A star in the making: Introducing young Kiwi talent Niamh Fisher-Black
Niamh Fisher-Black – her first name is pronounced “Neev” – is one of the brightest talents in the women’s peloton. She started making waves by finishing just outside the top 20 at the Giro Rosa in 2020. She had just turned 20 the month before and made many heads turn, especially in the mountain stages.
This week the SD Worx rider will start her second Giro Rosa (now called the “Giro Donne”) alongside Anna van der Breggen, Demi Vollering, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Elena Cecchini, and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. She’s a rider that’s on a rocket-fast uphill trajectory. But while it’s her climbing she’s best known for, if it’s up to her, it won’t just be in the high mountains that she’s competitive.
“When I was younger, they looked at my physique – I am quite petite – and said: you will be a climber,” she tells CyclingTips from her European hometown of Girona. “I believed that but to this day I just want to do well in all sorts of races. A race is a race.”
📽️ @N_FisherBlack : “I’ve only been one year a professional so far, I would really like to grow in the cycling world and potentially one day be one of the top riders content all top races”. #teamsdworx #wesparksuccess pic.twitter.com/gizAMFsG84— Team SD Worx (@teamsdworx) February 17, 2021
The rider from New Zealand is remarkably mature for her age. She lives on her own in the Spanish town and speaks with a confident tone. That maturity comes from throwing herself in the deep end; from making the move to Europe aged 19.
“My dad has always been into cycling,” she explains. “He was a racing cyclist himself and always moved back and forth in lycra so my brother Finn [of the Jumbo-Visma Development Team – ed.] and I tagged along. I had a matching little mountain bike when I was seven or eight years old.
“I combined track and road cycling. The track we raced on was around a huge rugby pitch so it was about 500 metres long. I liked the track but in New Zealand there is big focus on the team pursuit and I am just too small for it. I did travel to Australia but we just didn’t have a lot of racing on the public roads [Down Under] so my dad said I had to go to Europe.
“He always told me racing was so different there and he was so right,” Fisher-Black says with a smile.
Fisher-Black’s first elite race was the Festival Elsy Jacobs stage race in Luxembourg in 2019 where she rode with the Torelli Sport team.
“The racing is so much more aggressive and the pelotons are so much bigger than in New Zealand,” she explains. “There was racing in crosswinds, on cobbles, and in echelons, and I got my head kicked in many times. Every weekend of racing was a new learning experience. I loved the thrill of seeing all these new places and new races.”
Throughout 2019 she raced as a guest rider on several teams until she started as a stagiaire with the Bigla Pro Cycling Team in September of 2019, a month after turning 19. She raced with its successor Equipe Paule Ka in 2020 until the team suddenly ended late in the season. SD Worx, arguably the biggest team in women’s cycling, signed her for 2021 and 2022.
“I was feeling a bit daunted before that first team camp [with SD Worx],” she says. “I got to meet all these amazing women. The moment I was there it all felt normal. They are all normal women. They joke along. They have their good and their bad days.
“I get to learn so much from everyone on this team. If I do something wrong, they tell me but I learn most from just watching them. They let me be because learning from experience is the best way.”
Fisher-Black makes many rookie mistakes because, despite her already impressive results, she is only just 20.
“I still have to learn so much around things like nutrition, when to eat during a race, and on what to wear,” she admits. “It’s happened several times that Anna [van der Breggen] told me to wear a vest, to dress warmer. She was always right because I would find myself being cold again in a race. It takes experience to eat enough, train enough, dress enough, or rest enough.”
The 20-year-old is a quick learner. She picks up on languages fast with Dutch being one of them. “I get surrounded by a lot of Dutch and I pick up a lot of words – the good ones but also the bad ones,” she laughs. “’Lekker’ [‘nice’, ‘good’, or ‘great’] is my favourite because you can use it for a lot of things. It’s a versatile word.”
Fisher-Black had a promising start to her first season with SD Worx with impressive performances in races like the Amstel Gold Race (12th), Liège-Bastogne-Liège (17th), and the Women’s WorldTour stage race Vuelta a Burgos where she came in third in the opening stage and took the lead in the general classification on day three.
She struggled on the long climb to Lagunas de Neila on the final day and finished just outside of the top 10 in the GC. She did bring home the white jersey for best young rider, though, which is emblematic of the stage she is at in her career.
“I am patient,” Fisher-Black explains. “Everyone around me tells me to be patient. It’s easy to be too demanding for yourself but I am only 20. The team gives me time too. They tell me to keep it real and just chill out.
“If I have a bad day, I have a bad day. I learn every day. It’s all about longevity in this sport. I plan to be in it for the long haul. I love the place I am in right now. I love the joy of racing and being a pro cyclist is a pretty nice life.”
Fisher-Black has more than just cycling though. She’s also started a Bachelor of Science degree with a focus on mathematics via a correspondence course at a New Zealand university. It helps her take her mind off things.
It’s not easy for riders coming to Europe from New Zealand, or Australia for that matter. Flying home is always a big undertaking and during the pandemic that’s become extra hard.
“It’s not easy being so far away,” she admits. “My teammates always worry about me being too lonely here. Everyone is so family-orientated when they go home after races. They really care about me and always ask if I am not alone. There are so many riders here in Girona so I don’t feel lonely but it has been over a year since I have been home. It’s a sacrifice we make.
“Getting home is never easy but now [with the pandemic] it’s more than a flew flights. The quarantine facilities are booked up months in advance now. My dad would most certainly be here to watch me and Finn race. He stays up in the middle of the night to watch us race. He loves the sport as much as we do.”
Next stop for Fisher-Black is the Giro. It’s a race she holds close to her heart. Last year she could race it in anonymity but those days are over.
“I notice that I don’t go unnoticed anymore,” she explains. “The bigger riders start to watch me more. That’s not a bad thing because you gain respect also. The Giro was good for me last year. I got better day by day. Back-to-back stages are a challenge and last year was my first long race. I have my eye on it this year as well but the pressure is not on me.
“It’s a bit nerve-wracking that the team is so strong, especially with that team time trial coming up. I feel that literally everyone on SD Worx can win the Giro Rosa. To be part of such a team is also exciting. This goes for many races. Having Anna or Demi [Vollering] there takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders. I am competitive of course but also young.”
Fisher-Black’s strength is most definitely uphill races like the Giro or the Ardennes, races she would love to win one day. Her passion and dedication, combined with a strong mindset and a strong team will help her improve every race and become a potential future Tour de France Femmes winner.
“I was so chuffed and excited to hear about the announcement for Le Tour de Frances Femmes,” she says. “It’s an important race. La Course already has that ring to it already because of the association [with] the Tour de France. It draws in new fans. I notice that back home. A year from now we race it. It’s real and it’s the future of women’s racing.”
Niamh Fisher-Black is a future winner. I am sure that big wins will happen sooner rather than later for her. And when they do, she probably won’t have to keep explaining to people how to pronounce her first name.
The 2021 Giro Donne starts this Friday, July 2. Stay posted to CyclingTips for daily coverage.