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The plunge into ‘proper’ European racing.

Wow, I feel like a lot has happened since I last wrote a blog for Voxwomen; I’m not even really sure where to begin! Back when I wrote my last blog I had only completed one race for the team, a relatively tame 90km Spanish UCI 1.2, and was getting into the swing of some solid training before I took the plunge into ‘proper’ European racing. It’s safe to say that in the space of March to June I’ve experienced and learnt a lot, and would like to think that I’ve improved quite a bit as a rider in both physical capabilities and also in my racing ‘nous’. My first stop was in the Netherlands where I was served up an entree of the UCI 1.2 Drentse Acht Van Westerveld, followed by a meaty main course of the WWT Ronde Van Drenthe. With 50kph winds, the classic Dutch roads, copious amounts of mud, hail, cobbles and rain over the two days, I really had a true taste of the Spring racing. And thankfully, despite going in with absolutely no idea what to expect, I survived both and actually liked what I had experienced. 

A couple more races followed such as Trofeo Binda and before long I was lining up for my first true test, the Healthy Ageing Tour. I was really excited for this 6 stage tour, to have some quality echelon time in the crossies and hopefully improve upon my Dutch riding from the Drenthe weekend. Unfortunately for me, the tour ended before it had even really begun when I hit the deck rather hard halfway into the first stage. A little dazed and running purely on adrenalin, I collected myself and quickly sought out a spare bike to at least make the finish of day one, but 1.5km later after attempting to grab a bottle from the car with my injured side, I was in agony and had to quickly call it a day. I knew that my collarbone wasn’t in a good way, and had these suspicions confirmed seven hours later once I finally reached the hospital. Note to self, don’t have a crash on the small German island of Borkum when the only hospitals are a ferry and car ride away on the Netherlands mainland. 

It wasn’t essential that I had surgery, but I had my heart set on racing Tour de Yorkshire three weeks later and I was going to be on that start line! I don’t actually know how I would have coped if I hadn’t have had it operated on, as during the day prior, sitting still on the couch was uncomfortable and I couldn’t walk around much at all. The surgery went really well however, and all the pain I’d had prior was gone – only the wound was a little tender. I felt like a new person and was able to even do my hair while in the hospital afterwards, although I probably shouldn’t admit to that. I got myself back onto Zwift the next day and spent around 1.5 weeks training indoors, and two weeks after the initial crash I was back out enjoying the lovely sunshine in Girona. The next week I was boarding the plane to Yorkshire and it was certainly a great feeling to be back racing again, even if the conditions were a little grim for the most part. A special shout-out to Jolien D’hoore, who provided the inspiration for my recovery; seeing her suddenly racing again three weeks post collarbone break was all the proof I needed to show that it wasn’t a totally unrealistic target, even if others weren’t so keen on the idea. 

As pleasing as it was to be in Yorkshire, unfortunately I was still suffering from effects of other small niggles that had previously gone unnoticed largely due to the collarbone stealing the attention. I was only just able to ride properly over bumps and rough surfaces due to soft tissue damage in my hand, and on the second stage I was far too stubborn and stupidly determined for my own good so ended up riding 130km through progressively worsening ligament pain in my knee. It got to the point where I couldn’t actually stand up or press on the pedal, but five days off the bike feeling rather sorry for myself definitely taught me a lesson about that one. I had a little unfinished business from Yorkshire as I was distanced by the front of the bunch prior to entering the climbing section of the course due to having a near-crash miss on a descent and despite the pain in my knee, I was actually feeling quite good on the hills. 

I used this disappointment as motivation for my next two races, the UCI 2.1 Vuelta a Burgos Feminas and WWT Emakumeen Bira, both four day tours. I didn’t feel quite as fit or capable as I would have hoped leading into this racing block, but I really liked the look of the courses and especially the hills. My favorite courses are the hillier, more selective ones that almost turn out to be races of attrition, and Bira especially ticked all those boxes. Aside from Trofeo Binda which was an absolute mission for me, I hadn’t raced too much on the climbs with the pro peloton, so I was interested to see how I would stack up. Racing on the hillier terrain and with the added component of it being a tour makes for a new style of team tactics that I hadn’t really been exposed to before, so this made it really insightful. 

