When she was training in the mountains with her team a little while ago, Niamh Fisher-Black sent us her mid year check in, reflecting on the classics and looking ahead to the racing that’s still to come…
The cooler weather of the spring classics is long past and we already had our first bout of warm summer racing at the May Spanish block. It feels like the first half of 2022 has just slipped away, as though my time has warped around the back to back race days, travel days and intense training. The summer of a cyclist huh!
For now though, I am taking some time away from racing to commit to some quality training in the Alps with a few of my teammates. It is nice to have some weeks in one place and lots of spare time to reflect on the first half of the season as well as refocus on what’s to come. I thought I put some of that down on paper to share with you.
My season started with Strade Bianche, I have to say this is my favourite race. Its white gravel roads provide a challenge that captivates me. I love the way the race comes in bite size pieces, gravel sector to gravel sector. With the biggest and most enticing chunk to come in the final 30km. It’s a race that has seemingly gotten the better of me three times in a row now, leaving me feeling quite disappointed with my own performance here. Although that can feel a strange thing to say when at the end of the day we, team SD-Worx, won with what I would say was a seamless execution of a plan. That’s a quality both strange and rewarding about this sport, a successful race can be so much more than your own personal performance. It’s something about the indomitable nature of this race that makes me want to go back and back again until I finally defeat those gravel roads, as they have so far done to me, or as Lotte Kopecky did so in this year’s edition.
In the run up to the Ardennes I had another quick stop in Italy for Trofeo Binda. This wasn’t particularly a race to write home about for myself nor the team. But I am here to be honest on this blog and it’s quite fair to say that some race days are just not… it.
Late March; I quite like this time of year, the build up to the Ardennes. My training is fuelled by nervous anticipation, a good thing because here is when the intensity really starts to ramp up as I build on, and tweak the engine I have been priming all winter. I also like it because the spring season is in full swing. Which means, as I was not racing those cobbled classics, I could spend the morning hurting myself on the bike only to come home and watch my teammates in full fight as I ate my lunch.
All too quickly, we were diving head first into Amstel Gold and the Belgian Ardennes. I am not sure any other races come close to these ones all year. The unrelenting terrain and stacked fields forces up the TSS scores and subsequently breaks the legs! As a team we enter into Ardennes week with a fair bit of pressure on our shoulders. With a home sponsor (SDworx) and a rich history in these prestigious races, the expectation is steeped ever so high.
Often the transition from training to racing can be hard to anticipate. It’s easy to say the training is going well, but at the end of the day that doesn’t necessarily correlate to racing. It felt a little bit like my legs were still stuck a bit in training mode at the Amstel Gold race. The kind of legs that are good but just can’t quite work back to back as quick as racing does require. The hardest pill to swallow here was the thought that I couldn’t be the rider that my team perhaps needed that day. But, while we, as a team, did not pull off the win that we dreamed of at Amstel, I was nevertheless thrilled to see a gutsy move by Marta Cavalli take the day – the rise of new riders is a cool thing to see.
The Ardennes are a funny kind of racing, so much pressure and so specific to a huge, punchy engine. They can be so stressful in the areas that you’d least expect. Thoughts like ‘have I eaten enough’ constantly flicker through your mind. The races themselves are so daunting, even the thought of winning one of those can seem too good to be true. I think the high pressure and daunting nature of the races elicits the fact that a lot of riders come away disappointed. I think I was no exception to that, nor were some of my teammates. But in hindsight it’s reassuring for me to break down my performances there and see that, although I missed the pointy end of the race in all three, I achieved some good performances and hard hard efforts. I also hope… or to rephrase, I know that I was useful to my team. These races come round year after year, most often on the same courses. Year by year they will become more familiar to me, more readable and thus more raceable.
The heat turned up in May when a Spanish block of racing began with Itzulia women. This is the time of year when the heat hits you like a brick wall. Coming off a long period in chilly Limburg, warming up to the more summer-like feeling of the Basque Country in May can take some abrupt adjusting.
Much like the temperature, but in a more figurative way, Demi Vollering also came in hot! She took three of three stage wins of Tour of Itzulia; that takes quite some class. I was happy to feel that winning feeling again with the team and took some confidence in finishing higher and higher each day, eventually 4th on the final day. Along with some nice finishes, I was really happy to take the blue young rider’s jersey here too.
There’s nothing quite like the fuel that confidence gives you. I went into the following one day race Durango-Durango and then the Tour of Burgos so on my toes, so hungry for more racing. I learnt the hardest way in Durango what it means to be possibly too hungry, making sure I completely executed the plan I had in mind. I also learnt what it means to perhaps just not be quite good enough to follow the strongest (or in other words; to blow up spectacularly). But that’s the thing with me, warn me all you like, but I’ll never know it until I try.
Now I sit here, near Brides-Les-Bains, France, in my final week of an altitude training block. There is a slight envious part in me as I watch all the racing happening, Tour of Britain, Tour of Swiss and this cool new race up Mount Ventoux. But I have enough understanding now to realise that it is important to take good periods of training (and recovery) in order to target the next goals. I must also say, exploring this vast and famous mountain paradise in summer is no chore. The heat wave currently over France could be complained about though…
As for the Tour de France Femme, you won’t see me there. I won’t lie that I am a little disappointed about that. But team SD Worx has put together a strong team for the ‘Femme’, i’ll enjoy watching for this time, I am sure.
Not to forget, the Commonwealth games are coming up. Now this may not mean much to many of you. But for us odd Commonwealth countries it’s a big’n and it will be nice to pull on the NZ fern for a change. Watch closely, I might even perform the Haka!
That’s it for now. Catch you in a couple of months.