From Zwift Academy winner to professional cyclist

I wrote my first couple of blogs for Voxwomen around this time last year and reading between the lines of these as well as recalling my own feelings, I was a whole mixed bag of adjectives. Optimistic, excited, tentative and amazed to have landed the dream opportunity to ultimately set myself up for the professional sports career I had always wanted, yet also incredibly inexperienced, naive, nervous and a smidge doubtful as to whether the whole thing would actually work out. Of course I really hoped that it would pan out positively and how I wanted it to, as I feel like I was almost given a smooth red carpet pathway straight to the point that everyone dreams of reaching in cycling one day. If it wasn’t plain sailing and I found myself out of my depth, then at least I’d be able to definitively rule out top level cycling as a career; if I couldn’t hack it when having the best possible support network and conditions available, then there was no hope for me! It’s important to note that I had a return flight booked to visit home from a break in May, so at the back of my mind the main aim I was to reach that point of coming back to Dunedin, but then actually want to return to Europe afterwards. If the whole ‘living in Spain as a professional cyclist’ reality wasn’t working out then at least I had a solid escape plan to a destination as far away from Europe as I could physically get.

Fast-forward to now, where I am currently hanging out at home in Dunedin after what has already been a whirlwind year, and it’s only mid February. I am thrilled and extremely motivated to be heading into my second season with CANYON//SRAM, and I’ve already been with the team this year in Australia at both Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans. It was such a great trip away with the other riders as well as the staff, and racing as close to home as is possible was an excellent way to kick proceedings off for another year. I had an excellent time both on and off the bike, whether it was testing out as many Australian coffee shops as my caffeine sensitive body could handle, exploring the amazing Adelaide roads while koala spotting (Ella’s count = 0) or gaining little pieces of valuable information to take-away as lessons from each race we did. It was one of the best trips I’ve been on and I felt like I was able to really bring my cycling up another notch because of it, so I look forward to hopefully transfering all the learnings and improvements I’ve made into European racing also. The countdown is on for when I’ll head back to Spain to ramp into preparations for the Northern Hemisphere season ahead, but currently I’m just enjoying a few days off the bike after the big summer of training and racing. Between TDU, Cadel Evans, Sun Tour and then NZ Elite Nationals, it’s certainly been a solid start to the year but one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

It’s such a nice feeling to be returning to Europe with a fair idea of what I’m actually getting myself into this time around. Last year one thing remained the same between the life I lived in New Zealand and the chapter I was beginning; the simple concept of bike riding, which I knew I could do fairly well. We won’t go any further than that, as the similarities of cycling in New Zealand and cycling in Europe end at the very surface of the topic. Every other aspect of day to day life besides the task of pedalling was very uncertain and largely unknown; it was only my second time to Europe (the first being the December finals camp), I didn’t know how to speak the native language (side note, I still don’t), I had never lived away from home before (my parents never gave me a bathroom cleaning chores either), I’d only recently discovered that Whatsapp existed and had never been on a train. To summarise, I had myself signed up for quite the change in culture and lifestyle, and was ready to become a bit more worldly and for my eyes to be opened. I guess now I should mention that the seemingly similar concept of bike riding wasn’t too familiar either, given the new riding territory, a new coach, integrating in a professional team and the small fact of competing in European top level races.

The contrast between this year and last year is night and day. I can’t wait to head back over as I have zero uncertainties and everything now seems so familiar, comfortable and homely. I am now a self proclaimed expert in the subject of Barcelona to Girona transport connections, am no longer attached at the hip to Garmin maps, have lost count of how many trains I’ve taken, have unfortunately committed that classic mistake of locking myself out of the apartment (the most traumatic experience of 2019) and also discovered the true joys of Spanish delicacies such as jamon and patatas bravas. Although I’m not normally the most deep and meaningful person and prefer to keep trucking along rather than reminiscing on the past, I do enjoy taking my mind on a little journey back in time to reflect and see just how my perspectives and thoughts have changed over the course of the previous 12 months. Here are a few of my reflections, as I prepare to embark on the second chapter of my journey from Zwift Academy to professional cycling.

When I think about the major differences between racing in Europe versus in New Zealand, Australia or even in the US, the biggest would have to be the size of the fields combined with the roads and course features. Before I had raced in Europe and even last year, I witnessed many Australians and New Zealand riders who I knew to be incredibly strong and full of power, finishing well down in races or never appearing to be riding to their true ability. I had always heard of riders going to Europe with big ambitions of ‘making it’ in cycling yet having their dreams seemingly evaporate alongside their motivation and confidence, becoming overwhelmed and out of their depth before heading home to hang up the bike for good. It took me a little while to realise that you can have the highest power on paper or be stronger than majority of the field in a pure test, but if you can’t handle your bike well or weave, push and jostle yourself into a reasonable position, then those watts are largely irrelevant. Having the physical strength is one thing but having the bike skills to fight for space to actually use that strength is another. My message to riders racing in Europe for the first time is to ensure that you and your bike operate as one unit and that your fear in a fast, unpredictable bunch is second to none. Race with masters riders in club races or ‘Worlds’ style bunch rides where any small tactical mistakes will lead to wasted energy and getting dropped. Also seek higher level races in Australia or the USA and then you’ll be far more confident and capable to tackle the nature of European racing, as after all you can’t walk before you can run.