Winning the young riders jersey at Vuelta a Burgos was really unexpected in a strange way, as I’ve always thought I could do well in the U23 classification, but have never really had the chance or competed at races where it’s been recognised. I honestly don’t know how GC contenders do it, as I was so nervous throughout the whole final stage and I wasn’t even in yellow or doing a grand tour. With 1km to go when I was safely inside the bunch, I was still completely paranoid and didn’t really enjoy the moment all that much. Two of my U23 rivals getting one minute up the road in a breakaway was just too much stress for me to handle; I think I need to learn to relax! The whole day was a bit of a blur, but a really great boost for my confidence. 

Emakumeen Bira was next up, and it was definitely some of the hardest racing I’ve ever done yet rewarding at the same time. The second and third stages were really tough, but I was satisfied to be finding my climbing legs and to be feeling better and stronger with each day passed. Going into the last stage of Bira, I was third on the youth classification, a position that I aimed to maintain while ensuring that Tanja remained in the sprint jersey and that Alena could have a good chance in the final. At 110km, I saw my moment and slipped into an eight rider breakaway that ended up gaining one minute leading into the final 8km climb. I knew this was my chance to possibly get into the U23 jersey, and I was feeling pretty chuffed with the head start I had going into one of the most decisive points of the race. At 1km from the top, I was passed by the first of the chasers and couldn’t quite claw myself onto a wheel. Given that the last person to pass was Annemiek Van Vleuten, I guess I should cut myself some slack, but missing the bunch by a handful of seconds over the summit with only 15km remaining was a little disappointing. I ended up finishing 18th on the stage and 1.10 mins behind the front bunch, 19th on GC and 2nd in the youth classification by 47 seconds. 

Initially, I was really quite annoyed at myself that I couldn’t reach the front group and secure the youth jersey, but I’ve been really trying to put it into perspective. It was my third WWT race and my first WWT tour, yet I’m feeling disheartened that I couldn’t keep up with seasoned professionals and Olympians who have had many years to refine their performance and learn the tricks of the trade.  It’s a little scary when racing such amazing athletes becomes the ‘new’ normal, as if you’d told me one year ago that I’d even be remotely close to riders who I’ve always respected and admired at the 130km point of a mountainous race, I’d probably be a little stunned. There is no point operating at a lower standard of performance when you’re racing against some of the world’s best, and because this is the level I’m competing at now I need to improve myself to try and match it. At the same time however, I’m just really pleased to even be able to feel like I can actually compete alongside, and I need to stop being critical of myself as 2018 Ella would have been petrified to even line up. I think it’s important to reflect upon how far you’ve come, but also to identify the weaknesses so you’re able to slowly improve them. Working to fill in those gaps that separate your current performance from the high level of others, but also to put everything into perspective so that you’re not being completely unfair and unreasonable on yourself. I never feel quite satisfied unless I feel like I’m able to be one of the best at a chosen discipline, so I think this personality trait will be a little spark of motivation to fuel me over the years so that one day, maybe I’ll be the rider attacking over the QOM and swallowing up the break remnants.

This is a little embarrassing, but I’m going to share it anyway because I find it mildly amusing looking back on it. The first UCI race I ever did was the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race at the start of 2018, after spending a few years competing at a local level and also in Australia a couple times. I remember the whole experience was so surreal, from sitting on an airport transfer bus with UCI teams such as Virtu and Wiggle High-5, to going a little overboard at the hotel buffet during each meal. One thing I absolutely loved for some reason was watching the bigger races at home and just how cool the peloton looked as they split into two narrow streams to navigate either side of roundabouts before re-converging afterwards. Full road closures was a bit of a wild concept for me, and I just remember feeling so chuffed that for the first time ever, I’d been in a race where both sides of the roundabout were used. In Spain last week, I raced through so many roundabouts but almost every single time I still got a little kick out of it thinking back to when I used to watch it on TV. Not a bad way to help put things into perspective for myself, here I am competing in a WWT tours and racing around both sides of roundabouts, but only a couple of years ago I couldn’t have possibly imagined being in that position. Who would have thought that a simple piece of road furniture could be a symbol for so much, it doesn’t take much to please me I guess!

That’s all from me, I’ll be back reporting on here in July while enjoying a little winters break in New Zealand. Catch me on Instagram @elllaharrris until then.

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