This women’s cycling blog was originally published on the 23rd November 2021 by former Zwift Academy winner, Ella Harris. It’s Ella Harris’ insight into professional cycling!
Hello to all Voxwomen readers!
A lot of time has passed and many things have happened since I wrote my last blog, so much so that we are now very much into the ‘off-season’ phase of the year with the 2021 cycling season now being complete. The latter months were good to me however, and I found my form going to places that it hadn’t really been in a while. I achieved my first European podium in a road race and on GC at the Trophee des Grimpeuses, and was pretty pleased with a 26th at the Elite Road World Championships in Belgium. After that, it was a trip across the English Channel for The Women’s Tour in the UK, before a cheeky ‘non-bike’ trip to Paris for the Tour de Femmes avec Zwift route presentation. I finished my season two weeks later at the Ronde Van Drenthe in the Netherlands. Ten year old Ella sitting 18,000km away with her favourite world picture atlas would have been mind blown at the prospect of visiting three hugely famous and far-away cities – London, Paris and Amsterdam, almost in consecutive weeks. Sometimes I still need to pinch myself a little!
For this Voxwomen entry of mine, I could delve into my hot tips for exploring aforementioned cities and my favourite coffee spots, but alas I decided to actually stick to the topic of cycling. I’ve put together a list of interesting talking points and revelations into the world of professional cycling, to hopefully enlighten you and also provide some entertainment. I am certainly not about to drop any wild allegations or groundbreaking confessions, but these are merely little insights and observations that perhaps people may not realise from the outside. I don’t want to speak for everyone, because of course experiences and opinions differ largely, but these are general things I’ve picked up on over the last few years.
Before joining Canyon//SRAM in 2018, I had never really experienced interacting with any other cultures (Australians don’t count) besides from a trip to America and perhaps meeting exchange students who came to my schools. Because of this, I took NZ culture as normal and acted accordingly to that, but didn’t quite comprehend the societal differences found in European countries.
For example in New Zealand, everything is rather laidback and relaxed. We have quite self-deprecating humour, like to joke, use a lot of slang and generally aren’t so direct with our communication. I would say that English-speaking Commonwealth countries, particularly Australia but also England are quite similar in some aspects.
It wasn’t until I went to Europe and interacted with people from many different countries that I realised how social norms and common practices can vary, and how this subsequently affects communication with the individuals. Germans are very honest with their communication and straight to the point, which could initially come across as quite blunt or alarming to someone like me. On the other hand, New Zealanders cracking jokes or making light of a situation could be seen as not caring or taking things seriously by someone used to more direct communication.
So how does this relate to cycling you may ask? Let me tie this all together.
A critical aspect of being in a team and working with people from various countries and cultures is communication, as this will lead to a welcoming team environment where people feel accepted. But also an effective and efficient one when it comes to competition. Knowing how certain things may be interpreted or understood, and effectively communicating so that you come across how you want to come across are all essential in an environment where everyone has different styles of communication. Becoming aware of how other cultures operate and having the knowledge to understand others well is one very important aspect of a cycling team, where many different nationalities are combined into one force. This is not only in a race situation where communication through radios and in the heat of the moment can often be challenging anyway. But also in a casual team environment when it’s nice to relax together and feel fully comfortable sharing a laugh.
Obviously for me, it isn’t the language barrier but rather the cultural barrier and making sure that I give the impression that I want to give. It’s also about taking the time to fully understand an individual of another culture, and respecting the differences. Although I say it isn’t a language barrier for me, sometimes it’s necessary to break into a more user-friendly version of English, where the Kiwi slang is switched off and the accent is muted ever so slightly.
I have noticed that cyclists are very good at creating little hacks for anything and everything, to make our days just that little bit more efficient. From airports and hotels to grocery shopping or training, there are tactics we employ to make tasks easier and faster for ourselves. Little snacks and goodies found at breakfast buffets become excellent ride fuel, and in the year of 2021, COVID testing stations have become ride destinations in order to seamlessly integrate the mandatory UCI race testing into daily life. One thing that I have been implementing regularly is to finish my rides at the bakery to buy bread for lunch, so that I don’t have to do the 400m round-trip later. Because who wants to walk that massive distance when you’re hungry.
