Breakthrough ride: Niamh Fisher-Black on her Giro d’Italia Donne

The 21-year-old Kiwi reflects on 10 days of battling with the best to claim fifth overall.

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Listeners of the Freewheeling podcast will have heard Niamh Fisher-Black’s accounts of her time at the Giro d’Italia Donne first-hand. An avid listener of the podcast, the Fisher-Black took the time to send in ‘rider diaries’ every day, despite having a very important role as SD Worx’s GC contender to focus on.  

Thankfully, the task did not negatively impact her race – the young Kiwi rode maturely in the mountains to secure fifth overall and the young rider’s classification. 

When we speak, it is four days since the race concluded in Padua and Fisher-Black has yet to touch her bike. 

“That’s the thing with the Giro,” says Fisher Black, for whom this Giro was her third. “Normally, by the time you just stop you’re pretty done. And, yeah, the first few days I was pretty done. I [was] tired and the bike didn’t look too appealing. But now mentally and physically I think I’m coming back, so it’s good.” 

It’s no surprise that the 21-year-old is exhausted. The latter stages of the race were gruelling with four back-to-back days in the mountains exacerbated by sweltering heat. Aided by her SD Worx teammates Fisher-Black went head-to-head with some of the peloton’s best climbers – and she held her own. 

The young Kiwi is herself a huge climbing talent but on a team as stacked as SD Worx she rarely gets the opportunity to lead. With the team’s usual frontrunners foregoing the Giro to focus on the upcoming Tour de France Femmes, Fisher-Black was afforded an opportunity to ride for GC. However the team, she says, did not pile on the pressure. 

“For sure it was a big opportunity for me,” she says. “Going in, to be honest, I had no pressure from the team. The team hadn’t talked to me about anything they wanted me to do, or goals or things like that. It was just sort of I had to say what I wanted.” 

She was clear from the beginning about her intention to seize the opportunity: “I highlighted straightaway to my team that I really wanted to see what I could do GC-wise and see if I could take a little bit of pressure and see what I could do with that because I haven’t really had an opportunity to do that yet,” she says.  

Leading the team “was a new experience for me,” she says. “Just knowing that every day I had to be in these wheels. I had to be in this position at the right time. Because my teammates were working hard for me. And it was a cool experience. 

“Now I know that I have the confidence that I can take a little bit of that pressure and going on to the next few races I hope I can take those opportunities when I get them.” 

Although she was up to the task, Fisher-Black was realistic in her goals, knowing that with the likes of Annemiek van Vleuten at the race, targeting pink would be a stretch too far. “But the fact is, I mean, if I want to target that pink jersey in the future, then I have to sort of learn how to take that pressure and that responsibility in the team already.” she says.  

“I think this tour was a really nice opportunity to do that. And to set out the goal in the beginning of a top five and then make that top five, it’s already a learning process in itself. So it gives me a lot of confidence for the future [that] I can make big goals like targeting top GC or the pink jersey and really know that I can do it with the support of my team.” 

“It’s exciting,” she says of her future prospects.  

No pressure

Fisher-Black makes a point of reiterating how little expectation the team put on her.

“Going into the Giro I was told several times by the team, ‘Niamh, there’s no pressure here. There’s absolutely no pressure, whatever happens, there’s no pressure,'” she says. “And then throughout the Giro they keep telling me ‘fifth is fine’ because for a point there I was trying to get [Elisa] Longo [Borghini]’s fourth place when we were a bit closer on time. 

“They were like, ‘yeah, but you have to accept also that you’re young, and you should also be really happy with fifth. And that also there’s no pressure to keep it.’”

It was the correct approach for such a young rider at one of the biggest races on the women’s calendar but, says Fisher-Black,“In a way I didn’t really like it. Because sometimes I like a little bit of pressure. But it’s also good because pressure can become overwhelming and then I think at the end of the day pressure is what gets you mentally, first before anything else.”

Fisher-Black is aware that she has a long career ahead of in which to lead a team. “I hope that maybe in the next couple of years, I’ll get that pressure. But for now I’m happy sort of letting my body do its thing and develop to what I can be and I’m really seeing that just the physical improvements is pretty crazy. So that’s cool.”

