Talking to Nikki Harris

Talking to Nikki Harris

Home » Cyclo-cross

Since then Nikki has come a long way, experienced a number of highs along the way, in a variety of disciplines. She started riding in a muddy field, accompanying her dad to MTB races around the UK, she obviously developed a passion for mud and soon she was competing in more mud filled races as a fixation for 'cross ran hand in hand with her talent for mountain biking.

By the age of 15 she was National MTB, Cyclo cross and Criterium Champion for her age group. In 2002, still as an U16, she added a few track titles to her palmares. Moving up to junior level she proved herself a great all rounder, picking up numerous track titles and along the way adding the Commonwealth Youth Games MTB Champion title as well as the National title to her name.

By 2005, she'd completely swapped her life in the dirt and was now fully immersed in the life of a pro, riding track and road as part of the GB Academy programme until October 2008, when faced with the decision to concentrate on pursuiting, she took the plunge and decided to go her own way, returning to her love of mud, coming almost full circle since her career started 11 years earlier. Her choice of discipline? Cyclo Cross!

This sport is certainly not for the faint hearted combining as it does, 40 minutes of lung busting, exhilarating flat out riding, in all conditions, including of course mud! You can find yourself, quickly moving from tarmac, into deep sand, followed by slippery mud, throw in a lot of dead turns, steep descents, rutted climbs, and a couple of steps for good measure. It's a mixture of all the best aspects of road and mountain biking with a bit of running thrown in for good measure.

It can be a flat out sprint, or a game of chess, each rider trying to outride and outwit their rivals, you certainly won't get bored, either riding or spectating this sport, which is why it's built up such a huge following in the lowlands of Holland & Belgium, where it's a national sport. Although cyclo cross is becoming increasing popular in the UK, if you want to compete at an international level you have to base yourself in Belgium and fully immerse yourself in the sport.

This is exactly what Nikki has decided to do, in pursuit of her burning ambition to take gold in the Cyclo Cross World Championships in a year or so. I caught up with her at the GB camp prior to her first World Champs, to find out a bit more about this confident young lady and fill in the gaps of when I'd last seen her in a muddy field about 5 years ago!

JD: Nikki, you've been on the cycling scene for quite a long time, but when did you actually start riding?
NH: I started racing when I was about 10 or 11, just doing the under 12 races, I just used to do it for fun, not taking it seriously or anything. It was fun. I used to go to the mountain bike races with my family in the caravan and spend the weekend chilling out with my friends and doing a race, just fun as I said.

JD: Who got you started in the sport?
NH: My Dad. He used to do motocross, but was breaking too many bones, so he thought he'd have a go at mountain biking instead, so I got hooked on the sport by him. Then when I started racing I got excited by the prizes you got as an under 12 rider, you got little mars bars and a goodie bag full of sweets, so I thought great, just ride round a muddy field for a 10 minutes and get a mars bar at the end, great motivation, it doesn't work so well for me now though! Don't get me wrong I love chocolate but it's not too good for you when you're a competitive athlete unfortunately!

JD: You soon progressed through the ranks though didn't you?
NH: Yeah I guess. I was lucky to do the two junior mountain bike championships and then I was supposed to be doing the Cyclo Cross National Champs, I can't quite remember the year, but Shane Sutton called me and asked if I fancied riding the track, to do the World Cup at Manchester and so I went for that instead. I got 5th in the scratch race in that event, so that started my track career, I finished mountain biking when I was about 17or 18 and concentrated on my track work instead. I also rode the road for a bit. British Cycling worked closely with Swift Racing to enable girls to get invaluable experience racing regularly abroad, so as I wanted to progress more on the road I moved to Belgium to ride with them for a season. It was an interesting time that gave me the confidence to move out to Belgium by myself to persue my 'cross ambitions.

It's an excellent place to race, especially for me as I'm not a climber! Italy would have been impossible for me, but racing in Belgium and Holland is excellent it's fast and flat out, just how I like it! No one gives you any room, it's everyone for themselves, it's really good racing.

JD: Why did you decide to come back to Cyclo Cross?
NH: Well obviously I did the track for a few years but I never really 'loved' doing it, I wasn't passionate about it and that makes a difference. Also they wanted me to go into pursuiting. That's not for me; it's not exciting enough! I'd started to miss 'cross, so I thought I'd give it another go and see how it went. I didn't want to dabble in it, you know just do it half heartedly, ride a bit in the UK, a few National Trophys here and there. I thought if I'm gonna do this I'm gonna do it properly, so I moved lock stock and barrel out to Belgium and put myself with all the best riders in the 'cross world and see where that takes me. At first I thought I might ride some road out there, but it was always at the back of my mind that I wanted to stay and do 'cross. So this season I started. I didn't really train properly before it, I had like a week off at the end of September from my road racing and then I just started riding 'cross, just launched myself headlong into it. But for next year I'm focusing all my efforts and therefore my training towards 'cross.

