'I kept getting yelled at by the Italians' - Gravel World Championships through the riders' eyes

Kasia Niewiadoma, Lauren Stephens, Sarah Sturm and more recount their days in Veneto

Clock16:16, Saturday 7th October 2023
Kasia Niewiadoma's day ended in success, but by all accounts it was a gruelling day of racing

© Sprint Cycling Agency

Kasia Niewiadoma's day ended in success, but by all accounts it was a gruelling day of racing

The lack of live television at the elite women’s race at the UCI Gravel World Championships left fans, media and the riders themselves disappointed with the coverage on offer.

The race, however, was an epic adventure with the best gravel experts in the world going head-to-head with the creme dela creme of the women's WorldTour.

In the end Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) marched clear to take a hugely popular victory in Veneto, Italy but her victory was just one chapter in race that offered so much more.

Read more: UCI Gravel World Championships: Kasia Niewiadoma wins elite women's title with solo attack

At the finish line Niewiadoma was mobbed by the media and her support crew but GCN were the first media on the scene to capture her instant reaction to becoming a world champion. The finish was abuzz with emotions and stories to tell from the riders who battled through the heat, dust and terrain. Here we capture the riders in their own words.

Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) 1st

“I’m blown away to be honest. I beyond happy, I’m so fucking happy. It’s weird. I’ve never worn the rainbow jersey and I can’t say anything now because I’m just so happy.

“To be honest, before I attacked I could see that on the previous climbs that I felt good and that the others were suffering. I didn’t know that I was going to go on my own at that point. I just wanted to get rid of some girls and in my mind I thought that I’d go away with Demi Vollering but once no one was there I thought ‘oh sweet’ because I knew the course from that point, and I knew that some technical points were coming. I just needed to commit. With 1km to go I was praying to be honest, and thinking finally. It’s crazy because it’s been so long since my last victory. It’s not road but this is my first gravel race and to get the rainbow jersey I still cannot believe it.”

Lauren Stephens (United States of America) 6th

“I dropped my chain going through the creek crossings and that’s when the move was really going. I was chasing from that point but all day I was in the front and groups kept on coming back. That’s how my day went because after the creek it was three or four climbs and then I just suffered to the finish. It was super dry but the conditions were actually really nice.

"It was great that the group was pretty small after the first hour of racing, because that made it manageable on the course. The first hour was pretty hectic, and I got caught up behind a crash on the river and then had to close the gap before the first main climb. At that point I thought that my day was over but luckily I closed the gap before the climb began and was able to suffer through it. We had some flat sections after that, and that allowed me to settle in and recover.

“As for the course, what’s cool about gravel is that it means whatever you want it to mean. This is different to what people in America think about gravel, where it’s really long and with straight roads and not too technical but I would compare this a lot to a Belgian Waffle Ride, where you get a little bit of everything. Gravel is an adventure, and this was a real adventure. I’m super happy with my performance. Last year I was in the winning break and then cramped out of it with 30km to go. This year I was able to hold my own in the group and had a much better finish.”

Niamh Fisher-Black (New Zealand) 8th

“We started super hard and I think that was mainly down to the Italians. If I looked at the front they were all in one line and going full gas. That made it super hard but I knew in my head that it was a good thing because we thinned the bunch out and that helped through the technical sections. It meant that there was less liability and that we could position ourselves better.

"By the time we passed the finish line for the first time the group was much smaller. From there I thought ‘gosh I’ve got to hold on for another three or four hours’ and from the first climb Italy narrowed it down even more. Every climb after that, Kasia Niewiadoma went to the front and set a full gas pace. Man she was on a mission today and she put us all to shame. I think the way she was climbing it really hurt us.

“I went down a couple of times but I just wanted to fight my way back and when we passed through the finish for the fast time Italy controlled again and that gave us some time to recover but we knew that the hardest climbs were still to come and from the second last climb Kasia just flew away.

“For me, this is my first time doing a gravel race. It’s something else and it has everything in it. You had to keep your focus the entire time and that made it a world of its own. I still really enjoyed it, and in the end I was pretty broken. I just fought to the finish and I’m happy to have been up there and fighting. I’m sure I’ll be back in the next couple of years.”

Tiffany Cromwell (Australia) 10th

“Obviously I knew that it was going to be a tough race for me with the climbs being too hard for me. It was clear from the outset that Italy wanted to control the race. They came here and brought riders just to do jobs one by one. That meant that it started out harder than I expected and we were down to about 20 or 30 riders pretty early on.

"Then naturally with the hard climbs it split before coming back together on the flat parts. Then when we hit the hard parts again it was game over. I heard that Kasia won, which is great for her, Canyon and the team. She looked strong all day and I think it came down to who had legs in the end. That’s what the course was. I was in the second group before it came back together but on the steeper stuff, that’s where I just don’t have that strength. So I had to keep coming back a couple times. From there I knew it wasn’t the day for me, and I started to suffer as best I could.

“In terms of my performance, it’s mixed with how I feel. I came here to achieve more but at the same time I have to be realistic with what my strengths are. I can be happy enough because I gave everything that I had on the day but I’m always striving for more.”

Sarah Sturm (United States of America) 16th

"Because the UCI didn’t cover our race I will tell you what my race was like. It was chaos at the start and I realised that I loved that. It was so cyclo-crossy and amazing. I was able to move up quite easily and then we hit the flat sections and I crashed into a corner. I did a cyclo-cross remount, got into a chase group and just had good legs all day.

"I rode with people most of the day and bonked a bit on one of the climbs but felt so good on most of them. I was really strong on the descent but the highlight for me was following Sanne Cant on the descents. That was a dream come true. I’m a huge fan of hers but didn’t tell her because that would have been creepy but I’m so pleased and so proud of Team USA. I wish that I could have gotten up to Lauren but it was super solid.

"I feel really proud of how I raced and I’ve never done any road racing, so I kept on getting yelled at by all the Italians. They are scary, not because of riding with them, but just because they yell at me because they didn’t know who I was. One of them was getting mad at me because I wasn’t going hard enough on the flats but I’m 5 '3, I’m trying. I didn’t know what to tell her.

Emma Norsgaard (Denmark) 24th

“I lost ten years of my life out there. The last hour was the most awful hour of my life. I don’t remember the last time that I died so hard in a race. For the first few hours I felt okay being in the first group and then we hit the third last climb and I was standing still. Even riders who were far behind, they came and were cheering for me because they could see that I was going nowhere. On the last climb I had to walk.

“I was in the first group until the fourth hour but then the tank was completely empty. That was the hardest part of the course but I gave it everything that I could. I hope to come back to gravel but they have to change the course because otherwise I don’t think that I can finish. It was so hard but it was incredible."

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