The opening Ardennes week saw the same three riders grace every podium: Anna van der Breggen, who did the triple, Lizzie Deignan, who three times finished second and Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3 Energie), who rounded out the podium at the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"I did everything I could to change the order of the podium sometime this week but it didn't work out," Niewiadoma told Cyclingnews. "Boels Dolmans was the strongest this week. They showed that from the beginning. I'm still a bit disappointed, but I couldn't do any more."
Niewiadoma turned professional with the now-defunct Rabo Liv as a first-year elite in 2014. She notched 10 wins in the past two seasons as she learned alongside some of the best in the business: Marianne Vos, Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. The 22-year-old stepped into an undisputed leadership role at WM3 Energie this season as Vos races only sporadically and has yet to regain the form that saw her dominate the sport across multiple disciplines for the better part of a decade.
Niewiadoma has raced nine times this season. She's been her team's top finisher in all but one race. In addition to her trio of Ardennes week third-place finishes, she came second at Strade Bianche, and she featured in the main bits of action at the pointy end of Flanders. Perhaps more importantly, she's often been the main instigator as the kilometres tick down: launching attacks, closing gaps and driving breakaways.
"It's a completely different situation this year," said Niewiadoma. "Always with Rabo, I ended up in a group with two or three teammates, so we always took responsibility to control everything. Now I'm on my own.
"In one point, maybe this is good because I don't feel the pressure not to do something that could harm other riders, but I can't control everything alone," Niewiadoma continued. "At some point, I'm completely done and have no powers in my legs."
She paused, sighed deeply and then added: "I still have a lot of races to go."
Niewiadoma's teammates stepped up at Liège on Sunday. Valentina Scandolara was part of the first breakaway of the day. Moniek Tenniglo countered after Scandolara's catch. Jeanne Korevaar bridged up to what would become the longest early escape of the day.
"Our sport directior in the team meeting said we needed to try a different tactic, be really offensive from the start and stay alert in the front to be able to react to every attack," Niewiadoma explained. "It was really cool to see them destroying the peloton at the start.
"Of course it was really hard because it was always up and down," Niewiadoma noted. "With the extra attacks, it made it even harder, so for the final climbs, everyone was à bloc already. It was easier for me to get rid of the girls when I attacked."
Niewiadoma made her bid for glory toward on Roche-aux-Faucons. Over the top of the penultimate climb, Deignan, van der Breggen, Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) and Ashleigh Moolmain-Pais (Cervelo-Bigla) were the only four that could follow.
"I said to myself: 'OK, I really need to go full here,'" Niewiadoma explained. "I knew if I didn't go full for sure [van der Breggen and Deignan] are there, and it will be the same scenario of Amstel and Flèche."
The valiant effort was not enough to upset van der Breggen, who attacked over Saint-Nicholas. Niewiadoma chased with Deignan in her slipstream. Unsurprisingly, Deignan outsprinted Niewiadoma to the line.
"At least it's a podium spot," said Niewiadoma. "I'm kind of happy about that. Maybe next, next, next, next, race it will happen."
Those "next, next" races don't come until the end of May. Niewiadoma's family drove to Belgium to play cheerleader at Ardennes week, and Niewiadoma headed back to Poland with them from the finish in Ans. She relocated to Girona, Spain at the start of the season for better weather, varied training options and more independence but will spend her mid-season back in Eastern Europe.
"I'm going to take a small break at home, to live with my family and for awhile to forget about cycling," Niewiadoma said. "My parents are here, so I just go in their car and bye, bye Belgium. At the end of May, I'll do Gooik, and so it will be hello Belgium again, then Aviva Women's Tour, Nationals, Giro, La Course. Then another break again."
Niewiadoma is amongst the contenders for the 2017 UCI Road World Championship course in Bergen. The rolling route suits her. When Cyclingnews suggested that perhaps the big win might come then, Niewiadoma smiled and said: "If that would happen, I'd forget all this. That would make up for everything."
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