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In the theatre, the term ‘break a leg’ is used superstitiously in lieu of saying ‘good luck’ before going on stage. For cyclists, however, it’s a concept that doesn’t even bear thinking about. Unfortunately for Ella Harris, this August – in the middle of a course recon on the day before Strade Bianche – a broken leg is exactly what she found herself with.
I meet Harris one afternoon in Girona, where she, alongside a significant number of pro cyclists from all over the world, spends the season. The local Coronavirus restrictions at the time mean that cafes and restaurants are take-away only so we head for what Harris wryly dubs a ‘gutter brew’ — wherein we order coffee through a window (she orders a flat white and I silently marvel at the bravery of ingesting so much caffeine after 3pm) and head over to sit on a cold, stone step around the corner.
The 22 year-old came up through the racing ranks in her native New Zealand along with two other young Kiwi breakout stars of the 2020 season – Niamh Fisher-Black and Mikayla Harvey – on a team run by Harvey’s dad.
After racing in New Zealand, Australia, and North America, Harris was catapulted into the WorldTour in 2018 through the Zwift Academy, winning a contract with Canyon-SRAM for the 2019 season. After impressing the team with a string of top-10 positions in high-level races, she secured a second season on the squad.
This year, Harris should have been right up there with her compatriots at the Giro Rosa (where Harvey won the young rider classification and Fisher-Black took a stage). Her season got off to a promising start in Australia and New Zealand with two top-10s at Tour Down Under and a win on stage two of the Herald Sun Tour. Then, she took the U23 national TT title and second place in the national road championships. She’d already travelled to Spain to begin the European season when the pandemic hit, forcing her to return home to Dunedin.
Once the season re-started in July, Harris seemed to have held on to the same form – riding her way to 7th in the first race since lockdown, Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa. But then the string of bad luck kicked in: Three days later, at Durango Durango Emakumeen Saria, she crashed just 121m into the neutral section and pulled out of the race, fearing concussion. Just one week later, in Italy, she was in hospital with a broken femur.
Back on the step, she recalls how the crash happened describing how she was on: “the perfect corner, smooth road, everything was completely fine, dry,” when, “the bike just went.”
“I wasn’t even going fast. It was like half of race speed and, yeah, the bike just went and I just went ‘smack’ straight on my hip – it happened very fast.”
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She was taken to Siena hospital where she waited for hours before finally being given more painkillers in the form of paracetamol – which seems somewhat stingy for a broken femur. Did it help? “I mean, it might have taken the edge off but I didn’t really notice.”
She winces as she recounts the agony that cut through, “like a 9 or a 10. It was so bad, I’ve never been in that much pain, I couldn’t move.”
“I’d lie on the bed and I couldn’t really move to the side or if they wanted to move me into another bed that was just complete agony. I was screaming, I was having full-blown tantrums. I was a bit of a drama queen.”
Which seems fair enough given the circumstances.
When I ask how the leg is now she’s characteristically droll: “the leg’s actually pretty good, it’s not too bad, when I get a little bit tired I start to walk like a penguin but apart from that it’s come a long way.”
Harris recalls what must have been a traumatic ordeal with deadpan wit, and you get the impression that she is someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously – a rare quality for a professional athlete. It seems genuine enough, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s also something of a coping mechanism against remembering what must have been a pain-ridden, lonely and challenging time for the 22 year-old.
She spent a week in Siena hospital, more or less alone. “It was pretty awful,” she tells me, “I had this woman beside me and she didn’t speak English. It was just the two of us in a room… it was just the fact that I was in by myself and she had all these visitors and she’d be talking to people on the phone in Italian and I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
From Italy, she was transferred to a physio rehab facility in Hamburg, Germany which partners with Canyon-SRAM. There, she received intensive physio treatment every day for five weeks, “so that got me off to a good start really.”
Thanks to the treatment she received in Hamburg she was soon able to pedal a static gym bike, “I got mobile pretty fast,” she says, although she was still experiencing pain, particularly when walking.
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Luckily, Harris’ team mate, Hannah Ludwig, lives a mere 20 minute bus journey from the rehab facility and she was able to spend weekends with Ludwig at the German’s family home. During the week, however, she was confined to Hamburg. “I actually really liked the city,” she says. “As I got more mobile every day it was like ‘I’m leaving this hospital.’”
“I know all the cafes in Hamburg pretty well now,” she says. For the record: she rates the calibre of the ‘brews’ that can be found there.
Since returning to her base in Girona, Harris has been spending time in the gym as well as continuing physiotherapy exercises to aid her recovery, and has been gradually increasing her training load in preparation for returning to racing (her first race back should have been the cancelled Bretagne Ladies’ Tour).
At the time we speak, her return to racing was days away, at the Madrid Challenge by La Vuelta in early November. She was feeling “good. I’m feeling okay on the bike now but I’m still not sure where my fitness is at. I’ve got, like, zero get up and go, like, no ‘oomph’ in my legs whatsoever,” she says. “So I think the crit course on the third day might be a little bit spicy for me.” (Her predictions were accurate: she finished the first two stages before pulling out of the final stage – crucially, however, she kept it upright.)
