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Descending with Vos and The World Champs

So I’m back and kicking off from where I left off in my last blog, that location being Lorient Airport, where I found myself flying into after 25 hours of travel from Chicago and a successful trip in the US. This was an airport that would give some domestic New Zealand airports a run for their money in terms of size, so almost made a nice change from the usual Barcelona hustle and bustle that I’ve become quite well acquainted with this year. I was finally back on European soil but in completely unfamiliar territory with it being my first time in France, after a late call up to race at GP Plouay. I flew from Denver to Chicago on Monday evening, received a surprise email with new flight information on the Tuesday, and left Chicago on Wednesday morning. There was time for a glorious 6am cruise along the Lake Michigan waterfront (where there was only one near death experience thanks to a car fully boosting through a red light), then four flights later I was spinning out the travel in rather contrasting circumstances on the Thursday evening, around some lovely French lanes. Luckily I was fighting fading daylight in the latter ride, rather than manic big city courier drivers.

Quite frankly, I had no idea how I would feel racing at Plouay. Obviously the travel would be a factor, but also the fact that it was my first race after being at altitude for three weeks. The course was quite an interesting one, with six times around a 15km loop followed by a slightly altered smaller loop that was repeated twice. The roads were quite narrow and there were many pinch points where positioning was pretty critical if you didn’t want to unnecessarily expend enormous amounts of energy. For the few couple of laps I felt surprisingly good, but unfortunately these feelings didn’t last for too much longer. The punchy nature of the course left me really suffering with each surge and acceleration, and my legs had even less fast-twitch firepower than usual, so with the two final circuits remaining I was rolling home in the chase bunch.

Velofocus, GP Plouay

It was really nice to be heading back to Girona the next day after one month away, but I won’t even mention the 14 hour travel day from Rennes that I endured to get there. A solid ten days were spent at my ‘home away from home’ where it was really nice to enjoy the simple things again, like taking a stroll to the local Consum for a grocery shop and actually being back in the kitchen preparing a nice, fresh meal. It wasn’t all relaxed and laid back however, as Coach Kev had other ideas. Being prime World Champs build up time, that week consisted of just under 800km on the bike, with the longest being 165km and six hours. After seven days on the grind, a few easier rides ensued before it was back into France again for a rather intimidating and arduous race, the Tour Cycliste Feminin International de l’Ardeche.

On paper, the race looks rather terrifying and I had heard a lot of ‘survivor’ stories from former competitors who more than confirmed that it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Stage 2, consisting of 140km and 3000m climbing, being a particular day that really caught my attention, but in summary it would be approximately 840km and 14,500m of climbing in seven days. After watching the Tour de France since I was young and having very limited knowledge of the country itself, I was anticipating an ‘Alps style’ mountainous landscape, but I was quite surprised by the terrain that I saw. Not particularly high in altitude but just never flat, constantly rolling with hill after hill. Very few of the climbs across the week had gradients that were actually really challenging, and it was rather the constant undulations in between the long, gradual climbs that I found to sap my legs the most.

Pre Ardeche chilling

Like the course profiles, on paper my tour didn’t look too flash, yet I was actually really pleased with how I was feeling and the way I was racing. I gained a decent amount of experience throughout the week, from learning to ride smart in a breakaway to helping my team mate Omer with her ambitions for the general classification. On Stage 2, we both found ourselves in a breakaway from the 50km mark and with nobody else terribly willing to co-operate, I rode the front until the 100km mark where Omer was able to attack with a three minute advantage on the peloton and go solo on a steep climb. On Stage 3, after dropping from the front group during a challenging final 30km, I drove and broke up the chase bunch on the descents to support Omer and finished a respectable 12th. Stage 4 was a particularly exciting one for me, where I made a breakaway that stayed away until the line and rode the final as well as I could have, placing a bittersweet fourth after being overtaken for the podium in the dying centimetres.

Nicholas Mabyle, Ardeche 4th place

Stage 6 was really exciting, gutting, painful and even more bittersweet; I was climbing better than I had been all week, the legs were feeling great, and I ended up finding myself in another breakaway with four others. This wasn’t any ordinary breakaway though; it came as the result of a rather steep and technical 12km descent where Marianne Vos of all people decided to put the hammer down right at the very top, making for potentially the scariest 11 minutes of my cycling career so far. I hung on for dear life while absolutely terrified and wondering when all the corners and hairpins were going to end. A decent margin at the bottom meant it was full co-operation and equally full gas until the road next went up. That’s when I said goodbye to Vos, as she dispatched me while probably sitting at her ‘zone 2 endurance’ pace, no more than 100m up the next climb. Luckily I wasn’t the only victim, so had some company as survival mode was switched on and the grovel towards the finish began. With the remaining two QOMs negotiated and one descent left before a flat 5km run to the finish, I was by myself in fourth place, battling the effects of tiredness (probably due to the concentration required to follow Vos along with a large amount of arm clenching) and feeling a little weary. A resulting lapse in attention while descending on what I now know to be quite the tight corner, led to me getting a little too friendly with the metal roadside barrier and completely catapulting over the other side, eventually ending up three metres down the steep hillside with my dear Canyon tangled in the trees above.

 

It wasn’t very funny at the time, but thinking back it is quite amusing to remember the sight of riders flying around the corner (on the road unlike me) high above my head, and trying to crawl my way back up to solid ground from three metres down the side of a steep embankment while screaming “help me”. Eventually I did find my way back to the road and hyperventilated the entire 7km to the finish, but unfortunately wasn’t able to start the final stage as I was having further scans on a fracture that was located in my neck. Now time for a fun fact about me, it was actually an ‘old’, subsequently healed break from a previous head knock that I didn’t know existed; relieving but also slightly unnerving at the same time.

