In Polish, the word Niewiadoma means unknown. Having finished on the podium at four of the biggest races of the spring, and only twice outside the top ten this season, Katarzyna “Kasia” Niewiadoma was hardly a rough diamond. Nonetheless, in her homeland and beyond, a fair few more people will remember that name after her exploits at the recent Women’s Tour.
The decisive, race-winning move happened on the first stage to Kettering. With 47 kilometres left, Niewiadoma saw a gap at the front and attacked. Although less than pleased to find herself completely alone, she opted to stick with it and ended up soloing to the finish, establishing an almost two-minute advantage in the general classification.
Despite later losing team-mate Marianne Vos – who Niewiadoma calls her “small angel” – to a crash, she comfortably kept the lead to the finish in London.
As impressive a performance as it was, especially at such a young age, against far more experienced riders than herself, it is not talent alone that marks out 22-year-old Niewiadoma as something special.
Cycling is about more than just winning bike races. The sport also needs personalities and ambassadors. The way Niewiadoma conducts herself, on the bike and off it, indicates that being a role model comes as naturally to her as ripping up the WorldTour’s biggest races does.
The best example of this came at the end of the first stage of the Women’s Tour. As well as the racing, an important narrative around the event was its relationship with charity partner, Breast Cancer Care. Before the opening stage, every rider was given a pink ribbon bearing a message from someone affected by the disease, which they carried with them for the entire race. Niewiadoma puts it in her hair.
As she approached the finish line and the biggest win of her career, rather than being overwhelmed by the moment, Niewiadoma had the composure and presence of mind to think of her ribbon writer, Laura Hunter. She grabbed her ponytail and held it aloft. The message was clear: this isn’t just about me.
Niewiadoma was joined by Hunter on the podium in Leamington Spa two days later, with the green jersey wearer later telling the press how proud she was to wear the ribbon and meet its author.
After Niewiadoma clinched the overall win in London, Hunter sent her a heartfelt Tweet.
— Laura (@lahunter_) June 11, 2017
Niewiadoma could have been forgiven for being wracked with nerves before the start of the hilly fourth stage around Chesterfield, realistically the last and most likely chance for her to lose the leader’s jersey. If she was, she sure as hell didn’t show it at the sign-on, grinning gleefully at, well, everyone, and asking the announcer to take a selfie with her. He wasn’t the only one she charmed last week.
In her riding style, Niewiadoma resembles Alberto Contador, jumping out of the saddle far sooner than others, her face revealing no hint of discomfort as she ticks metronomically from side to side. Away from the hills, the Polish champion’s ever-present smile invites a comparison to Esteban Chaves.
But this is where the male reference points ought to end. After all, why must our every touchstone be taken from the men’s side of the sport?
Arguably, and understandably, because women’s road cycling has been so strongly focused on raising its collective standard, there has been less scope for individual expression. It has had to take itself seriously to be taken seriously.
Although the athletic prowess of the likes of Lizzie Deignan, Marianne Vos, Megan Guarnier and Anna van der Breggen has never been in doubt, none has been able to establish themselves as a role model, brand, or superstar in the way someone like Peter Sagan has.
Kasia Niewiadoma has the potential to be the sport’s first superstar, to shape not just women’s cycling, but to give women a greater influence on the sport as a whole.
Of course there’s no obligation for athletes to also serve as role models, but Niewiadoma seems to have a unique opportunity and to be a natural fit.
See more of Benedict Campbell’s photographs from the Women’s Tour in issue 17.5 of Rouleur, on sale in mid-July 2017.