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UCI Road World Championships: Niamh Fisher-Black ‘proud to fly the fern’ with U23 world title

The New Zealander says she stands by her comments that criticized the UCI for failing to provide a standalone U23 women's road race.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (VN) — Niamh Fisher-Black etched her name in the cycling history books Saturday afternoon as she became the first female U23 road race champion.

Alongside U23 time trial champion Vittoria Guazzini, Fisher-Black’s win marked a pivotal moment in the development of women’s cycling as young riders finally get the same opportunities at the UCI Road World Championships as their male counterparts.

Fisher-Black finished ahead of Britain’s Pfeiffer Georgi and Ricarda Bauernfeind (Germany) to take the rainbow jersey. She’s the first individual world champion from New Zealand since Linda Villumsen won the time trial at the 2015 worlds.

“I feel really proud to fly the fern into the top ranks of road cycling. It has been a long time since we’ve seen a top New Zealand athlete performing so well on the road and to wear a rainbow jersey and to stand on the top step with the fern is something special. I’m proud of that,” Fisher-Black said.

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It wasn’t exactly the same for Fisher-Black as it was for Yevgeniy Fedorov on Friday as Fedorov was given the opportunity to celebrate his win like any other as he crossed the line. For Fisher-Black, it was a bit different as she had to battle it out for the win inside the elite women’s peloton.

She finished 12th in the elite race, while Georgi took 16th and Bauerfeind was back in 20th place. When the decision to award a U23 world champion from within the elite women’s race was announced earlier this year, Fisher-Black was one of the most vocal critics of it.

At the time, she criticized the UCI for not giving the U23 riders their own standalone event and said that it would create a “different dynamic” to a regular race. While Fisher-Black had not softened on her stance since winning the new world title, she said that it was still a positive move for women’s cycling.

“I stand by what I said, but I think with women’s cycling we’re seeing so much development in the sport itself and I think it is a step forward and we have to accept that it is a step forward. In the next few years, maybe we’ll see a separate race for the U23s,” she said. “In this sport, the idea is always to cross the line first. I think that every U23 on the start line today probably had intentions in the elite race, just like I did. We had black and white numbers, so we could think about it a little bit and look around the bunch and see which other U23s were there, but my focus was on the race around me today and that race was to cross the line first, in the elites too.

“This was just something else to play in the mind. Nothing takes away from it, I’m wearing a rainbow jersey right now, the feeling is one of the most special feelings to get in cycling. It’s what everyone dreams of to wear a rainbow jersey. It’s an incredible step forward for women’s cycling and I’m proud to be the first U23 winner.”

Though she was ostensibly racing for a result in the elite competition, and she followed the moves that were going on in that, Fisher-Black was conscious of where her U23 rivals were throughout.

“Obviously, we have the black numbers but at this point and the level in the sport, you know who the competition is, and you know who is under 23 who the competition is,” she said. “I know who is also U23 and I know who is strong in the U23. I know my competitors and I know who I am looking for. So, I could think about it pretty easily and who was around me, but when it came to the end of the race, I just focused on the race that I was in.

“I didn’t know the situation of who was behind, but I pretty quickly knew that I was the only U23 in the group that I was in. I just rode for what I could, and I was pretty done at the end. I think I’m happy that I showed I was the strongest because I was the only one in the group.”