel Talk Podcast. “I had some bad luck at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then Strade Bianche was, of course, my main goal [for spring]. Being left behind by Lotte Kopecky as if I was standing still on the last gravel section was a reality check.”
The moment Kopecky attacked with 11.7 km to go Niewiadoma was with a group of favourites including Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Van Vleuten. Van Vleuten – the world champion – and her teammate Liane Lippert would go on to chase the leaders, while Niewiadoma finished the race in sixth, just behind Fenix-Deceuninck’s multi-disciplinary star Puck Pieterse.
Strade Bianche has always been a race with Niewiadoma’s name all over it. Since its inception in 2015, the Polish rider finished second in three straight editions from 2016 to 2018 and third in 2019. After targeting the race again this year and not making that crucial selection near the end, the 28-year-old had to look at what had changed.
“That made me realize that women’s cycling is changing,” Niewiadoma said. “You no longer just have to do the winter training at home – you have to do cyclocross or track, or you have to spend three weeks at altitude before everything starts just to gain those extra advantages or just to be above others.
“I felt like what I’ve been doing so far, which was basically just having a routine training and having strength training, was something that elevated my shape, but it wasn’t enough in order to be winning the races. It feels really … I don’t even know how to explain it.”
A star from the start
Niewiadoma has been racing in the professional peloton since she was 19, joining Rabobank-Liv Giant as a trainee in September 2013. In her first full season with the team in 2014, she was already making waves, finishing third overall at the Ladies Tour of Norway and 11th in the World Championship road race.
Her career steadily climbed from there with an overall victory at Emakumeen Bira in 2015 and both Festival Elsy Jacobs and Giro del Trentino Alto Adige in 2016. In 2016 she also finished sixth at the Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro. The next season Rabobank-Liv became WM3 Energie. A handful of the former riders left, while a few big names stayed, like Niewiadoma and Marianne Vos. That year Niewiadoma won the overall classification at the Women’s Tour and finished third in all three Ardennes Classics.
By 2018 Niewiadoma was ready for a new scene and moved to the new Canyon-SRAM team, where she has been ever since. She’s notched most of the team’s major wins, including Trofeo Alfredo Binda in 2018 and Amstel Gold Race in 2019. In 2022 Niewiadoma finished third overall at the inaugural Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift.
But 2023 hasn’t brought the same results or even the same proximity to the podium Niewiadoma has become accustomed to. Again, she thinks it comes down to a change in how the peloton is approaching winter training.
“As the season goes on, I feel like I just get this fatigue resilience that allows me to push harder because your body’s kind of used to it or your body went through some hard races so you adapt,” she said. “Thinking about Lotte Kopecky doing the track, I think that she gets that [race stimulus] quite frequently throughout the winter.
“I think it’s all about getting out of what you were doing so far and looking for ways to prepare yourself, so you entered the season knowing you had done something differently.”
It’s true that riders like Kopecky are continuing their racing seasons on the track or in the mud during the road offseason. Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and Trek-Segafredo’s Lucinda Brand, for example, have been racing both cyclocross and road for years and have expertly navigated jumping from one discipline to the other. Niewiadoma seems to be considering similar, to break out of a pattern of being close to winning, without actually reaching the top step.
Rising to the next level, literally
“Finishing fourth or fifth – I think I have gone so many years already that I feel like I’m stuck in the same position,” she said. “Whether it’s going to be, I don’t know, maybe gravel races or something longer. But actually, it’s also nice to have some explosivity through cyclocross. I wouldn’t mind that.
“You feel that you do so much and every year you try to better yourself and then there is still something missing. I kind of feel like now I just want to basically live at altitude just so I can feel that form that actually can carry you to another level.”
Niewiadoma, who spends a good part of her season living at altitude in Andorra, is one of many cyclists – male and female – who have relocated to the mountains. For the women, it all started with Van Vleuten. The world champion would often spend long blocks at altitude in Italy and come back on a different level. Now, as more women make a proper salary to support such trips, more of the peloton is investing in altitude camps. Notably, Demi Vollering spent some time at altitude before her string of victories at the Ardennes Classics, La Vuelta Femenina, and Itzulia Women.
