It happened at junior road worlds in Richmond in 2015 and again in Doha in 2016 — Mikayla Harvey got in over her head.
“I just went over there, and it was a huge step up for me,” she told VeloNews. “I was pretty hopeless. Racing against Europeans? I had a lot of work to do when I left junior worlds, a lot of catching up to do.”
If you look at the results of her 2020 season, you might say that the 22-year old New Zealander has finally caught up. Harvey, who races for Swiss squad Équipe Paule Ka, had top-15 finishes at Strade Bianche, GP de Plouay, and La Course; her breakout performance came during last month’s Giro Rosa. After the second stage of the race, she took command of the white jersey and never gave it up. Then, she finished fifth overall.
While the team had sketched out a possible overall win for Harvey in the young rider’s classification, GC contention wasn’t really part of the equation. Even though team leader Clara Koppenburg got injured before the race, no one expected Harvey to fill her shoes.
“It was quite hard, it was a lot of pressure I’m not used to,” Harvey said. “But when I started doing quite well, it seemed possible. To be competitive against the best in the world has been a huge confidence booster.”
Harvey grew up like many Kiwi kids — always mucking about outdoors. Her family participated in triathlon and multi-sport events, so she also grew up amidst a competitive landscape. After dabbling in mountain biking, running, and swimming, Harvey switched to triathlon herself. Then, in her mid-teens, she dropped the running and swimming to focus exclusively on the bike.
Harvey said that cycling is still a relatively small niche in New Zealand sport, with most of the opportunities for young riders found on the track. Nevertheless, when she was a teen, her father started a women’s road team that attracted quite a few U19 riders. They rode in local club races, a national series, and even in a few of Australia’s National Road Series events.
Harvey said that she learned a lot about team dynamics from those years, yet when she arrived in Europe for her first season last year, she was far from experienced.
“I definitely have struggled a lot with positioning and being aggressive in the bunch,” she said. “It’s still quite new to me racing with 100 girls and figuring out the dynamics of how the pro peloton works. I’m still a newbie, constantly making mistakes of not being in the right position. I’m not a super aggressive rider, so when it comes to battling for fighting for a wheel, I do let myself get pushed around.”
For Harvey, the 2020 season presented an opportunity to further hone in on the skills she was lacking in the pro peloton. When the gravity of the pandemic hit her, she had to make a tough decision — stay in Europe or head home. As she watched parts of Europe — including where she lived in Italy — move swiftly into lockdown, Harvey decided to return to family and familiarity in the South Pacific.
At first, she was far from stoked to be home.
“I really struggled mentally at first,” she said. “I was so excited to be back racing and start my career in Europe. I was really confused – it was so uncertain, I had no idea when I could get back to Europe, it was really scary. I didn’t know what to think.”
After about a week off, Harvey says she decided to take a step back and refocus. Like many riders, she decided to use the time to take advantage of things she normally couldn’t while training and racing in Europe. She hit the gym 3-4 times a week. She spent a ton of time mountain biking with her dad. She wasn’t taking anything that seriously, and most importantly, she was having fun.
“It gave me a real mental refresh, so by the time I headed back to Europe I was in such a good headspace, my body was fit and healthy, and I was ready to get back to it.”
When Harvey returned to Europe ahead of the revised 2020 race season, she found even more reason to feel relaxed and ready: she had found a real home away from home in her team, Équipe Paule Ka.
Harvey said that the professionalism and support she’s found on the team has made it easy to focus on racing, even in the complex and complicated landscape of 2020. It’s clear that the Swiss squad is doing something right: in addition to Harvey’s impressive palmares, the team has had podium and top-10 finishes across the season, from Leah Thomas’ amazing third place at Strade Bianche to Lizzy Banks’ victory at the longest stage ever of the Giro Rosa.
Harvey sees each race as an opportunity to grow and develop, and she’s grateful to the team for providing her with the chance to line up to learn. Although the 2020 season has been a bit of a crash course, from sponsorship drama to a race season with very little rest in between tests, Harvey said she continues to feel motivated to race and strong and powerful when she’s out there.
And anyway, why stop now?
“I’m quite headstrong, so I don’t give up easily,” she said. “So I do battle. Being able to race in these finales is an incredible experience. I love pushing myself and seeing what I’m capable of. At the end of the day, I really want to win a race.”