Katarzyna Niewiadoma may have her best shot at winning the Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile this year after organisers announced the inclusion of the iconic Monte Zoncolan at the finish of the penultimate ninth stage. The Polish all-rounder will co-lead Canyon-SRAM French teammate Pauline Ferrand-Prévot during the 10-day race set to start in Verbania on Friday.
"I'm looking forward to the Giro Rosa and to see how my body is going to react during those 10 hard days," Niewiadoma told Cyclingnews. "I'm proud of myself and I'm happy about all of the work that I have done in the last few weeks. I have no specific expectations or goals. I just want to ride my best and fight for our team to represent my team in a marvellous way."
Niewiadoma, 23, has been among the favourites to win the title since the start of her professional career six years ago, and admits that the pressure for her to perform at such a young age can be daunting ahead of the biggest stage race in women's cycling.
"I get stressed from the Giro Rosa," Niewiadoma told Cyclingnews in a phone interview earlier this season. When she was planning out her season goals. "I always target a good result there and put pressure on myself to do something great."
Niewiadoma placed 11th in her first attempt at the Giro Rosa in 2014. She then placed fifth in 2015, seventh in 2016 and she was sixth last year, and she has twice won the youth classification. Although she has never won a stage, she has consistently placed near the top of the results on the decisive queen stages.
She said that competing for the overall classification against the top women in the world is as much of a mental game as it is a physical one.
"Every year, I placed pretty good in the GC," Niewiadoma said. "But in 2016, for example, I was in second position overall, and something cracked in my head, I gave up and stopped fighting, and then I dropped to a lower position."
Niewiadoma started her professional career as a trainee for Marianne Vos' former Rabobank-Liv Giant (now Waowdeals Pro Cycling). During her five seasons with that program, she said she learned a lot from Vos and that Anna van der Breggen (who now races with Boels Dolmans) remains her role model.
Van der Breggen has won the Giro Rosa twice; in 2015 ahead of Mara Abbott and Megan Guarnier, and last year when she beat Elisa Longo Borghini and Annemiek van Vleuten. In June, she announced that she would skip her Giro Rosa defense and instead compete in her first-ever mountain bike World Cup in Val di Sole on July 7. Niewiadoma praised Van der Breggen for making decisions that best suit her own needs as an athlete.
"I think Anna made a decision according to her own feelings and needs, so all I can say about that is that I appreciate it and admire her for missing this race in order to prepare for her other goals."
Despite not being teammates anymore, Niewiadoma said that over the years Van der Breggen has consistently offered her advice during the Giro Rosa's often difficult and unpredictable parcours, and especially when Niewiadoma faced low confidence or points of fatigue.
"Anna has always tried to help me in the Giro Rosa, to give me advice," Niewiadoma said. "She is an amazing person and my role model."
Last year, at just 22 years old, Niewiadoma finished fifth in the UCI World Ranking and third overall in the Women's WorldTour after finishing on the podiums at Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She also won the OVO Energy Women's Tour.
This year, she was second and Strade Bianche again and took a victory at Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Her Ardennes Classics season didn't go as well as she had hoped, but she later placed third overall at the Amgen Women's Race, and 20th at the OVO Energy Women's Tour, and says she hopes to do much better at this Giro Rosa.
"I love to be racing stage races because you have several opportunities to claim that you're in good shape and to correct your own mistakes from previous days," Niewiadoma said. "It's a time where you can get to know your teammates a little bit better and where you gain a lot of valuable lessons about racing."
Despite being at the highest level of women's professional cycling for the past six seasons, Niewiadoma said that knowing she is only 23 and that she still has a full career ahead of her helps relieve some of the pressure she puts on herself to win races.
"I try not to think about being young," Niewiadoma said. "Sometimes I feel like an easy, free bird, and that I can do whatever I want. And other times I wonder what the point is of everything that I'm doing, especially when the important races are coming, and they can be so difficult.
"I don't want to disappoint myself, or my family and friends. I want to do my best. And so it can be hard to separate these thoughts in my mind; the thoughts that make me feel confident and the thoughts that make me feel confused.
In an interview with Cyclingnews this spring, she said she recognised the need to be patient and that she knows she has a strong future in pro cycling ahead of her, where victories at the Giro Rosa could happen.
"Everyone will be super worried about the Zoncolan"
Organisers of the Giro Rosa traditionally include one iconic ascent during their event. In December, they announced the inclusion of the Monte Zoncolan, which was also used in the men's Giro d'Italia in May, at stage 14 won by Chris Froome (Team Sky).
"I have not ridden that climb but I've heard a lot of stories about it," Niewiadoma said. "It is going to be extremely hard. Knowing how riders and teams always race the Giro, I know that everyone will be super worried about this stage. They will be waiting patiently to save as much energy as possible in the earlier stages of the race, ahead of this climb."
The Zoncolan first introduced to the professional peloton during the 1997 Giro Rosa, where Fabiana Luperini won the stage and the overall title, and it has since been used six times during the men's Giro d'Italia.
This year, the women will take on the toughest side, from Ovaro, on the western side. It is just over 10 kilometres, 1,200 metres of elevation gain and has an average slope of 12 per cent, but with sections as steep as 22 per cent.
"These kinds of iconic climbs at the Giro Rosa are extremely difficult because they are all about pushing power for a long time," Niewiadoma said. "During some of the traditional stages you might have an effort that is really high for only five minutes with some rest on the downhills.
"On a climb like the Zoncolan, where you will have to climb for 40 minutes or more, it is a completely different way of racing. As women, we don't have many opportunities to ride these kinds of climbs in races, so it will be unknown and unsure of what to expect."
The queen stage will start from Tricesimo and include 104.7kms to the top of the final ascent of the Zoncolan.
"We will be asking ourselves, 'should I go at the bottom of the climb or wait and see what others are doing?,'" Niewiadoma said. "Either way, it will be a strange game between us on that stage."
Organisers announced the full route of the 2018 Giro Rosa in March. It will start on July 6 with a 15.5-kilometre team time trial in Verbania along Lago Maggiore, and conclude ten days later with stage 10's120kms circuit race in Friuli, with a short final lap that includes a four-kilometre climb in Trivio.
2018 Giro Rosa stages:
Stage 1: July 6 - Verbania - Verbania, 15.5km (team time trial)
Stage 2: July 7 - Ovada - Ovada, 120.3km
Stage 3: July 8 - Corbetta - Corbetta, 132km
Stage 4: July 9 - Piacenza - Piacenza, 109km
Stage 5: July 10 - Omegna - Omegna, 117.7km
Stage 6: July 11 - Sovico - Gerola Alta, 114.1km
Stage 7: July 12 - Lanzada - Diga di Campo Moro, 15km (mountain time trial)
Stage 8: July 13 - San Giorgio di Perlena (Fara Vicentino) - Breganze, 121.6km
Stage 9: July 14 - Tricesimo - Monte Zoncolan, 104.7km
Stage 10: July 15 - Cividale del Friuli - Cividale del Friuli, 120.3km