“I feel like I’m just missing this 1% that could allow me to be the strongest because I feel like in some ways, not feeling the strongest is also a motivating feeling,” Niewiadoma said. “I’ve been searching for this the whole season so far.
“I think the Itzulia race is a nice way to finish my spring campaign because I feel like at this race I was actually able to also be a part of the race. I feel like everybody needs those moments, to feel that extra motivation to like … I wouldn’t even say work harder, because I feel like it’s more about like just finding details that allow you to be ahead of the others.”
Niewiadoma finished third overall at Itzulia Women over the weekend, behind SD Worx’s Marlen Reusser and Demi Vollering. She was active especially in the second and third stages, trying to get away from the powerful Dutch squad.
“Maybe it was just the race shape was coming and the rest of the peloton is kind of getting tired or losing the effect from altitude,” Niewiadoma said of Itzulia. “But now, I would talk with girls at the race and everyone is like, ‘Oh, I go back into the mountains’. It really feels that in a couple of years in order to be a pro cyclist you will have to live in the mountains all the time [at] altitude.”
Regardless of her season not starting out exactly as she planned, Niewiadoma still has high hopes for the rest of 2023 and for her career in general.
‘Once you stop thinking about improving … that’s when you lose motivation.’
“I think that just comes from still wanting to be the best,” Niewiadoma said. “I want to win races. So of course, there’s always a grieving moment and anger when you come back from races and you don’t get the result you want.
“Many times this season I would be like ‘What am I doing? What’s wrong?’ But then after all those negative feelings, you realize that you care about the sport. So in some ways, it kind of turns into motivation or it turns into something that allows you to keep your mind open to finding new ways to be better. How to beat somebody, how to change the race tactic. You are constantly thinking about improving. Once you stop thinking about improving and wanting to change something that’s when you lose motivation.”
While wins have been rare, the 2023 season has been an encouraging one for Canyon-SRAM so far. The team added two new directors, one of whom is 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt. In addition to the new DSs, some of Niewiadoma’s teammates have come into the 2023 season with fresh legs.
Elise Chabbey continues to impress and prove she has what it takes to make the races more interesting. Shari Bossuyt and Maike van der Duin have been impressive. And new recruit Ricarda Bauernfeind was the breakthrough rider of La Vuelta, finishing third on stage 5, fifth on the final mountainous stage, and fifth overall. Not being the sole leader of the team is something Niewiadoma welcomes.
“It’s definitely very nice to have [teammates] there in the final,” Niewiadoma said. “I feel like that also allows me to actually focus on my goals and not to come to every single race feeling that I have to deliver results. Like with La Vuelta, I knew I went to the race just to help Ricarda [Bauernfeind] because she was very helpful during the Ardennes Classics.
“I love being in a leader position, but also I love feeling that I can give something back. So then my teammates feel appreciated and they don’t feel that they are living in my shadow. Any time I have the opportunity to work with somebody, I’d like to be in a position that I can support or help other riders, especially young riders. I really love that. You can help them build their confidence. And that’s something even more rewarding than thinking about yourself as the leader.”
When Niewiadoma returns to the peloton she will once again be the leader.
“My main goal is Tour de France [Femmes] and there are quite a lot of things that I need to improve,” Niewiadoma said. “The calming part of that is that I know that I still have a few weeks, so it’s plenty of time to improve and kind of dedicate the time and make sure that everything goes well. It actually feels like the busiest part of the season is over. So now it’s more about training and going the weekend of the race and then training again.”
Before she lines up in France Niewiadoma is taking a leaf out of Van Vleuten and Vollering’s books and heading to altitude for a good block of training. In between training, she will test her fitness at the Tour de Suisse where her teammate Chabbey will be hoping to impress on home roads. Then, it’s on to Clermont-Ferrand for the TdF Femmes, where Niewiadoma will test whether she’s levelled up.