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Ella Harris: Reflecting on the Season

Um wow, it’s been a very long time since I’ve written a blog. I try not to be an unreliable and lazy person, but I’ve really struggled to know where to start. The last time I sat down to put some words together, I was still back in New Zealand preparing to travel over to Europe to finally begin my season.

From late March when I landed in Belgium to now, I’ve done many races and ridden a lot, but in terms of on-paper race performance, there hasn’t been much to write home about. I think that explains my reluctance to start writing, but upon reflection I realise that it’s completely silly to base a blog off any notable results I may have achieved, when it’s only a miniscule facet of being a cyclist. I guess you could consider it as the icing on the cake or a reward for everything else that is put into the sport, when in reality only very few people actually get that extra treat. The stories/ insight from training/ race preparation can be far more interesting, and it is what makes up 90% of a cyclist’s time anyway.

So what has my year up until this point entailed? After ‘faffing’ around and struggling to find structure in my riding from November onwards, a nasty crash and a small crack to my pelvis in January, and finally beginning proper season preparations in February, in hindsight I realise that I was up against it quite nicely. I arrived in Belgium with the very beginnings of some training intensity under my belt and had a disappointing premature end to my first race, Dwars Doors Vlaanderen, when I punctured at literally the worst possible moment in the thick of the cobbles and punchy climbs. From there, it was more time in Belgium with Scheldeprijs and a little trip to Germany for training before Brabanstje Pijl. Scheldeprijs had the worst pre-race ride conditions ever encountered when we ended up riding our Tacx turbo trainers in a Belgian hotel carpark with full-blasting snow, but the race was actually okay and even with 1m of elevation (probably less), I had an enjoyable time. Brabantsje Pijl was basically just a horrendous race for me, but in hindsight I am actually looking forward to returning again as the course would be quite cool with more favourable leg sensations. I finally made it back to Girona after nearly 1 month on the road and was able to settle down to ‘normal life’ and into a little training block. There’s something about doing a solid grocery shop and stocking up the fridge with your favourite foods that gets me excited every time. There is also good coffee to be found in Girona, something that is extremely hard to come by in Belgium where specialty roasting is still something of a futuristic hobby.

After that, it was off to Luxembourg for Elsy Jacobs where I started to feel as if I was remembering how to race again – it takes a while to get used to that intensity and the constant pushing. It was on this trip that I also discovered how nice Luxembourg is; did you know that it is only 82km long, 57km wide and has 17km worth of underground tunnels cut underneath Luxembourg city? Well now you do, and I highly recommend a visit because the country is just lovely. Make sure you bring snacks to the airport though, because in Covid times the restaurants there are closed, and that can make for quite a long evening when you arrive at 6pm for a 10pm flight.

Photo: Thomas Maheux

From there, it was ticking another few days by before driving down to the Setmana Ciclista Valencia, a 4 day tour in Spain. I immensely enjoy racing in Spain and the different style that it offers, so to have this tour on my calendar was excellent for the morale and the form. To say I was then devastated to suffer a heart arrhythmia with 40km to go on the first stage, is quite the understatement. I managed to finish, albeit setting new HR PBs of 200bpm for 60 mins, all while fighting the time cut as I fell backwards through every bunch that passed. My Training Peaks from that day tells quite the unfortunate story. I had to skip the remaining three stages as a precautionary measure, and also due to the fact that you don’t feel exactly full of energy when your heart has been working significantly overtime.

I’ll tell you what, there is honestly nothing worse than being around the team when you’re supposed to be racing, but you’re not. When everyone is enjoying a pre-race breakfast or sharing stories afterwards, and you’re that extra part. It was only recently when my coach said that from this point, I’d basically had 10 days of unproductive/ minimal training, through tapering for the tour and then not actually doing it. Not the nicest thing for an athlete to hear; some things are best not to know until you’ve weathered the storm! After getting the all-clear and mitigating the damage with some panic training, it was then to Navarre for some redemption racing. It was in the first race of the block, Emakumeen Nafarroako, that I discovered that I really love racing in the rain. This was just as well, because we certainly had a lot of it as the conditions were simply biblical. The first 10km was down a valley before a sharp hairpin corner into a gradual 3km climb. After this climb came a narrow and twisty descent and miraculously with nearly all of our riders in the top 10 out of a bunch of 170, we were certainly in a controlling position. In normal conditions the peloton would be significantly stretched atfter this sector, but with the additional wetness factor, there was quite some daylight even in the first few riders. Once things had settled further down the road, the peloton was shrunk to a far more manageable size of 50 riders. At 128km and nearly 4 hours, this was a very long and hilly outing, but I was really pleased to bounce back from my disrupted build-up and get this race under the belt. I will always remember a quote from Peter Sagan post a 2017 Tour de Suisse rainy stage: “After the rain I had energy because I am Aquarius”, and although I am a cancer baby, I really vibe with mindset and feel the same way.

