Having everything thrown at her in her first year as a pro cyclist, Niamh Fisher-Black’s fighting spirit has seen her establish herself as one of the world’s most promising riders.
Near the end of the famous Fleche-Wallonne race this month, Niamh Fisher-Black started elbowing world champion Anna van der Breggen. The Dutch great was trying to win the one-day Classic for the sixth time in a row, but the young Kiwi wasn’t letting her get into position easily.
Van der Breggen eventually produced a masterful climb to leave everyone behind, and while Fisher-Black finished back in 12th, her precocious talent was clear to see.
Just a year ago she was watching some of the riders in the peloton in absolute awe. Now her team-mates are constantly reminding the 20-year-old she’s not far behind.
“I’m starting each race getting a bit more used to it, and I think I’m at the level now where I have to accept them as competition, rather than my idols,” she says over the phone from Belgium.
In her first year as a professional for Equipe Paule Ka, Fisher-Black has rapidly become a regular in the World Tour team. She’s thrived in some of the biggest races, including the Giro Rosa, La Course and the world championships.
The Nelsonian has formed a dynamic combination in the team with her Kiwi compatriot Mikayla Harvey, with the pair supporting each other and crafting some eye-catching performances. One of their sports directors, Steven Sergeant, thinks it’s just the beginning.
“Let her learn for another two years and we’re talking about a superstar”, he says. “I’ve been in female cycling for eight years now, and I haven’t seen a lot of riders that have that much potential. Especially with Mikayla as well, we’re looking at riders that can definitely win the Giro Rosa.”
Fisher-Black’s year started off perfectly, after winning the national road race title in Cambridge. With the white New Zealand jersey in her suitcase, she headed to Europe full of confidence, only to return three weeks later as the coronavirus pandemic struck.
“I struggled quite a lot during the lockdown in New Zealand, because I knew I wanted to be over in Europe. I felt a bit detached from the cycling scene the whole time and I just wanted to get back,” she says.
After biding her time back at home, she took “every loophole” she could to get back to Italy. Even as she arrived, her ordeal wasn’t over. Her flight landed in a completely different place because of storms in Milan, and the apartment she shares with Harvey was flooded when she walked through the door. It seemed like everything was against her.
The stresses of cycling in 2020 quickly washed away though, because most importantly, she was back racing. She was thrown into the deep end of the hectic restarted season, going on to compete in nearly every World Tour race – something she never expected as a first-year pro.
While Fisher-Black made mistakes along the way, she made sure she learnt from them.
“I remember the first World Tour race that I did, Strade-Bianche. It was up to 40 degrees and I didn’t drink properly just because I didn’t know, and I got completely dehydrated,” she recalls.
Sergeant has been impressed with how quickly she’s adapted.
“We’re very happy with the work she does, and in the team, she’s always communicating,” he says. “She’s someone who says I don’t understand this, how does this work…she’s very talkative and it’s important in a young team.”
Fisher-Black’s crowning moment of the season was the Giro Rosa. The pinnacle event on the women’s calendar involved nine tough stages and was easily the biggest race she’s ever done.
“I remember we had a training camp the week before and our team manager presented the stages to us and I was actually scared. I thought it was going to be crazy,” she says.
Initially selected as a reserve, one of her team-mates suffered an injury, and at the last minute she was called into action a day before the race.
“I can’t really explain what I felt then – there was excitement, nerves, everything. I had no idea whether I was going to get through the nine days and how I was going to get through, but I surprised myself every day on that tour,” she says.
After playing a crucial role supporting Harvey’s quest to win the best young rider classification, Fisher-Black had her own moment in the sun on the final stage, finishing second. While her performance was slightly overshadowed by Harvey’s success, she was more than happy to sacrifice herself for her team-mate.
“I think it takes a lot to work really hard for a team and a team-mate and you have to really have a lot of trust in them,” Fisher-Black says. “Knowing Mikayla is really nice because I have that trust in her and we’re friends so I’m really happy to work with her.”
Fisher-Black deservedly earned a spot at the world road championships in Italy, where she finished an impressive 15th. It was a family occasion with younger brother Finn also wearing the silver fern in the men’s races.
With Harvey, Fisher-Black and Ella Harris, the future of women’s cycling in New Zealand looks incredibly strong.
“It’s really cool to see the Kiwi flag being represented so well, and everyone’s noticing it. I’ve had so many comments from really big riders saying Kiwis are taking over the world,” Fisher-Black laughs.
She’s under contract with Equipe Paule Ka until the end of 2021, although the team is reportedly struggling financially for the second time this year. While they could be facing an uncertain future again, Fisher-Black has done her best to leave a lasting impression in her first season.
“Obviously, my sports director sees something in me given that I’ve done so many races. I can already begin to see he’s got a lot more confidence in my strengths and giving me more opportunities in races and it’s really cool. I think they’re definitely happy with how I’m going.”
It won’t be long before Fisher-Black is raising her elbows in victory across the finish line, rather than using them to battle with her rivals further back.