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Q&A: History maker Niamh Fisher-Black on forging her own path, sibling rivalry, winning a rainbow jersey

The New Zealander, who made history by winning the first U23 women's road race title, is quickly becoming one of the top GC riders in the peloton.

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Niamh Fisher-Black (SD Worx) is quickly becoming one of the most talked about talents in women’s cycling.

The 22-year-old, whose younger brother Finn is also a pro with UAE Team Emirates, won the first-ever U23 women’s road race world title in September. She also won youth jerseys at a string of races, including the Giro d’Italia Donne, where she finished fifth overall.

Fisher-Black has carved her own way in cycling and moved to Europe in her late teens to forge a professional career. She made that step very quickly, signing with Bigla Pro Cycling in 2019 and then joining the WorldTour last year with SD Worx.

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With bigger results and growing confidence, Fisher-Black is hoping to enjoy a real breakthrough next season as she takes on more responsibility.

VeloNews caught up with Fisher-Black as she spends some time at home in New Zealand following a big year on the bike.

The U23 women didn't get their own race but did get their own podium
The U23 women didn’t get their own race but did get their own podium (Photo: Con Chronis/Getty Images)

VeloNews: It’s been quite a big year for you. Have you had time to absorb that.

Niamh Fisher-Black: Throughout the year, I took periods to absorb it all but now with this off-season period, especially coming home and meeting people and seeing how much they appreciate what I’ve done and congratulate me, that’s really cool. To know that it’s reached all the way across the other side of the world is a nice thing.

VN: With COVID, have you had many opportunities to go back home?

NFB: Last year, I came home for about a month, but I had to do that two-week hotel quarantine before I could enter the country. This year, I didn’t do that, so it feels a lot more normal.

VN: Have you noticed over these last couple of years that reception is getting slightly bigger?

NFB: In terms of in New Zealand, for sure. Cycling is a small sport in New Zealand, so there’s still a lot of people, I feel, that don’t really understand what I do for a living a lot of the time. It’s getting more and more, and I think that’s mostly down to the profile of women’s racing getting bigger. The visibility is better, and you can watch more of the races live and we have the Tour de France. People can more readily follow me and, as I get more results, my name gets thrown out there a little bit more. I think it’s really cool to have support from my country.

VN: Now that, again, you’ve had kind of a bit time to think about it, how do you look back on that U23 win the world championships?

NFB: I’ve had plenty of time to let it sink in. It’s not every day you win a rainbow jersey, so that’s obviously pretty slick club and I’m super proud of that. I can pull out the rainbow jersey and see it, and that’s a special feeling. I was really happy with how the race went. Probably initially, I was a little bit unhappy. Against the elites, I don’t think I did my best result but an event like the world championships is right have such high-pressure high stakes, and it’s also longer than we ever are used to racing and a really intense race. I’m just happy with how it went and I’m proud of what I achieved.

VN: I guess the complication of having it within another race, is that you do then have those mixed feelings. It’s not just one result, there’s two results wrap your head around.

NFB: It is a funny situation… I said earlier this year that I slightly disagree with the race being within a race because at the end of the day, the sport is about crossing the line first. You win a rainbow jersey, but there’s a part of me that misses that feeling of actually winning a race because I didn’t cross the line first. That sort of feels a little bit funny, but then also, I have to think of it in a hugely positive way, especially for women’s cycling. Just to have this on this under-23 category is a huge step forward. It’s also positive because, at my level, I like to race with the elites anyway. So, actually, I had the opportunity to race for two jerseys in one race and that’s a pretty cool opportunity.

VN: Does it give you a bit more hunger to go for that elite title one day.

NFB: Exactly. If you see it as a stepping stone, and that’s what it should be a stepping stone for the elite. I can tick that one off, I’ve got that. I already also showed that I could fight with the elite so, for sure, it makes me hungry for the future.

VN: And now the UCI has formalized the rules so in 2025 it will be a separate race.

NFB: This year needed to happen for that to happen.

Niamh Fisher-Black finished fifth and won the youth classification at the Giro d'Italia Donne
Niamh Fisher-Black finished fifth and won the youth classification at the Giro d’Italia Donne (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

VN: Outside of the rainbow jersey, do you have any kind of particular moments that you’re really proud of?

NFB: There’s heaps of moments. SD Worx is a hugely successful team and it’s not just the success in winning the races, but the way we went racing with each other all through the season. There’s endless special moments. For me, personally, taking that sort of step [forward] and then in the Giro, this year, I took a little bit of pressure of a leadership role and to work with my teammates in a different way where they were helping me and I had some pressure to go for that result of top five, so I achieved my goal there. I’m proud of how I did that. I surprised myself a lot there, so that was a key moment for me.