It was back to Girona again for a few days to relax, recuperate and to also shake out the strong case of whiplash I had sustained post the French downhilling incident. Four days later, I was off to the biggest event of the season and basically the ‘cycling place to be’ for the week. Although the absence of my delayed suitcase for two days (along with the undesirable weather on that note) put a dampener on proceedings, it was really awesome to be hanging around Harrogate and soaking up the atmosphere through sponsor events held by Rapha, Voxwomen, Zwift and SRAM, as well as simply exploring the town and trying out the local cafes. To be selected to race at Yorkshire was a rather big deal for me, as it had been a huge goal of mine to one day reach a World Championships, yet I didn’t think it would be for a while. I knew from the very start of the year that racing in Europe for a team like CANYON//SRAM would provide me with a great platform for national team selections, but the big unknown for me was whether I’d actually be able to compete at the level I’d find myself riding in. To have the backing from Cycling New Zealand was really exciting and made me feel as if I’d actually proven myself despite taking an unusual path into the professional ranks; it was a nice reassurance that my development was on the right track and a reward for not only the hard work I’d put in to progress but also the challenges I’d overcome.

Jojo Harper, SRAM Women’s Panel in Yorkshire

I was incredibly nervous before the big day, mainly due to the unknown of how the strong nations would approach the race given the many different cards and scenarios that could play out. It was both a brutal and crazy experience, the course was relentless due to constantly undulating ‘grippy’ roads and the pace never really eased. It wasn’t like any road race I’ve ever been a part of before, in so many different ways! I didn’t quite have the legs I wanted to and luck didn’t quite go my way either with two bike changes early on but despite that, it was so cool to be racing in front of massive crowds and an amazing atmosphere everywhere on course. The amount of people cheering my name was totally unbelievable considering I was about as far away from home as I could get, and the huge number of New Zealand flags and Kiwis cheering was just so awesome and exhilarating. My legs completely blew on the Harrogate circuit with 25km to go and although it was disappointing to not have enough in the tank to hang with the pelo in the final lap, I was reasonably satisfied with finishing my first Worlds. I am excited in the knowledge that I should still have many more years left in this game to continue my development and progression as a rider so that one day I can really give Worlds a proper crack, and having the first one under my belt is a great start.

Off the bat of a big week in Yorkshire, I was a little deflated and pretty unmotivated to jump on the bike. I had been training really hard for Worlds and was just excited to be going to Yorkshire full stop, so I guess you could say that I had a little post trip depression once I returned to Spain and regular transmission resumed. I indulged in a few easy days where I simply rode whenever I wanted and for however long I felt like, and also spent significant amounts of time lounging about in the various Girona cafes – they’re just too good to resist.

 

Currently, I’m spending just under three weeks hanging around G-town before flying to China for the Tour of Guangxi (a 145km one day race, despite the name). I’ve still been putting in solid amounts of training to keep the form ticking over for the World Tour event, but mentally and physically I’m running a little low on resources and simply counting down to a post of R&R time with each session completed. This will be my final race before I get to commence my first ever proper off-season, and also marks the end of my first year as a professional cyclist. I still find it quite hard to believe, reflecting back on where I’ve come from this time last year when the Zwift Academy Semi-Finals were kicking off. From Guangxi, I’m straight off to New Zealand to continue that chasing the classic “endless Summer’ dream and will even get to treat myself to a couple upcoming university exams also.

I’m surprised to be feeling in need of a decent hiatus away from the bike, as in my previous years of training and racing I’ve never felt like I’ve ever needed a proper break. The longest duration that I’ve taken before has been one week yet it was never at a set time in the year unlike the European cycling season, more just an impromptu move under the guidance of my coach who would give me some ‘down time’ between lulls in racing. I feel as if I haven’t really had a proper moment to truly reflect on everything that has happened and changed in my life this year, so perhaps once I have that time I’ll then understand just why I’m looking forward to enjoying more of a normal existence for a little while with cycling kept to a minimum.

 

Making cycling a ‘seasonal sport’ is difficult when you live in the likes of Australia or New Zealand, as while the European scene slowly builds up for the year from March, at the same time the calendar of racing on the other side of the world gradually winds down. The opposite also applies, so when I head back home with the main aim of relaxing and attempting to avoid my bike, the club racing scene is just getting into the swing of things. This is complicated further when you’re living in New Zealand like the Ella of last year and wanting to race in the Northern Hemisphere when it’s winter at home, so normally results in a steady stream of racing across the entire year rather than a set block like I’ve been introduced to this year. There are many races that I’d like to line up for as a bit of fun, such as a 160km mass participation ride around New Zealand’s largest lake, or the National Criterium Championships, but unfortunately the bigger picture needs to be looked at so I’ll be playing it very sensible to ensure all cylinders are firing come the return to major racing in January/February. Although in saying that, once I do have my compulsory couple of weeks off, I’m sure slotting into D grade at the local Dunedin Monday night races would build the fitness quite nicely.

I believe that’s finally everything I have to report from what I’ve been up to over the past month or so, and apologies for a rather long ramble yet again! Thank you to everyone who has read my blogs and supported me over this year; it’s been a pleasure writing these for Voxwomen and sharing my thoughts as well as experiences with you all. I’m not sure when I’ll be back on here, but I’m always on the ‘gram so I can be followed on @elllaharrris in the meantime. Ciao for now!


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