Niamh Fisher-Black tells me that she felt “frustrated” when she crossed the finish line and became the first ever female under-23 World Champion. This isn’t the emotion usually synonymous with winning a rainbow jersey, but Fisher-Black hadn’t won in a normal race. She’d crossed the line in 12th place, left, like the rest of the riders in the front group, in slight disbelief about Annemiek van Vleuten’s surprise winning attack.
“I wasn't aware straightaway at first when I crossed the line [that I’d won the under-23 race.] I was feeling a little bit of frustration because of the crazy finish of Annemiek,” Fisher-Black explains. “But then, pretty quickly, a few people came up to me, and they told me and I was like okay, that's pretty cool.”
Fisher-Black’s immediate reaction to winning the U23 title affirms that this competition wasn’t at the forefront of her focus during the race. A rider who has been rubbing shoulders with the best climbers in the world in punchy one-day races and stage races for the last two seasons, the 22-year-old explains that she didn’t go to Australia with a focus on winning the U23 title, instead, she believed she had an outside chance to take a medal in the elite category.
“I wanted to be part of the elite race,” Fisher-Black says. ‘From the course I knew I could be part of it. The thing is with this under-23 jersey being within that race, it speaks for itself on such an attritional course like that. If you're there playing with the big girls, then you're also in with a shot for the under-23 jersey. I didn't have to think about it too much.”
Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix
When the race began to reach its climax in the final two laps of the Wollongong city circuit, Fisher-Black was close to keeping up with the front group of five riders who proved themselves to be the strongest on the short, punchy climb. In the last five kilometres of the race, Fisher-Black found herself in the second reduced group on the road – alongside the eventual elite race winner Van Vleuten – and put in a big turn on the front to try and reach the leading five riders in front. People speculated that she did this because Great Britain’s Pfeiffer Georgi was in the group behind, another U23 rider who would have challenged Fisher-Black for the U23 title.
“No, at that point, all I was thinking about was the real race. We were in the last five kilometres and there was a small bunch just ahead of us that we could see. Of course I was going to pull because then it brings me back into contention for the whole race. So at that point, I was just racing. I did not know what was going on behind me,” she explains.
In fact, Fisher-Black argues that having the U23 women’s race within the elite race didn’t have the impact on the racing dynamic that some may have expected before the event. “It probably didn't not impact the race at all,” the Kiwi rider says. “But that has to do with the course. It was breaking up from who was climbing the strongest and who could follow the big riders. It's completely different to under-23s having their own race, it could have played out differently. We could have a different under-23 world champion, because racing is also so tactical. In the future, I don't know how it would impact the race on a different course where it is less attritional.”
Despite perhaps not fully focussing on it during the race, Fisher-Black explains that the feeling of pulling on a rainbow jersey wasn’t dulled down by not crossing the line first. “That moment standing on the podium is still just as special,” she says. “The rainbow jersey is probably one of the biggest prizes you can win as a cyclist. When I was a kid, I dreamed of rainbow jerseys, so it's super special to pull that on.”
Putting in a strong performance at these World Championships was especially important to the New Zealander. She’d invested her own money to get there, with her national federation opting not to support riders from the country to attend the competition this year.
“I toyed back and forth with it quite a lot, whether I thought it was worth it. I liked the course and I felt like I'd have a chance of being in the race,” Fisher-Black says. A crash and broken collarbone a few months out from the event at the Tour of Scandinavia put some doubts in her mind about if she would be in form for the World Championships, though.
“When things happen with injuries and things like that it makes it hard to commit to the investment. It was about asking myself what I wanted at the end of the day.”Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Fisher-Black was motivated to return to racing and fitness as quickly as possible in time for the Worlds, and it wasn’t just for her own chances of getting a result. The Kiwi rider explains that a big part of her incentive to race was to ensure that Cycling New Zealand saw the talent that they have in their ranks.
“It's a pain to have to self-fund it all this year but I had pretty good intentions going into the race that I wanted to prove a point to Cycling New Zealand and I think I did prove that point. Also the other riders, young riders coming up from New Zealand, I think they also proved that some talent was worth backing there. I hope Cycling New Zealand can see that for the future.”
At 22-years-old, Fisher-Black will move out of the U23 category at the end of this season, meaning she won’t get to compete in any races in the rainbow jersey. However, the 22-year-old rider is still aware of the gravity of what she’s achieved. Despite having to pay to get to the World Championships out of her own pocket, and not crossing the line in first place despite winning rainbow jersey, she will head into her off-season proud of her achievements this year, and ready for both a physical and mental break while seeing family in New Zealand.
“Not crossing the line first doesn’t take away the prestige of winning the rainbow jersey,” she tells me. “But now I’m focussing on seeing family and chilling out, and in a couple of weeks I’ll look back on everything properly, look towards next season and make some new goals.”
Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix