Leaving Spain as it went into lockdown, top young Kiwi cyclist Ella Harris has kept busy in her family home – while still focused on becoming a world champion.
What do you do when you’re in lockdown in Dunedin, pedalling away in your parents’ lounge – 19,000km away from the roads of Spain and far removed from achieving your goal to become one of the world’s top cyclists?
If you’re Ella Harris, you bake.
Before Covid-19 up-ended the cycling world, Harris was riding the roads around the Spanish city of Girona, preparing for the Women’s WorldTour. Right now, she would have been racing among the world’s best.
But when the global pandemic swept through Europe, 21-year-old Harris left the Spanish lockdown and returned to her family in New Zealand.
To while away the hours when she’s not on her stationary bike (or finally hitting the roads this week under Level 3), she’s teamed up her university studies for a Bachelor of AgriCommerce degree, majoring in food marketing, with her interest in baking.
Her specialty in the kitchen is a loaf. “I try to steer away from the classic banana bread, but I actually did a matcha-lemon bread, which was surprisingly good,” the part-time student says.
Fortunately, she can burn off the baking by pedalling for hours.
During Level 4, Harris chose to ride indoors, sticking to the rules of staying within your neighbourhood. But in the last two days, she’s been able to venture further afield – easing herself back into riding in the Dunedin hills.
And she has a new training partner, her family’s “new bubble extension”, semi-professional men’s cyclist Kees Duyvesteyn.
“I’ve done two or three hours both days, so not too much outdoors yet. But it’s nice to know that I can go wherever I want without fear of backlash or being criticised,” Harris says.
“At the moment I’m just ticking over the legs every day. It’s just making sure I maintain a steady base of fitness until racing starts again.” She just isn’t sure when that will be.
Harris, who races for international cycling powerhouse Canyon-SRAM, was on the cusp of another big year.
“Last year I had between 40 and 50 race days. Our tours were anywhere from a couple of days to seven in a row,” says Harris.
“The biggest tour was seven days and nearly 800km, with the longest stage 140kms – so that was a pretty epic week.”
As yet, there’s no plan drawn up for a rescheduled 2020 women’s professional season. The global governing body for cycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has cancelled all racing in the Women’s WorldTour until August 1. Cyclists have asked that women’s racing stretches through to the end of November.
But Harris is familiar with offbeat paths – having made headlines in 2018 by gaining a spot on the professional Canyon-SRAM team by winning a competition run by the Zwift Academy.
Zwift – a virtual interactive cycling simulator – has taken the Dunedin local around the world on the ride of her life, complete with highs, lows and bumps along the way.
Her raw talent and fighting spirit got her on to the Women’s WorldTour for the first time last year, but her racing performances have ensured she’s held her place.
And it’s seen her hard work rewarded with a place on the start-line of the road world championships. Harris rode for New Zealand in the elite women’s road race in Yorkshire, England, last September.
“Making the world champs really lit a fire in my belly,” she says. “I just snuck into the top 60 so it was a good debut for me, but in the next few years I want to be one of the best.”
She finished 59th, in the second chase pack of a gruelling 149km race – recovering from a puncture early in the race and two bike switches. The world title was won in spectacular fashion by Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten who rode the last 100km on her own.
Van Vleuten is Harris’ benchmark. She aims to chip away at the “one percenters” to help put her in a peloton position with the world champ.
“I want to be the best. I’m very competitive so if there’s someone better than me, I want to be able to get to their level,” says Harris.
Representing New Zealand was a welcome high to round out her debut professional year after a stop-start first half.
Coming off first and second places in the youth classification of Spanish stage races Vuelta a Burgos Feminas and the Emakumeen Bira this time last year, Harris suffered a broken collarbone in a crash in only the eighth race of her professional career.
There was another glimpse of Harris’s tenacity when she managed to return to racing just two weeks after surgery – in time for the prestigious Asda Tour De Yorkshire event. She then finished fourth in the Colorado Classic in August.
The steady build-up to reaching her goal showed in February this year when Harris won her first professional race, at the Women’s Herald Sun Tour in Australia.
Harris made headlines again as she broke down in tears after crossing the line in the 44km stage – an emotional display of triumph to top off her “convoluted” pro journey.
It has always been Harris’ goal to reach the highest level in whatever sport she pursues. She was introduced to multisport events as a kid by her sporty parents.
“I started out running around age 10 with my mum, and absolutely hated it. But I eventually grew to love it,” says Harris. She then tried cycling, swimming and triathlons with her parents in tow.
At 16, she decided to focus solely on cycling. She steadily progressed through the national junior ranks, winning the national U23 club road race title in 2018; she’s the current New Zealand U23 time trial champion.
The end of 2018 changed her course dramatically, when she entered an online race with the Zwift Academy.
The Zwift training simulator allows people across the world to ride together at the same time – from the comfort of their homes. A trainer connects to a device which displays the interactive courses on-screen.
Harris entered a competition with the Zwift Academy aiming to make the top 10 – “because I really wanted to get a new indoor trainer, which was one of the prizes,” she laughs.
When she made the top three from 5000 riders around the globe, she was guaranteed a trip to Europe – where she’d never been before – to attend Canyon-SRAM’s training camp in Spain. Harris, fellow Kiwi Ione Johnson and a British rider were then put to the test in real life, and Harris was chosen to join the world tour pro team for a year.
“Everyone knows that’s the final prize, but you never really think it’ll happen to you,” she says. “I moved into a professional cycling team when I’d never been a professional athlete in my life.”
Her perseverance paid dividends when she was re-signed with Canyon-SRAM for 2020.
“That was really exciting because I knew I had so much more in me, it was only just the start. It’s nice to know that the team has faith in me and that I’m able to repay them,” she says.
While she’s waiting to see when – or even, if – she will be reunited with her multinational team-mates again this year, she has to be content to ride and race alongside them in a virtual world, from her parents’ living room.