When teenage cyclist Henrietta Christie began her season on the gravel roads of Manawatū, the last place she thought she’d end up was jostling with her idols on the muddy cobblestones of Northern France.
If it’s possible to crash lightly during a bike race in Europe, then Henrietta Christie doesn’t know about it. Of course, most cyclists leave it all out on the road. Christie just happens to leave a bit of skin behind too.
“I’ve had a small concussion, but mostly it’s just been a lot of road rash: over both my arms, legs, chin, face, hands, shoulders,” she says with a laugh from her base in Italy.
It’s no wonder her first season overseas has been overwhelming. Christie’s opening race of the year, the Gravel and Tar Classic in Manawatū, saw her line up with around 20 competitors. Her most recent race, the first women’s edition of the famous Paris-Roubaix, had 129.
It’s why a few cuts and rattled bones can be excused as the Christchurch teenager starts to understand the complexities of European racing. After all, when 2021 rolled around, she wasn’t even thinking about going overseas.
Christie was expecting to do another season with her Kiwi team, Velo Project. She was coming off a great campaign with them, winning the junior time trial at the national road champs, and the junior Tour of Southland.
That all changed after she spoke with Italian team BePink earlier this year. They were interested in signing her for the back-half of the season and offered her a contract until the end of December.
Like any New Zealand athlete, the 19-year-old had to weigh up the benefits of overseas competition, with the uncertainty of when she’d be able to return home. In the end though, it was a relatively simple decision.
“Doing something I love like cycling and doing it as a job is something I’ve been dreaming of for years, so when the opportunity came, I just wanted to take it straight away,” she says.
So by June, she found herself lining up for races in Belgium. It was a proper taste of the European roads, in more ways than one.
“I think you see a lot of New Zealanders in their first season crash in the first few races because it’s just such a big jump. You have to go so far out of your comfort zone,” she says.
Rather than crashing and burning though, she’s been crashing and learning – thanks to some helpful advice from experienced New Zealand professionals Mikayla Harvey and Georgia Williams.
“They’ve both been saying it takes time, and it’s something you can’t rush. To get that reassurance that they had all these crashes in their first year in Europe, helped me feel more confident that I’m just going to click one day and I’m going to understand how to do it,” she says.
She’s hopeful that might be the case with learning Italian, too. While her grasp of the language is getting better, she’s found the cultural difference the most challenging. Fortunately, she’s had New Zealand track cyclist Michaela Drummond, also a member of the BePink team, on hand to help her out.
“You do something and she thinks it’s normal, where everyone else thinks it’s extremely weird. It’s good to be with someone who understands what you’re doing half the time,” she laughs.
Her talent on the bike has already spoken for itself. A climber by trade, Christie flourished at the hilly French race Tour de l’Ardèche, winning the white jersey as the best young rider. After the first day, she was on equal time with former Velo Project teammate Ally Wollaston, before her team encouraged her to push on.
“To get the white jersey on day four was phenomenal. I was standing there with a 30 second lead or something, and it was just unbelievable that I was leading it. To hold it for that day was amazing and I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off,” she says.
While the white jersey was an experience to savour, getting to wear the black one for New Zealand at the recent world road championships was even more special. Christie was selected to ride in the road race, alongside Drummond, Niamh Fisher-Black and Ella Harris.
“I looked up to Niamh and Ella from back home, so to be able to actually meet them and race with them was just unbelievable, I absolutely loved it,” she says.
The significance of the occasion kicked in when she was on the start-line, surrounded by the biggest names in women’s cycling.
“It was surreal. I didn’t think at the beginning of the year that I’d be at the world champs standing next to my biggest idols, so I definitely pinched myself a bit,” she says.
Christie did her best to try and get in an early breakaway, but unfortunately, the race didn’t go her way. She didn’t end up finishing, as she emptied the tank for her team-mates, but did her best to drink in the “insane” support from the raucous Belgian fans lining the streets of Flanders.
After such a demanding season, she’s now having a bit of a break to recuperate and knows how important it is to manage her body with a big future ahead of her.
“My coach [Elyse Fraser] and I are really focused on making sure I stay healthy, and that I’m not over-burning myself. As soon as I get too fatigued, we pull it right back and focus on recovery. Everything is about making sure that I’m still healthy for when I’m 20, 35, or whenever,” she says.
It’s a long-term plan that should ensure she continues to be part of a golden era of New Zealand cycling. There are currently 13 women competing in the American or European-based world tour or continental professional teams, headed up by Fisher-Black, who’s ranked as the number one young rider in the world. As Christie points out, they’re building a strong community overseas.
“It’s incredible because we’re all here supporting each other and just looking out for each other. There’s just so many girls – every race you go to there’s always another Kiwi in another team and it’s so good to chat and catch up, and it makes it feel a bit more like home which is nice,” she says.
It’s a salient reflection, especially with the ongoing troubles athletes are having trying to get back into the country through the managed isolation system. Christie doesn’t have a golden ticket to MIQ yet, so she’s heading to the United Kingdom for the time being to put her feet up.
“I’m still hoping,” she says. “I’ll keep trying each time, but I have some good Plan Bs in case I need to use them so I’m not too worried about it,” she says.
Returning to New Zealand in the next few months might be a lottery, but it already seems like Henrietta Christie has secured her spot at the highest level of world cycling.