JD: How are you finding life and racing in Belgium?
NH: The racing is excellent, it's so fast which I love, I knew if I wanted to make a name for myself as 'cross rider I'd have to move here full time.

As a lifestyle its certainly very different from home, they are much more laid back, in England everyone seems to be in a rush, but here it's an easier life work balance, plus cyclo cross here is incredibly supported. It's on a par with how football is in the UK.

You'll get thousands turning up to watch a race and the races are always on the front of the newspapers, also I'm getting better known out here now, thanks to some good rides, I get a lot of (usually drunk) Belgian men asking for photos and autographs which can be crazy, but they've made me feel so welcome. Ultimately though, in terms of competition this is the best place to be, there's nowhere else where you can be constantly racing against the best in the world.

JD: Moving from the warmth and comfort of the track environment into the cold and wet of the cross? I'm sure most women would think you're crazy!!!
NH: I gotta say being out on the bike in the mud; riding in the woods through technical sections is a lot more fun, than riding round and round on the track. Just being able to ride flat out for 40 mins and that's it, you give it everything for those 40 mins and then it's over whereas in a road race it's 2 or 3 hrs long or on the track it's just 20 mins at most. But cross is appealing strangely because of the mud and because every course is different.

JD: Do you have a team lined up for next year?
NH: Well to start with on the road, I'll be riding for 'Moving Ladies' which is a local Dutch club team, I'll be doing a whole season of racing in Belgium, Holland and France, including the post tour crits which are excellent for speed so I should be pretty nicely set up for the cross next season. Then from the 1st September I'll be riding for AVB, which is the women and junior division of the Fidea Cycling team. Luckily I've been given some support from the Dave Rayner fund, which enables young cyclists such as myself to try and make successful racing career abroad. It's not loads but its enough to start me off in the hope that I'll be able make my own living through cycling.

JD: Can you earn a reasonable amount at races?
NH: There's usually some decent money in UCI races, but you don't see any of it until the end of the season. However as you start to make a name for yourself, getting in the top 20 in UCI races then you can guarantee start money of about 200 euros.

JD: Cross seems quite a short season compared to road?
NH: Yeah I guess, my boyfriend Matt has his first road race this weekend (1st Feb) and he'll be racing then until October, so the road is a very long season in comparison. I'll still be riding a full road schedule but as I said my main thoughts will be on cross later in the year. I'll be treating road as intense training for cross.

JD: Your partner's a pro bike rider too, does that help?
NH: Yeah, Matt Brammeier, my boyfriend, is very focused on his racing and that helps me. Also he broke both his legs a year and a half ago during an argument with a cement mixer on a roundabout in Manchester. And seeing him go through all that and how he's fought back to fitness has made me realise how much I want to achieve my dreams. He's helped me so much with everything really, lots of stuff has been happening in the background and he's always been there for me. He's been through similar things, being on the Academy and then trying to find his own way on the road, it's very hard but it's how hard you want it at the end of the day.

JD: Your family have always been very supportive too haven't they?
NH: Yeah my mum and my dad have been brilliant, ever since I started. Though when I was riding the road and the track I didn't really see them at races, but now I've decided to ride 'cross again, my Dad is out here all the time! I guess it's because he's more interested in this as he takes part himself.

JD: So you've planned your move into Cyclo Cross pretty well?
NH: Yeah, I'm going have a break after the last 3 races I have left, for 3 or 4 weeks, just getting out on the bike. Then I have a training camp with Fidea for 2 weeks in April and then it's straight into the road season. It seems like a long season but those couple of weeks after the cross will be welcome and hopefully the rest of the year will set me up nicely for the next cross season.

JD: Do the two disciplines complement each other?
NH: Absolutely, you just have to look at Marianne Vos she rides the road and the cross and she seems to do alright at both of them so, I reckon it won't be too bad for me! You get the speed from the road, some races on frost hard courses can be just like riding the road, but cross you need to be able to handle your bike in all conditions.

JD: What kind of training do you have to do, to be competitive in 'cross?
NH: I do about one long ride a week, nothing more than 3 1/2 hours, most of my training is hard, hard sessions on the turbo and there's an outdoor track near me so I go down there and do efforts round there too. I do a bit of running and some specific 'cross training in the woods with the Fidea team on Wednesdays and obviously I race pretty much every weekend. Some days I might be doing 2 or 3 sessions. Despite all this effort I always take care to get proper rest too, I'm very careful about that aspect as I know you'll never benefit from the training unless you give your body a chance to recover properly.