Photo: Thomas Maheux

Interestingly, it was the next day in the Navarra Women’s Classic where the disruptions caught up with me and although I was able to get over 100km into the race playing a team role, it was when the road went up that my legs were simply overcome with fatigue. Despite this, I came through these two days far better than expected, although on the third day during our recovery ride, I have never felt so sore and drained on the bike in my life. Maybe the rain did sap the energy out of me after all.

Next on the cards was GP Eibar when bad luck struck again, as I was taken down in a random crash with less than 15km remaining. This was incredibly disappointing yet again, as the finish was up the Arrate climb and I was really looking forward to seeing what I could muster up. After being convinced that I had broken my collarbone with the throbbing radiating from that region, the excitement and disbelief was evident when the doctor told me it was an AC joint sprain. I couldn’t feel my collarbone underneath the skin and movement was very limited, so my disappointment subsided immediately and I felt incredibly lucky as if I’d dodged a massive bullet. I was genuinely on cloud nine after that hospital appointment, I guess it just takes a little scare and then the all clear to put everything into perspective. To this day, my collarbone is rather sunken and hidden which highlights the hammering it took, but it’s still in one piece so that’s the main thing!

Back for a little more training in Girona on Zwift courtesy of the dodgy shoulder, and then it was time to travel to Germany for Thuringen. Thuringen was an excellent tour for me to get some solid kilometres in the legs and just ride my bike consistently, every day for six days. We had a really nice team environment there and were knocking on the door with some close results, but the stage win unfortunately alluded. A week of light training and relaxation after Thuringen, and then it was onto the Tour de Suisse. The first stage was rather strange as on the second of three laps, a very strong move went on the decisive climb with most major teams represented, meaning that it was more a roll-around for the peloton from that point. We got back to the team camper to hear that Elise (Chabbey) had ended up winning the stage from the break on her home turf in the Swiss champions jersey – I don’t think you could ask for a better ending than that. Helping her to attempt to retain the yellow jersey during the next final stage was really motivating and although Trek managed to outplay our team along with a crash also not being in Elise’s favour, it was still a really cool weekend.

And then it was time for a breather. Big, fresh gulps of mountain air and peacefulness. I can tell you, I was just so excited to be going up to Livigno for a little block of altitude training. I felt as if I had literally been limping from race to race, and really needed some time to patch up the fitness foundations. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go to Livigno as initially I was supposed to return to Girona prior to Tour de Suisse but hadn’t, meaning I was living out of a suitcase that didn’t quite have everything I would have liked for the additional time on the road. Despite this, as soon as I had arrived I knew I was in the right place. The beautiful scenery, relaxing days, town life and excellent training opportunities meant that I had a great 10 days preparing the legs and the mind. I stayed in a chalet with a few others from the team and we had such a nice time together; whether it was suffering 5 hours deep in our endurance rides, whipping up something edible for dinner, making the most of the tax-free status of the Livigno shops, or eating gelato while numbing our legs in the river. This was only my second time altitude training and with the guidance of our team coach Lars, we were able to be very productive and ensure that we came out better than we went in eg. not completely destroying ourselves. Many carbs were consumed, essential vitamins and minerals remained topped up, the watts were controlled and the only time we went a little wild was on the descents (ahem, this is the Umbrail and Gavia Passes descent QOM holder speaking).

