Although she has been among world's best riders for two seasons, she waited until her debut on British roads to take the very first win on a WorldTour level. Katarzyna Niewiadoma (WM3 Pro Cycling) stormed to the victory in the opener of Ovo Energy Women's Tour and held on to the green race leader's jersey over next four days, celebrating the overall win on Sunday.
"I am super happy. That's the only word that can describe my feelings," Niewiadoma said to a group of journalists after the finish of the criterium-like final stage in central London.
Niewiadoma, 22, has already three stage race victories to her name: the Euskal Emakumeen Bira in 2015, and the Festival Elsy Jacobs and Giro del Trentino Alto Adige-Sudtirol in 2016. Winning the Women's Tour is arguably her most significant achievement, a maiden WorldTour victory coming after two seasons of coming close during the key races on the calendar.
"I was waiting for a WorldTour victory for a long time. I was all the time somewhere there – second, third – but somehow always missed that victory. I'm super delighted I can grab it. After the Ardennes I was a little bit disappointed but I certainly didn't expect to take my first WorldTour victory in the UK," she said.
Women's races are often more spontaneous and unpredictable than those of their male counterparts. The British race lived up to these expectations, and what happened on the road to Kettering on stage 1 was not a part of anyone's script, certainly not WM3's or Niewiadoma's. The Polish rider attacked 47.5 kilometres before the finish and ended up winning the day by a hefty margin of 1:42.
"I did the same thing last year at Holland Ladies Tour. I attacked early and I got caught with 10 kilometres to go. This time it worked out… I don't know, maybe they underestimated me. When I first realized I'm on my own, I thought, 'oh gosh, what am I doing here alone out in this field?'" Niewiadoma said with a laugh when asked about the situation.
"It was a moment when we tried to form an echelon. But we got a headwind, not a cross-wind. I wanted to do something and I attacked. Worst part was, nobody followed. So I just pushed on, I was ashamed to just quietly go back to the bunch," she explained.
"It was unexpected, the teams started riding late. But it's also a little bit stupid to ride like Kasia [in the first stage]. Sometimes it happens, it worked good for us," sports director Jeroen Blijlevens told Cyclingnews ahead of the final stage.
Niewiadoma's debut on British roads was her first appearance after a month-long break following her spring campaign. After three podium results in the Ardennes classics in April, she struggled with a knee injury in the build-up period. As such, the leadership responsibility at the Women's Tour initially rested upon the shoulders of Marianne Vos.
"Coming here, I didn't even feel like fighting for a top 10 result. I just wanted to ride every stage hard and help Marianne," said.
Crossing the line in Kettering, Niewiadoma pointed to the pink ribbon plaited in her hair, shining a spotlight on the Breast Cancer Care campaign, an official charity partner of this year's edition of Ovo Energy Women's Tour.
At the outset of the five-day race, all participants received pink ribbons, the worldwide symbol of breast cancer awareness, each with a short message from a woman who suffered from the disease. The ribbons accompanied the peloton throughout the race and riders had the chance to meet some of those women during final stage in London. The closing act of WorldTour race was preceded by a Pink Ribbon Tour – a ride in a display of solidarity with the affected by breast cancer.
The Polish champion's win on the first day and a subsequent exchange of tweets with Laura Hunter, whose ribbon Niewiadoma carried, prompted the race organizers to arrange an early meeting of the two. Hunter was present on the podium of stage 3, where Polish rider received leader's jersey.
"She is super strong. Having a chance to meet her was just amazing. Even without knowing her, I really feel like I know her forever. I said to her that we're going to do it together," Niewiadoma said at press conference after stage 3.
Battle of Chesterfield
Niewiadoma kept a firm grasp on the jersey on a second day, finishing fifth in Stoke-on-Trent and arriving safely in the group as the bunch sprint on day three was claimed by Chloe Hosking. The battle for the overall podium took place on the fourth day, as riders tackled undulating course around Chesterfield on a 123km route with 11 climbs, though only two of them counted for mountain classification points.
Having lost Vos to a crash on a previous day, Niewiadoma was quickly isolated from her teammates and had to defend her lead against all the major teams. Following all the moves wasn't feasible and in the key part of the stage a break spearheaded by Leah Kirchmann (Team Sunweb), Sarah Roy (Orica-Scott) and Christine Majerus (Boels Dolmans) launched a tireless assault on the podium.
"I was on my own for around 60 kilometres. That's when attacks came, each team tried to put me in difficulty. I said to myself that no matter what, I have to go with every attack, do not let anyone get away. When Christine went, it was the hardest moment, because I knew she is a threat. She is strong, she is capable of pulling it off. I thought Wiggle High5 and Cervelo-Bigla riders would pull but none of them were willing to take up the pace."
With Majerus assuming virtual leadership on the road, leading the frantic chase was up only to Niewiadoma. This couldn't go forever and when the leaders' group slowed down, the race saw yet another twist as previously dropped riders rejoined. Diverging interests of teams worked out in favour of Polish rider and inside final 20 kilometres the gap started coming down.
"After a hundred or so kilometres we were joined by a bigger group with Anouska [Koster]. There were more riders from Canyon and Bigla, they agreed to pull it back, so I could sit back a bit. I knew the difference will be less than two minutes," Niewiadoma recalled.
This turn of events wasn't unexpected to sports director Blijlevens, who highlighted the positive aspects of the chaotic stage.
"In the finals we missed Marianne but Kasia is so strong. If it ended up with a minute [gap], it'd be good for her but not other teams, who were also fighting for third place. So others made more mistakes in fight for podium or GC than we did. There was one rider from Boels and one from Sunweb at the front and they stopped attacking in the group. They were protecting the breakaway. So it was better for us. Some teams missed the breakaway so they had to ride. It was a perfect situation for us."
The fifth and final stage in London was anything but a parade of victory. While in the morning crowds watched marching Queen's Guard in front of the Buckingham Palace, hours later they saw an orange train of Boels Dolmans putting the pressure in the leader and going all guns blazing from the very start of a 62km race.
Niewiadoma was able to respond and controlled the situation, at the finish line joyfully gathering teammates as Jolien D'Hoore surged to the stage victory.
"Boels started really hard and of course they were successful. They split the peloton into two groups. Fortunately I was in the first one so I thought I need to stay in the wheel and control the situation," she said at the post-race press conference on the heels of her maiden WorldTour stage race title.
The overall victory allowed Niewiadoma to climb to the top of Women's WorldTour classification. Twice the best young rider of the series, she is now the first ever Polish rider to lead the standings of the series or its World Cup predecessor.
She is now turning her eyes towards Giro Rosa – a 10-day race that has traditionally been her summer target. This year, however, the route lacks substantial mountain stages and includes an opening team time-trial, in theory making it harder for a tiny climber.
"I hope I'm on the right track, I feel good. I'm not setting myself a goal. I want to simply race my bike and see what happens," Niewiadoma told Cyclingnews when asked about racing in Italy.
"For the GC Kasia is the most important rider. And we will see how it goes on stages. But this is also a different Giro than in other years. [We have] no serious mountain stages. We will see what happens, we will take it day by day," said Blijlevens.