On Friday, Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) will start stage 8 of the Giro Rosa wearing the pink leader's jersey after Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) had to abandon the race with a fractured wrist. This is not how anyone wants to take over the race lead, but despite the surprising and unfortunate way in which she got it, Niewiadoma must now look forward to the final two stages and defend the pink jersey.
"The final 3km were very hectic – everyone wanted to be in the front. And then there was this giant crash with 1.2km to go. I stayed on the right side and everything happened on the left side, so fortunately I was able to avoid it, but I do really hope that everyone involved in the crash is OK," Niewiadoma said, speaking shortly after the finish when it was not yet clear how serious Van Vleuten's injuries were.
The Polish climber sprinted to third place on stage 7, gaining four bonus seconds that may turn out to be very important, given her slender lead over Anna van der Breggen (Boels Dolmans). The Olympic champion had herself been Van Vleuten's closest rival, sitting second overall after stage 2, but Van der Breggen lost 22 seconds on the uphill finish in Tivoli on stage 4, giving Niewiadoma a seven-second advantage.
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On stage 6, Niewiadoma gained more time almost by accident when she led out her teammate Hannah Barnes in the sprint finish. While Barnes finished second, Niewiadoma crossed the line in 10th place, and a gap that had opened after the 15th rider meant that the 25-year-old Canyon-SRAM leader had won four seconds on most of the other general classification contenders.
Adding the four bonus seconds from stage 7 to that, Niewiadoma is now 15 seconds ahead of Van der Breggen and 1:15 ahead of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) going into stage 8.
The penultimate stage finishes in the hilltop town of San Marco La Catola after a steep finishing climb that starts 5.6km from the line. The first 3.3km average a leg-breaking 12.5 per cent, followed by one kilometre that is slightly downhill. The last 1.3km, climbing through the town, again include pitches of up to 8 per cent.
Niewiadoma, Van der Breggen and Uttrup Ludwig are among the best puncheuses in the world, and the past seven stages have confirmed that they are evenly matched. So far, neither of the three has been able to consistently distance the other two. Although Niewiadoma has the best cards, the race is now wide open again, and the finishing climb on stage 8, as well as the mountainous circuit on stage 9, will decide the winner of this Giro Rosa.