Another recent, albeit slightly risky discovery is that if you arrive to Barcelona Airport in a specific window of time, somewhere between being fashionably late and really cutting it fine, you can avoid the normally large Vueling queue and go straight to the ‘last minute’ check-in counter that they open up for each flight. From this point, it’s a gentle stroll through security and towards the gate but whatever you do, don’t be one of those people that actually lines up to board the plane. Cyclists can generally be found scanning around the gate lounge and almost having a Mexican stand-off situation with other passengers, waiting for as many people to go in front of them as possible before boarding. In a sport where the tiniest of marginal gains are celebrated, not having to be on the plane for an extra 10 minutes is a big win.
It is also imperative to bring a massive bag of snacks when you’re travelling as I swear you become considerably hungrier than during a regular day, so be prepared for when the hunger pangs strike. A purchase that has really revolutionised my travel munching this year is the acquisition of a reusable cutlery set, so never again will I need to eat my overnight oats with a credit card.
A big elephant in the room when it comes to being a professional athlete, particularly in a weight-impacted sport like cycling, is diet and body composition. I’ve heard stories and read articles from other riders in regards to the pressures that they have been placed under to eat certain things in order and look a certain way, to ultimately be able to supposedly perform better on the bike.
Although the mentality towards this is changing and more people are speaking out to generate awareness, I believe that issues like this are still rife in our sport and there remains a general perception that cyclists must maintain an incredibly strict and clean diet. Within our team, there is sometimes a fair amount of emphasis placed on nutrition, but in completely the opposite way.
The manner in which we get treated at Canyon//SRAM in regards to our nutritional choices is so heartening, encouraging and empowering, and possibly not how an outsider may think. When I first joined the team, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but based on the stereotypes I had heard and what I believed to be of importance in professional cycling, I thought that weight and diet would be a common topic from staff to riders.
Now I realise that I couldn’t have been further from the reality if I had tried, with our Performance Director Lars almost having an obsession with carbs and making sure that we are always eating enough. I recall a pre-race dinner where he wouldn’t let us eat our vegetables until we had finished our carbs and recently after a race in Belgium, I sensed major disappointment from him when I went for a caesar salad to accompany a bowl of frites, instead of a burger. If you’re doing a road trip with Lars you can never worry about going hungry, as he’ll offer you numerous gels and bars that he has stashed inside the car door pockets.
The team places a major importance on having healthy riders at the startline who look like strong athletes and will perform as such, and there is no place for any kind of restrictive eating or insufficient fuelling. Personally, I find it pretty awesome to be in an environment where the old-school and classic cycling mentality is long gone, and instead we are strongly encouraged to ensure we have enough fuel in the tank, as well as being educated through applications such as Supersapiens. And even better, the buffet desserts are certainly not out-of-bounds.
A message I received on my Instagram really stuck with me and actually made me feel a little annoyed. I’d posted a picture of a cake I had baked, and received the reply “tell me it’s off season without telling me it’s off season”.
I think that perhaps riders who are more experienced in the sport have found that balance both in their day-to-day life and in their diet. But for those coming through the ranks, the mentality that cake should be reserved for off-season is quite frankly ridiculous. I will eat what I want, when I want, and for me and my team-mates, we will quite regularly have sweet treats no matter the time of year. I’d much rather eat a balanced diet across the entire year instead of depriving myself for 9 months, then going absolutely wild on all things dessert for three. I think the stress and anxiety from labelling certain foods as ‘bad’ and constantly telling yourself that you’re undeserving of them creates significantly more mental exhaustion and negatively impacts overall performance to a greater extent, than if you eat carrot cake a couple times a week. And from my simple perspective, if I go out riding for 3 hours, it’s surprisingly difficult enough to replace those calories, so what’s the harm in helping to replenish the stores with a choccy chip cookie?
Okay, so this was one of the things that shocked me the most the very first time I joined the team on a training camp in 2018. We were out riding and somebody called “pee-stop”, to which everyone responded with a swift pull to the roadside and the immediate dropping of bikes. On the outside, I tried to look cool and relaxed, but on the inside I was absolutely horrified. These women were just doing their business immediately on the roadside and en masse? I spared a thought for any Spanish local who might just happen to drive by on this completely quiet mountain road and have to see this surprising congregation. Nowadays, I am completely accustomed to this routine and won’t blink an eye to what has become normal, whereas before I would just know where all the public toilets were along each route I rode.
