Standing atop the Mur de Huy in the white and violet jersey of the UCI World Cup best young rider, Katarzyna Niewiadoma confirmed herself as one of the most promising riders in women's cycling. The Rabo-Liv rider climbed to fifth place in her second appearance in Flèche Wallonne, once again putting her climbing prowess on display against the world's top riders.
As cycling gains momentum in Poland, women's cycling is slowly coming into the spotlight, too. On Wednesday, Niewiadoma's result was given more attention by the Polish media as Michal Kwiatkowski and Rafal Majka didn't contest top positions in the elite men's race.
"I wish the women's race was broadcast live. Believe me, last 20km were really interesting and I think showing it may be a good way to change how people view women's cycling," Niewiadoma said in an interview with rowery.org.
Despite being only 20, the tiny climber matched the pace of more experienced riders in the tough finale and crossed the line 40 seconds behind victorious teammate Anna van der Breggen, marking a significant improvement over last year, when she finished 15th.
"Anna and Pauline were our leaders. I had a few tasks in the last part of the race, but I was able to save something for the final climb. I'm extremely happy with my result and with how we rode as a team."
The race exploded on Cote de Cherave as a small group of favourites broke clear and hit the slopes of Mur de Huy to fight for the win. Van der Breggen soloed to the finish line, riding away from her former teammate Annemiek van Vleuten (Bigla) while Niewiadoma and teammate Pauline Ferrand-Prevot finished fifth and eighth respectively.
"The new climb made the race much harder. Attacks came there, I was almost dead at the top and there was still the Mur de Huy to go," she admitted with a smile.
Having scored some points in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda and fifth place in Huy, Niewiadoma leads the young rider's classification in women's World Cup ahead of Sabrina Stultiens and Rosella Ratto.
Poland has a climber
Ochotnica is a small village in southern Poland, near the Slovakian border. Located among the valleys of Beskid Zachodni, not far from ski resorts such as Zakopane and Nowy Targ, it is a place where the roads only go uphill - a paradise for those who enjoy suffering on climbs.
Niewiadoma does. A born climber, she was coached by Zbigniew Klek, the very man who discovered and guided Rafal Majka. A small girl gritting her teeth and beating boys in a local time trial was something the experienced coach has probably never seen in his life, but he immediately asked her to join the club, and that was it.
Labelled one of the most promising riders in the junior category, with medals in national championships and wins on the domestic scene, Niewiadoma entered the elite category with TKK Pacific Torun, a club with which world champion Michal Kwiatkowski grew up and shone in junior races.
Under the guidance of experienced rider Paulina Brzezna-Bentkowska and her husband Pawel, Niewiadoma developed rapidly, taking part in races abroad and winning two gold medals in the Polish U23 championships. She came onto the radar of the top women teams with her fifth place in European Championships in 2013 and subsequently joined Rabo Liv team as a trainee.
"I'm a happy person and I've had lots of amazing people supporting me on the way. They guided me and taught me to believe in myself. I wouldn't be here, had it not been for them," Niewiadoma replied when asked about her short career.
Modest and hard working, Niewiadoma finished 10th in Boels Rental Ladies Tour in September 2013 and soon inked a professional contract with Rabo Liv. During her first year she became no stranger to cobbles, echelons and bergs, the essential parts of racing on a Dutch team. Her first win came soon, too, as she sailed to the victory in Frauen Grand Prix Gippingen.
Niewiadoma didn't have to wait long for a chance to demonstrate her climbing potential. At 19, she was selected to ride the 2014 Giro Rosa, the hardest and longest race on the women's calendar.
"I know it's going to be tough. My directeur sportif told me to be prepared for suffering. That's good, I'll see how much I can push myself," – she said before the start.
Ten days later, atop the Madonna del Ghisallo, she celebrated finishing the race with her teammates filling the podium and herself finishing 11th, having worked her lungs out for the team's result.
Giro Rosa focus
This year, with a sixth place in Strade Bianche Donne and fifth in la Flèche Wallonne under her belt, Niewiadoma is happy to complete her early season objectives and is slowly turning her focus to the Giro Rosa, the toughest stage race on the women's calendar.
"Giro Rosa is my goal and I'm preparing myself as I only can. I want to be in top shape and see where my place is," she said. "This year I'm a completely different rider and I want to demonstrate it. I'm still learning and trying to avoid mistakes I've already made."
The 2015 Giro Rosa offers a diverse parcours with three mountain stages and a 21.7km time trial on a penultimate day. Riders are set to start from Ljubjlana, Slovenia and will be facing a demanding route with long transfers in between the stages. Climbs of Aprica (stage 5), Naso di Gatto and Melogno (stage 7) are expected to rock the fight in the general classification while the time trial on stage 8 will put climbers under pressure ahead of uphill finale in San Domenico di Varzo.
"I feel stronger with every year. I guess what gives me the biggest motivation is seeing the progress that comes from hard work and sacrifices. I'm a happy person surrounded by people who support me. That's driving me," Niewiadoma concluded.