When you’re riding against some of the best in the business who have not only ability but also experience on their side, it becomes very easy to identify both your strengths and your weaknesses. Coming into a top level race when you’re of fairly average ability in comparison to the previous world champions or possible World Tour victors lining up, I would consider strengths to be when you’re able to just stay in the bunch with relative ease and little pressure throughout a specific section or aspect of the course, whereas weaknesses are heavily highlighted by simply getting dropped during another. If you struggle with a particular element of cycling and you’re not one of the stronger riders in the race anyway, then you work out fairly quickly what needs to improve. Although potentially a major reality check at times, I find that being thrown into bigger races or riding alongside the best that there is can present a great opportunity to set a benchmark to then compare against in future races. There’s only one way to get better and for me personally, I want to keep making these improvements to become the best rider I can possibly be and to maximise my potential. To experience firsthand the ability difference between the very best and yourself in particular aspects, whether it be climbing, cornering or descending, can be a little demoralising but can also provide valuable feedback and motivation to hone in on areas where you’re struggling and to keep working hard.

Now I’m not sure this is the sort of information I should be divulging on a public forum but alongside all the on-bike learning and experiences I’ve had, the nature of the sport means that travel is a large part of the deal. Because of this, I’ve actually developed some low-key criminal habits, the most pressing being that I’ve found myself stealing non-reusable cutlery from airport cafes, usually for the purpose of overnight oat consumption on the plane. Don’t worry though, I’m looking into purchasing a reusable lunch-box kit as I write this, I aim to kick this sneaky practice to the kerb with better self management. I’d also like to use this opportunity to get another admission off my chest, when I managed to avoid a rather hefty excess baggage fee simply by walking straight past the payment counter and directly to the oversized drop-off. Sorry Qatar Airways, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

I’ve always had an incredibly competitive streak. I was the kid that treated school PE like the Olympics and can turn almost any daily task into a competition, whether it be ensuring I overtake that innocent person walking on the other side of the street or trying to do more kms than my brother before the Sunday bunch ride. I found that once I started racing with CANYON//SRAM last year, this fire within to compete against others and succeed just wasn’t quite as strong. It’s not that I didn’t want to experience victory because seeing my team achieve something would be an incredible feeling, but I put it down to perhaps feeling intimidated, sub-consciously out of my depth and subsequently having the idea of ‘being competitive’ already ruled out of the equation. It’s difficult to have the same mindset of competitiveness in a small NZ club race versus in a UCI European race, as suddenly you’re no longer a big fish in a small pond. It becomes easy to resign yourself into thinking that you’re not one of the best riders so most likely won’t be there at the pointier end of proceedings, and I found that having these self-confidence issues led to my otherwise ultra competitiveness fading somewhat. I was struggling to go into races with that ‘winning attitude’, especially when you’re so new to top level racing and first thing’s first, you don’t know whether you’ll actually survive. I always ride as hard as I can for the team objectives, but sometimes it’s difficult to fully focus on those team goals of winning or achieving success when you doubt your own ability to actually be strong enough to play your part. I guess that is par for the course when you join one of the best teams in the world as a newbie into professional riding, trying to reflect the attitudes and ambitions of the team in your mindset while aiming to toss any personal reservations or doubts aside. As the season progressed last year however, my competitive spirit was starting to become stronger again. Initially, when you’re thrown into races you’re a little scared and just want to focus on feeling comfortable, so victory is surviving rather than crossing the line first. When I began to realise that I could actually get in the mix in some races, confidence grows immediately and so do ambitions. Suddenly, there becomes a purpose to fighting for position when you start to believe that you actually belong there. If you have confidence, no self doubt and no fear, then competitive spirit will be unwavered. 

I have rambled on for more than enough, so I think I better leave it there! To summarise, sometimes I find it very easy to get caught up in the technicalities and complex nature of the sport so at the end of the day, it’s refreshing to strip it all back down to basics. I like to ride my bike because of the incredible places around the world that can be enjoyed even more through pedalling and taking in the scenery. I like having the ability to express myself through how I ride and by letting my legs do the talking, the freedom to go anywhere I please and the option to challenge myself in so many ways. I also successfully regained a local Strava QOM from an infamous e-biker today by a whopping 30 seconds, that’s more than enough enjoyment and competitive satisfaction for me to keep pedalling.

That’s all from me now, but you can always catch me on Instagram @elllaharrris. Until next time!

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