This practice isn’t just resigned to training however, and is also a common occurrence in races. When some races are four hours long and don’t start off that intense, there often isn’t much to distract you from the urge to go. Generally one day races can sometimes be a little too unpredictable or intense from the get go, but in the likes of the Tour of Norway and Women’s Tour, almost without exception there would be a call in the radio from Alice after 20 minutes outlining her intentions. Further into the stage and similar to mens racing, there can sometimes be a mass toilet stop with multiple teams coordinating to make a pact and declare a temporary hold on the race for the good of everyone in need.
Maybe I’ll set this as a goal for next year, but to this date I have been far too scared to stop in a race, despite the calls from my bladders being sometimes quite difficult to ignore. I just envisage myself being far too slow or having some unforeseen hiccup, with the entire race convoy going past and never getting back in. Apparently it’s not the logistical nightmare that it might seem to be, and notably Kasia has a special technique she likes to employ, involving the stretching of one bib short leg.
There are so many countries and locations that we travel to across Europe for races, but unfortunately never end up actually seeing that much beyond the highways or the airport. It saddens me a little to think of experiences and sight-seeing opportunities that I’ve missed out on, especially in the likes of Norway where the most scenery and sight-seeing we did was during the race. Despite passing through the outer Oslo tunnels multiple times on our way to stage starts, it still remains on my list of cities I’d love to visit one day! I couldn’t tell you the touristy areas or attractions in Belgium, but I certainly know my way around Zaventem – the suburb surrounding Brussels Airport, and I do enjoy staying at the Van der Valk hotel chain.
We spend a fair share of the year staying at highway hotels, this year particularly in Belgium for me, and generally rush to the airport to catch an evening flight the same night as the race. It is quite nice though when the race location is a little more remote or not close to any main thoroughfares, so we might get to stay in a small town or close to shops, and sometimes in accommodation that can be slightly quirkier than usual. It’s generally preferred to get the travel out of the way on the same day as the race and then wake up in our own beds, despite this often meaning never-ending evenings and early morning bed-times.
On the rare occasions that we do stay the night after a race, usually because of flight availability or a distant race location, there sometimes can be the opportunity for a tiny exploration or to briefly see the sights. After the Women’s Tour this year, my flight back to Girona wasn’t until 4pm the next day, so of course I used my time wisely by visiting London and walking 25,000 steps by lunch. I guess that it isn’t unusual for people who have jobs that involve travel to never be able to truly appreciate the destinations, but at least we still can enjoy some of it by bike!
Ughhh aren’t these just the bane of everyone’s sporting existence. By everyone, I mean that professional cyclists certainly aren’t excluded, although there are always exceptions – I am very jealous of those people who are seemingly biomechanically perfect and never seem to get any niggles. Just because someone looks good in a race doesn’t mean they aren’t silently suffering with an aching back and even when someone scores an excellent result, they may still have been sidelined for three days that previous week due to a niggly knee.
When you think about the amount of training that professional cyclists do and the large loads that are constantly put through certain areas of the body, it makes sense that something has to give every once in a while. I think that perhaps everyday cyclists and ‘weekend warriors’ are susceptible to injuries due to factors such as a poor bike fit, muscle imbalances, inconsistency with training, sudden overload and daily life influences.
While professional cyclists are able to combat these factors through their general lifestyle and complementary training work such as stretching, foam rolling, gym strength work, core and glute activation etc. it is still difficult to completely reduce any chance of injury due to the mere volume of cycling. So to summarise, although professional cyclists may not publicly talk about their injuries and strains very frequently, they are human and not immune to the classic array of knee pains that all cyclists face.
After getting to the point where I was unable to even plan a week in advance due to the threat of a sudden injury, I feel like I am now sufficiently in-tune with my body so that I’m able to detect an issue arising and nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem. In saying that, I think I’m always balancing on a very fine line where I have to ensure that I do sufficient off-the-bike stretching, core, light strength work and muscle activations before each ride, otherwise I might tip over that edge.
I think that is enough from me – I actually had many more points that I wanted to cover such as race dynamics and motivation. But the length is already looking way too long as per usual! Maybe there will need to be a part two.
Thank you for reading if you’ve made me up until this point, and feel free to follow me on Instagram @elllaharrris to keep up to date with my current whereabouts and happenings.
After four seasons with the Canyon//SRAM outfit, Ella Harris spent 2023 racing for British UCI Continental sqaud, Lifeplus Wahoo and will continue to do so in 2024. If you enjoyed Ella Harris’ insight into professional cycling we think you might enjoy this from Chloe Hosking. She penned her thoughts and eleven lessons she had learned having been in the peloton for eleven seasons.