Sometimes, a moment in sport feels so perfect that you want to bottle it. Find some safe space to stow it, on a shelf, in between trophies or ornaments or other treasured items. Only to be opened and savoured now and then; as a reminder of how sport can make you feel when everything goes according to plan.

The final ascent of the Mur de Huy at La Fleche Wallonne Femmes 2024 would be one of the moments that I’d stopper in a vial and add to my memory shelf. It would sit alongside Mark Cavendish’s first of four victories at the Tour de France 2021, Annemiek van Vleuten’s unbelievable comeback at the 2022 World Championships, and the Championship play-off final at Wembley in 1999 (when football still had all of my heart). If you feel connection with certain riders or teams, especially when you can call them underdogs, there is no beating the euphoria that follows, when everything finally falls into place.

Many would shout down my suggestion that Niewiadoma is an underdog. She's been consistently scoring podiums for season after season, always up there with the best. But never quite able to finish it off. In an era that includes titans of the sport like van Vleuten, Vos, Longo Borghini and latterly, Vollering and Kopecky, when it comes to the big wins, Kasia is definitely the underdog.

Casting an eye back over the past few seasons, even the most loyal of Kasia Niewiadoma fans would have struggled to believe in their heart of hearts that reaching the upper slopes of the Mur with Demi Vollering and Elisa Longo Borghini for company could end in anything other than third place. Perhaps second, if she was lucky. Or unlucky, depending on which way you slice it.

The former winner Vollering, stone cold in her ascent to victory in 2023, leaving everyone else in her wake, and the in-form rider of the Classics, wily tactician and chameleonic master of all types of riding, Longo Borghini.

And Niewiadoma. A rider who has come so very close already this season. Her tears of bitter disappointment after her fourth place at Strade Bianche cracked the hardest of hearts, and though she insisted second place was an achievement at the Tour of Flanders (it really was) it was still hard not to feel crestfallen. The top level win Niewiadoma has been missing on the road since 2019 still desperately close, but just out of reach. Her fans craving the opportunity to finally let rip, after so many ‘not quite’ moments. If you’re Niewiadoma, to experience so many near misses must be a difficult pill to swallow. To know you are good enough to be up there with the best, but to be found out time and time again as lacking the ability to strike that final killer blow.

It just goes to show the power of self-belief. When Niewiadoma – a winner at the Gravel World Championships in 2023 – rode up onto Vollering’s shoulder as they attacked the Mur for the final time, there was a steely sense of resolve in her posture, and where so often in the past she has been caught up in the heat of battle and attacked too soon, she held her nerve. She was NOT going to NOT WIN this race.

Her pace up the climb was steady, and where many riders throw themselves into it and end up swinging, she was composed, measured and precise. Vollering couldn’t hold her wheel. Longo Borghini couldn’t hold her wheel. And as the line drew nearer, the joy began to bubble up from within me – but as solid as she seemed, it was not allowed to spill over until she crossed that line.

I didn’t see the race live but watched back, without knowing the result, just half an hour or so later. So my tears of joy may have been out of sync with those of a huge portion of the rest of the cycling world. Symbolically though, we were united. It was a win for the ages, a win for cycling, a win for the fans and most of all, a long-awaited, richly deserved and beautifully executed win for Kasia Niewiadoma.

But can they do it on a rainy Wednesday in Belgium?

Niewiadoma’s stunning victory followed on from a men’s race that was blighted by the horrendous conditions, with those best equipped to survive the conditions those who were best dressed, or at least, had the most layers on at the start of the day. As it proved, those with an eye on the weather forecast may have seemed over-cautious, but as others fell by the wayside, pulled from the race for the sake of their own health, or because they simply couldn’t complete another rotation of the pedals, there was no such thing as being over-prepared for the weather that befell the race on Wednesday.

Mattias Skjelmose was lifted bodily from his bike, convulsing uncontrollably, in a hypothermic state, and though he looked worst affected (he's since made a full recovery and plans to race on Sunday), many more riders suffered. Not least, those who stayed in the race for the duration. The hardy 44 riders who completed the full 198.6km ensured they would give themselves a golden opportunity to strike out for the final time up the Mur de Huy and add their name to a prestigious list of former winners.

While some of the cycling fandom bemoaned the lack of the ‘big’ names at the men’s version of Flèche Wallonne, others appreciated it for what it was: a glorious opportunity for a rider outside of the most elite echelon of the sport to add a historical one-day race to their palmares. A day where the peloton could line up at the start line without a sinking sense of inevitability that they were riding for second place. For a rider to etch their name in a list of greats, and have their tireless hard work rewarded. Whichever way you sliced it, an underdog would win the 2024 edition of Flèche. And as a fan of sports, how can that not be a tantalising prospect?

So the underdogs went into battle. And what a battle it was. With the elements, their own clothing, and one another. Despite Søren Kragh Andersen’s heroic attempt to follow in the footsteps of his teammate Mathieu van der Poel and record a historic solo victory, the conditions proved too much for the Dane, who faded around 15km shy of the target, leaving a select few to contest the victory. There were plenty of in-form riders present and as the numbers were whittled down the same riders rose with grim determination up the Mur de Huy, and they gave it everything in the pursuit of victory.

Some days on the bike are about finesse, the beauty of a climb, dancing on the pedals. And some are about pure misery. Accepting it, owning it, and overcoming it. Growing up in Norway, Northern France, or Flanders, as seven of the top ten did, these conditions are not new. Nor for the winner, Welshman Stevie Williams, who once again proved his ability to stay calm under pressure, read a race situation to perfection, and execute a plan with grit and determination, in the face of quite stunning adversity.

The faces at the finish line said it all. The scars of battle writ in the glazed expressions of the scant amount of finishers, as they staggered from their machines and tried to find nutrition, hydration and dry clothing. Benoit Cosnefroy, collapsed over the barriers, a broken man; later proclaiming it was ‘the worst day he’d ever had on a bike.’ The podium may not have contained the usual suspects, but it contained three warriors – a talent finally reaching his full potential, and two riders who between them represent the future of sport. A top ten that, like it so often does at Flèche, contains an assortment of climbers and puncheurs, GC men and classics men, a mixed-up bag of names that tell the story, in 2024, of survival of the – if not fittest, perhaps… least cold?

In any case, a race that will be remembered for a long time, if not for all the right reasons, then at least for the war stories that came out of it. Chapeau to Williams, to Vauquelin and Van Gils, to Cosnefroy because quite honestly, if that was his worst day on a bike then it’s even more impressive. The Uno-X team who, whether by being better equipped in terms of their kit, or simply by dint of just 'being Scandinavian,' managed to keep the race competitive, with all seven of their riders finishing the race, making up a sixth of the total finishers. And to Santiago Buitrago, who – falling solidly into the category of ‘diminutive climber’ should have by rights stepped off the bike much earlier in the day, as more than two-thirds of the field did. He truly proved his mettle.

Onto La Doyenne on Sunday, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether any of the riders who endured the most unlikely day of weather in April will be at their best to take on Liège–Bastogne–Liège, but with Tadej Pogačar returning to the fold fresh from altitude training, it will more than likely be academic, anyway.

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