Niamh Fisher-Black could hardly believe her own performance during stage 3 where she pulled on three leader's jerseys – the overall, mountains and best young rider classifications – all with just one final stage remaining at the Women's WorldTour Vuelta a Burgos Feminas.
In the end, it was her veteran teammate and double world champion Anna van der Breggen who secured the overall title after winning stage 4 atop Lagunas de Neila. However, Fisher-Black's consistent performances during the four-day race, combined with her overall win in the youth classification, showed that she is developing into a big talent at SD Worx.
Fisher-Black needs very little introduction as a former New Zealand National Champion but at just 20 years old she is quickly carving out her place in the very top level of women's professional cycling and she is doing it in her very first season with SD Worx.
"I’m pretty happy ... and pretty lost for words," Fisher-Black said after the podium presentation where she pulled on all three leader's jerseys, one after another, following stage 3.
"After crossing the finish line, I was stoked to finished top 5 in this stage and then someone said to me that I was in the leader’s jersey. That was quite unexpected!"
Fisher-Black might be the only person surprised by her performance as the rest of the cycling world sees her as one of the strongest up-and-coming talents in the world – the future of the Women’s WorldTour.
She began her career as a trainee with Bigla [later called Equipe Paule Ka] in August of 2019, and then signed her first professional contract with the team in 2020. When she finally made it to Europe to compete in the truncated late-season calendar she stood on the podium in a stage at the Giro Rosa, finished 15th at the Imola World Championships and put forth strong performances at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
When Equipe Paule Ka folded unexpectedly in October last year it sent shockwaves through the team but Danny Stam was waiting in the wings to scoop up Fisher-Black on a two-year deal that will see her racing for SD Worx through 2022.
In an phone interview with Cyclingnews while at her first meeting with SD Worx this spring, Fisher-Black said she was looking forward to learning from the best riders in the world and building her strength and confidence as she carves out her pathway into becoming one of the sport's top athletes.
Cyclingnews: Can you tell us about where you’re from and where you grew up?
Niamh Fisher-Black: I’m from New Zealand in a place called Nelson to be specific. I started cycling when I was really young, my family is in to cycling, and my dad and my brother are also cyclists. [I started cycling] when I was really young, about six or seven, and then going into racing on the road and track in my early teens. So, I mainly grew up cycling and racing around New Zealand.
CN: You started racing as a trainee with Bigla in 2019 and then signed you first pro contract in 2020. What was your development process like at that programme?
NFB: It was a huge learning curve for me last year because it was my first year professional, and honestly, I had no idea what it was like to have the support of a team, that was totally new to me.
It was my first time doing all of the WorldTour racing, and all the races that I did last year, at that level, were completely new to me. It was a huge learning curve and I made a helluva lot of mistakes last year. I learned heaps from it. The difficult time that the team Bigla-Katusha [Equipe Paule Ka] had didn’t make things so easy, but I didn’t really know any better. I was grateful for the support that I was getting.
CN: What are some example of mistakes that you made that you can fix now at SD Worx?
NFB: Positioning, eating, drinking in races … things like that. Suddenly, I was thrown into hard and longer races, and then you have to start thinking about these things, like when to eat a bar. In several races, I learned the hard way in terms of not eating and drinking and I really suffered in the heat. So, from my teammates I learned so much about how to take care of yourself, your body and recovery.
Also, I had never worked with a team before, no tactics, no radios, and so that was all new to me. I had to learn the communication side of things, communicating with my teammates because I wasn’t communicating with them enough.
Racing the Giro Rosa was a bit of a shock for me and I was called-up last-minute. It was the biggest race I had ever done by a lot, and so I had to really trust my teammates and take their advice.
CN: You’re a strong climber and had a lot of highlights last year. What stood out for you, and to get noticed by SD Worx?
NFB: I won my first UCI-level race at the New Zealand National Championships in 2020, so I started off well. I surprised myself and was excited to see what I could do in Europe but that all went sideways (with COVID-19] and I went straight back to New Zealand.
I was motivated all the way through the lockdown period and was keen to get back to Europe. When I arrived, at first, I had little expectation of myself. I thought I would learn and work for the team. The first race where I felt strong was La Course, in Nice, where I felt like I was helpful to the team and strong in the peloton.
CN: You had a strong Giro Rosa; 2nd on the final day, 21st overall and 6th in the youth classification. Were you happy with that performance?
NFB: The Giro Rosa was my biggest race and I was called up just a couple of days before the start, and got in the car and drove to Tuscany to meet the team and start the race. I was completely out of my comfort zone and had no idea how I was going to finish this tour. I was scared and nervous. I surprised myself and the Giro Rosa was probably where people noticed me because I dealt with the day-by-day racing well. I got stronger as the day’s went by, and it showed by having a good result on the last stage.
I had a good World Championship in Imola, too, fifteenth, and as the season went on I gained confidence in myself. Suddenly, I was given more responsibility. Mikayla Harvey and I were given the shared leadership role in the Classics - which was huge for me and a big confidence boost. Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège were good for me.
The late-season races last year went well and that’s what has made me so motivated to do well this season with SD Worx.
CN: Were you surprised to get an offer for SD Worx or did it feel like a natural progression?
NFB: We didn’t find out until the very last minute that Equipe Paule Ka wasn’t going to sponsor us in 2021. Our manager, Thomas Campana, really delayed telling us riders, as well. By the time he told us, he had already told a lot of other teams that his team was potentially not going to go ahead. The same day that I found out Equipe Paule Ka was not going to continue, I got an email from Danny Stam. I spoke with him over the next days and it all fell into place rather well, which was ideal, because October is not at the time of the year when you want to be looking for a contract.
CN: What do you see yourself accomplishing in 2021 with SD Worx?
NFB: SD Worx is huge step up for me and I never dreamed that I would be on a WorldTour team, let alone the best WorldTour team. I’ve gone into it without too many expectations because there are a lot of races that I have still never done. I want to find my strength and my confidence in myself. I’m excited to work with these riders and there is so much that I can learn from the best riders in the world.
CN: Are you the future of Women’s WorldTour competition?
NFB: I look at it like … I’ll be here for a long time and I don’t expect to leave the sport anytime soon. I have a long way to go. I would like to make my way to the top but there is no pressure or timeframe where I need to be at the top now. I’m here for the long run.
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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