VN: It’s your second year in the WorldTour. How have you kind of found that jump up?

NFB: I feel that it has taken these whole two years for me to get to this point where I am now just getting better each race. Still, I feel I have a lot to learn and lots of improve on. I think that just speaks to how big the step up is to the WorldTour. Initially, when I did my first few WorldTour races it was like another sport. The level is so much higher and the pressure and the stakes are so much higher. In the aspects of riding as a team, especially with the best team in the world, it’s so different. Definitely, I still have a lot of improvement to go. But I can look back and say that I’ve come a really long way in two years.

VN: Next year, we’ll see development teams formalized within women’s cycling. What do you think of that and do you think that that would be something that you could have benefited from?

NFB: Of course. I remember my first years, I had to come to Europe all the way from New Zealand, so I didn’t have much support. I didn’t have family, and I sort of did it off a whim. I think adding in this development pathway, if anything it opens up the doors to riders, like me from New Zealand, from Australia, from America, who have to come a long way from home, and we just need that extra little bit of support. That’s what a development team should provide. To see some development teams in women’s cycling will be hugely beneficial to the sport and we’ll probably see a lot more talent coming through because it just opens so many doors for other riders.

VN: What was it like for you, coming from New Zealand and trying to get into the European racing scene?

NFB: At the time, I didn’t really have any doubts. I was 18 or 19 and I just wanted to go to Europe and race in this mecca of cycling. I’d always heard about in Europe, and I knew it was the place to be. Now that I look back on it, I realized how huge that was to just go to the other side of the world with not much planned. I guess the biggest thing is, it just really taught me how to be a bit self-sufficient. I think that’s the advantage compared to a lot of other riders from Europe.

Niamh Fisher-Black turned pro with the Bigla team
Niamh Fisher-Black turned pro with the Bigla team (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

VN: How did you get into riding in the first place and what was it that made you so passionate about it?

NFB: I started pretty young, like maybe six or seven, and I started on track racing. Track racing is quite big in New Zealand. My dad was pretty into cycling and amateur racing level. So, I was used to seeing him go off and race and he managed to convince me and my brother to try this track racing thing. To begin with, it was probably the competition with my brother that pushed us both into the sport. We were just like, yeah, ‘I won this medal. You haven’t got this medal.’ It was really the sibling rivalry aspect. It went from there. At one point, he was a lot better than me, but by then I pretty much had the bug for cycling. I raced domestically until I went to the junior world championships when I was 18 years old, my first international race.

VN: Do you still have that competitiveness with your brother or has that died down a little bit?

NFB: I think it’s died down a little bit, but for sure we joke around about it. Like, ‘hey, I won this, when you when you next go win something?’ Now, I think we’re supportive of each other more than anything. He’s also riding professionally and living in Girona, quite near to me, so we know what each other is going through the whole time. We always have words of support for each other. That’s really cool.

VN: Will the next competition will be about who gets to go to the Tour de France first?

NFB: That’s a good point. Actually, we haven’t discussed that. I’ll have to bring that up.

VN: On a complete tangent. I wanted to ask you about your name. Does your family have like, Irish heritage? Or did your parents just like the name Niamh?

NFB: No, my family’s English. No Irish heritage. Not that I know of. I guess they just like Irish names. Because actually, I think Finn, my brother, is also an Irish name.

VN: Going back to kind of racing. I know you’ve still got a few more months of off-season to go but what are your thoughts for next year?

NFB: I think the season went really well and I felt that it’s been, again, another step up from my last season. I hope I can sort of continue this trajectory. I know, that’s easy to say that you want to keep on improving. But I do think I still have a lot of room to improve and so I can see myself, and I’ve already highlighted points, things that I can change for next year to maybe see those improvements.

With the racing I had this year, I felt I gained a lot of confidence and I think that’s a pretty huge thing in the sport. Next year, I want to go for those top steps and those wins. I think that it’s about proving I’m good enough to get those opportunities and I definitely think I can. I would really like to be at the pointy end of some of the big races and I would love to go to the Tour de France. I don’t know if that’s on the cards yet. We’ll see.

VN: You said that you’ve highlighted some points you’d like to improve on. What are those?

NFB: It’s day to day things like finding the right balance with recovery and training, and re-jiggling the season a little bit to know when I want to be really going good because you can’t be at your best shape all season round in such a long season. The last two years, I’ve just sort of discussed with the team and gone into the season wanting to be as good as I can for all the races, because my role has been to help as much as I can in the team and develop and learn. I think next year that will change a little bit.

I’ll make some more goals and hopefully get that extra one percentile from my performance for those girls. It’s also things like racing instinct, and things that I would change in the races and moments I think I could have done something differently in a race. I can look back on that and see how I could have changed that and take that as experience and knowledge into next year.