And where am I now? In Bregenz, Austria, of all places. Being from a country that has Nationals in January, I’m one of the few that has a weekend of twiddling thumbs and FOMO. The team were driving from Livigno to German Nationals, but not being German or wanting to get involved in serious Nationals preparations, I selected a random destination on the map that looked nice and was in the direction of Stuttgart (the Nationals location). So here I am, enjoying a couple days by Lake Constance and attempting to shake off the post-altitude hangover I’m experiencing. It’s been really nice to explore a completely new area and even enjoy a post-ride swim after each training session!

It’s only now, in late June, where I’m beginning to feel like I’m on the cusp of getting into the pointier end of races and find myself there when the action begins. I’m unsure if I expected too much of myself and was overly ambitious, but I really hoped to be at this point a little sooner into the season! To be completely honest, I think one of the major inhibitors for me at this stage is my head. I liken it to a sprinter who hasn’t won a bunch sprint in a while, albeit on a smaller and more discrete scale. The last race where I could ‘foot it’ on the climbs and make selections, was back in August 2020 when I finished 7th at Emakumeen. Until you’re able to ‘be there’ and make that decisive split in a race again, it’s difficult for the mindset to continue to push during the race when the going gets tough, and the likelihood of slipping out the back of the bunch becomes higher. Physically in training, I’ve set all-time power PBs this year and my W/Kg is up there with my best ever, despite undergoing a serious body ‘overhaul’ since breaking my femur. In a race with so many other variables and factors affecting your performance, it’s hard to minimise the effect of the distracting factors to put those numbers out when it actually counts. Rather than accepting defeat in the face of an attack going straight at the bottom of the hill, it’s about putting the head down to dig deep instead of the voice inside saying things are too difficult and succumbing to the pressure.

That is what I’ve identified as my current challenge – to stop thinking that I can’t keep up when the pace is on during a race, because I know I have the performance in me, so I want to get that monkey off my back and just ride as strongly as I can when going for a Strava QOM. The mind is too complicated sometimes so I’m working on finding that ‘off-switch’ and blocking it out. Don’t think, just do it – a nice little motto that springs to mind. I’ve discovered that the longer you ride a bike and the more you become involved, many little things that you wouldn’t have even thought about in the earlier days of competing in the sport just start springing up and playing on your mind. Overthinking race situations, having a high FTP but doubting whether you’re capable of it, refining your pedalling technique, questioning “does this have enough carbs?”, ensuring your glutes are working, “is my core stable enough?”, pondering the potential effects of doing an interval 20w higher than prescribed, “am I sitting straight on my saddle?”, ensuring a muscle isn’t overused through factors listed above… the list goes on, perhaps a topic for another blog.

From then, it was onto two races that aren’t usually my cup of tea – the Lotto Belgium Tour and the Baloise Ladies Tour. Although I’m not the biggest fan of this racing style and would far prefer to be at the Giro (10 days is a few days too long for me though), it’s nothing I shouldn’t be able to do well at. Let’s be real, if you’re good at something then you’re generally going to like it because who doesn’t enjoy doing well. Prior to this year, I had only done very few races in Belgium and the Netherlands, and in 2021 I’ve added a couple extra to that list. I guess you could say that my opinion is more neutral to this racing, as I need the further practice and experience to be able to enjoy it more. It takes knowledge, bike handling, confidence, fearlessness and also slightly more luck than usual to successfully navigate the peloton, so because of this I’m looking forward to the racing in order to help improve these aspects.

By human nature, I am not the sort of person that really likes to be all mongrel and daring to end up only top 60 going into a decisive sector, especially if it means that my collarbones may not be intact coming out the other side. I do however like to ride strongly and be in the front of bike races, so maybe I need to turn my ‘risk awareness’ switch off from time to time and live a little. It will be cool to challenge myself to see what I can do when I dial in my bunch craftiness and don’t have to constantly sap my three precious fast twitch muscle fibres sprinting out of every corner. There is no point continually being comfortable so by taking on these races that I’m not so familiar with, hopefully they might become a little more appealing for me in the future, as there is no reason why I can’t enjoy them.

I think that concludes everything I have to say at this point in time, but thanks a lot to everyone for reading until this point. Feel free to get in touch with me on Instagram (@elllaharrris) if you’ve got a suggestion for something you’d like me to write about, or simply follow along to see what I get up to.

Ciao for now, it certainly won’t be nearly as long when you hear from me again!

Ella.

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