Alongside Blanka Vas (20), Anna Shackley (21), and Lonneke Uneken, 22, Fisher-Black is one of four young talents the Dutch squad has been nurturing for the past few seasons. The team’s pragmatic approach to rider development is, in part, thanks to the recently retired former world and Olympic champion, Anna van der Breggen, who now works behind the scenes as a director for the team. 

“They’re really actually focused on the development of us young riders,” Fisher-Black says of Team SD Worx. “Especially from Anna van der Breggen’s influence [she’s] really focused on ensuring our longevity in the sport. She doesn’t want us doing too much too soon. And wants to keep us fresh mentally, as much as anything I think.”  

Even without pressure, Fisher-Black delivered at the Giro, holding her own with the likes of Van Vleuten and Longo Borghini in the mountains and even attacking. 

“Even if on paper people don’t see it as a breakthrough for me, personally, I think it’s really a breakthrough,” she says of her race. “On the long climbs I learned a lot about myself.

“Those kinds of efforts are really hard to know how to do and for me [at] the Giro that was my first experience of really being on top of those efforts and being able to control those efforts and push myself on those efforts without blowing up. 

That was a huge step forward for me if anything, so maybe fifth place doesn’t look that good to everyone maybe but yeah, for me, it’s really cool. And I know what I can do now and then I can work from there.”   

Fisher-Black says she balanced her efforts throughout the race, holding back slightly in the earlier stages before attacking the final mountain stage. 

“I was most surprised just how the body could bounce back and still perform nine days into a tour,” she says. “And that’s also sort of a surprise and a shock to me and learning about what I can do. So that’s all part of the fuelling and looking after the body and the whole process, I guess.

“I wouldn’t say nailed it by the end of the tour but yeah, I definitely learned a lot and definitely improved if I look back to my previous [races] like last year, or even just a few tours before like Burgos and things like that, the way I climb is very different.”

Double the opportunity

With the advent of the Tour de France Femmes there have been calls to move the Giro away from its July calendar slot in order to distance the two races and also separate the Giro Donne from the men’s Tour de France. “That’s a really good idea,” says Fisher-Black.  “I think, from a personal point of view, I think it would be cool to see the Giro move then really women can target both tours. Because yeah, at the moment, I think it’s too close.”

Would she do the double? “I remember saying it jokingly, to my team at the beginning of the year like, ‘oh, could I do both?’ and they were like ‘no way, you’re too young, there’s no way you can recover.’”  

Having raced the longest of the two, Fisher Black feels she could, in fact, hold her own in France as well.

“I think it’s definitely possible to recover,” she says. “And we’ll see it in the Tour that a lot of women are doing both. But it’s more I guess [that] you can’t anticipate what will happen in the Giro. You might have a day where you crash and you have a long chase back and you can’t just take a rest day and things like that. So you can come out of the Giro really smashed and then it takes you two weeks to recover and then no way you’re good for the Tour.

“I mean, if my team called me up to the Tour last minute, I think maybe, then I would still be happy and fine at this point in time because I think I got through the Giro quite well. I didn’t have too many big setbacks. And I think after a good week off the bike now then I should be going good by the weekend.”

With no Tour de France on the horizon this year, however, Fisher-Black faces a period away from her SD Worx teammates as she takes on the Commonwealth Games road race in Birmingham. “Representing New Zealand so that’ll be really cool,” she says. “It’s a really big deal in New Zealand. We have the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics and that’s what everyone thinks about. I think it’s good to do for a bit of profile in my country and it’s really nice to have the support from Kiwis.” 

And then it is a sparse post-Giro calendar for Fisher-Black. After Birmingham, her next race will be the Classic Lorient Agglomération – Trophée Ceratizit (formerly GP Plouay) at the end of August. “[I’ve got] a bit of a time away from racing, but I think it will be alright,” she says.

After her performance in Italy, there’s no doubt that Niamh Fisher-Black will be more than “alright”.

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