An Unconventional Path
Harris describes her journey to the World Tour through the Zwift Academy as like going “0 to 100,” but it was something she actively sought.
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In its fourth year, the Academy’s demographic has shifted since the first winner, Leah Thorvilson – a runner who had never raced before – entered the pro peloton.
Now, says Harris, it’s seen as a legitimate pathway for young riders hoping to step up: “Last year there were lots of people who already raced or they went into the academy with the sole purpose of getting the contract, whereas in the first couple of years it was like ‘oh I’m just doing this for a bit of fun.’”
Are the team and the wider peloton welcoming of the Zwift winners? “Not actually that readily welcoming,” she says. “Because I think for them it’s like you’re just a nuisance until you show that you can actually ride with them and then they’ll start to respect you.”
She hasn’t lost her affinity for the platform and still spends time on the virtual roads now: “yeah, I like Zwift,” she says. “During lockdown I was riding on Zwift so much – I didn’t want to go outside.”
“I do enjoy a bit of Zwift racing,” she says, which is good news considering she was slated to take part in the first ever UCI eSports World Championships on the 9th December in Watopia, Zwift’s virtual cycling universe. (Harris finished 29th.)
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Off the bike, Harris is in the process of finishing off a food marketing degree, (“it’s a bit random, but I quite like it,”) and has only to complete a few placements back home before she can graduate. In tandem with that, she enjoys baking: “Anything, like cakes, cookies, muffins I just love baking.” She once tried ‘healthy’ baking but found it “boring”. “I love doing a good, hearty cake, getting all the sugar in it. Real baking,” she says.
Elsewhere, she’s learning Spanish in order to get by in her European base and has a newfound love for reading: “I hadn’t finished a book since probably when I was 12 or 13,” she says. “But for my birthday this year Hannah Ludwig got me a book, and it was a full-blown solid reading book and she was like: ‘Yeah I just chose it because I liked the cover.’”
Despite the superficial motive behind the gift she was soon hooked, and has now read five novels since July: “I really enjoyed having this book,” she says. “My little treat to myself – and my little thing I do now – is that I finish the book and then I go straight to the bookshop and I just pick a book off the shelf and I just read it.”
She’s a publishing marketer’s dream when it comes to selecting her next read: “I just choose ones that have a pretty cover, or that have got a good top 10 award or some sticker on them, or they’re just on the most popular shelf and they’re pretty,” she says. “I don’t really read the blurb too much.”
I tell her about the recent (somewhat niche, British) story of Tony Mortimer from the ‘90s boyband East 17 who, aged 50, discovered reading during lockdown and has since read 67 books and even embarked on writing his own. Maybe she’ll become a writer soon? She’s understandably bemused by the anecdote but is taken by the idea: “I reckon!” She says, lighting up. “Like, I’m quite into words and that sort of thing now – like books – and I just sort of write things down on paper as well. I think it’s really just changed my life. I do like writing and that sort of thing so…”
Perhaps it’s not time for a career pivot just yet, though, as there’s the 2021 season to focus on: “Yeah, I’m not under 23 next year so it’s a bit of a bummer,” she says. “I’ve just missed the last young rider season and it’s always good to get the white jersey. I’m just in it with them all now, the elite riders.”
Nevertheless, an important goal of hers is still the Giro Rosa, although, she’s still unsure about where her strengths lie: “I still haven’t really done enough races in Europe to definitively know,” she says. “I haven’t done Liège, and Flèche as well, like the Ardennes. I like to think that would really suit me but I haven’t done them yet so I don’t really know.”
One thing she does know is: “I’m not really punchy – I have zero fast twitch muscles,” she says, ruling herself out of races such as De Panne.
She’s heading back to New Zealand for the next few months, and will return to Europe after Nationals. “It’s a bit of a bummer because I’ll miss team camp in January,” she says. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, it’s Covid so I can’t just come back and forth.”
So, how will she spend her time at home? “I’ll just hang out with my parents I reckon,” she says. “They’re quite cool. Catch up with them, walk my dog just doing lots of café crawling in Dunedin, ride with my mates.” No ‘gutter brews’ in sight.
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After spending the required two weeks of quarantine in a hotel upon arrival in New Zealand, she plans to meet up with her brother in Auckland for a bikepacking trip before heading to her family home to race the eSports Worlds. After that, it’s time for a break: “I need an off-season, like, I think even though I haven’t been racing what I have had on has been more exhausting than racing. Mentally, I need an off-season.”
“Even though I’ve been off the bike for five weeks with a broken leg my coach says that doesn’t count so I’m really pleased about that,” she adds.
What does the rest of the summer look like for Harris in her Coronavirus-free home country? “Take a few trips around New Zealand, catch up with people, do a few races, enjoy the summer, a normal life.”
A ‘normal life’ is a concept that many people have longed for this year, but if anyone deserves a semblance of normality – a mental and physical reset – it’s Harris.