I learnt the hard way. I was jumping from one event from another at one time, I went from the Commonwealth Games in Australia went straight to the track world Champs then I went straight into the road season and I got really sick with a kidney infection, but I didn't rest properly and I found I struggled to get back to where I wanted to be for quite a long time. So yeah I know now how important it is to rest and listen to your body and now I hardly get ill, apart from the occasional bug.

JD: What are your strengths as a cross rider?
NH: I'm not really scared of anything; I think that comes from my mountain biking. So I just go into races and I'm not really bothered by anything, I just go out there and do my best. I'm no climber but I'm fast on the flat. Plus if it's really technical I do okay. I really need to work on my running, as that's not so good at the moment. At the moment I run like a girl, when really I need to run more like a man! I need to get some muscles in my arms and hopefully I'll be alright!

JD: You decided to pursue this path by yourself?
NH: Pretty much. When I was on the track squad you have everything done for you, you're taken to places, told what to do, when to do it and what time to be there. So when I left that regime I was left with two options, either go for it full on or stop completely. I've always wanted to be good in cycling obviously I needed to find my own feet and do it my own way. Being involved with the track squad has helped me be very disciplined and very organised and now I know that to be successful I have to train hard and see what happens, but I'll be doing it my way. It's much more rewarding this way, I'm much more motivated than I've ever been.

JD: Has it helped you being involved with the Academy program earlier in your career?
NH: Oh yeah definitely. It's shown me both sides of what it's like to be a pro bike rider. From doing it on your own to be in the environment where everything is done for you. It's a lot easier when you're in that situation where everything is provided, it's a comfort zone, it's still hard, no one can do the training for you and if you want to succeed you have to put the effort in. But compared to doing it by yourself, when you have to get your own equipment, sort yourself out, get yourself to races, sort out your own entry fees, it's a lot different. I've changed quite a lot since I've had to make my own way; I've grown up a lot.

JD: Would you recommend Cyclo cross, I mean the mud would put off a lot of women wouldn't it?
NH: Most certainly, despite the mud it's such an enjoyable sport! You meet so many people and each course is so different, okay you might encounter some things you may not like but there will be plenty that'll bring a smile to your face, so yeah give it a go, you'll never know until you get stuck in, you might like it as much as I do!

Yeah the mud can be an issue and I guess it would put some women off, but I don't know you can't put your finger on it, it's just fun I guess! It's all about pushing yourself to your limits, it's not just pedalling a bike, there's running, bike handling, endurance, sprinting, your whole body is involved, including your head as you have to think tactically too.

JD: Your first season back in 'cross has been quite successful hasn't it?
NH: Yeah I guess it has really! At first though it was really hard, riding flat out for 40 mins and doing that in mud is so different from what I'd been doing on the track, But then over Xmas I started to get some dead good results, I unfortunately got sick before the UK Nationals which was a bit rubbish but it's one of those things and I'm at the World Champs now, so I can't really ask for anything more on my first year back.

I was delighted to be selected to ride the World CX champs. At the start of the season I thought I'd just be riding a few World Cups - I never thought I'd get selected, so when I got the call up I was so pleased. Despite representing GB for so many things over the years it's still an honour to slip on the GB colours and represent your country. It's so good to see all the GB supporters making the trip to cheer you on.

But I know there's a lot more to go yet! I know I have so much more hard work ahead of me, to achieve my goals. I have to mature technically and tactically and increase my endurance. A lot of the top riders are in their late 20's early 30's so I'm confident that I have plenty of time to reach my potential in the sport, I'm definitely in this for the long term, I know you can't achieve results overnight and I'm prepared to put the effort in to get where I want to be.

JD: What are your aims and ambitions?
NH: Next year I'm aiming to do all the Cyclo Cross World Cups. I want to do everything that will get me UCI points so I can improve my gridding on the start line, so I can get near the front of the bunch. My overall aim is to be the World Cyclo Cross Champion eventually. I know it wont be this year but I think in a couple of years time it's more than possible to achieve this, if I stick to it and do the hard work needed to get me there. GB haven't really done that well at the Worlds, we got a sliver in 2000 with Louise Robinson but nothing else since for the women. We could do with a few more girls giving it a go in the UK, there are about 12 - 13 girls doing it and it is a lot better than it has been but there's still room for improvement. However one of my goals for the near future has to be the UK National Champs, I was gutted to miss it this year due to illness, but I really want that jersey, so Helen Wyman beware!