© Sean Robinson/Velofocus.com

When Kiwi cyclist Ella Harris won the 2018 Zwift Academy as a 21-year-old, she also earned something most riders can only dream of: a professional cycling contract at leading women’s pro cycling team CANYON//SRAM.

The move to pro cycling saw Ella up-sticks and relocate thousands of miles away from her home in New Zealand to live in Girona, Spain with her new teammates as CANYON//SRAM’s newest rider. So what’s it like being flung into the world of pro cycling? In this two-part interview, Ella talks about the challenges of the transition, the changes in her training and how she’s adapted to life in Girona.

*Check back next Wednesday for the second part of our interview!*

© Arne Kenzler

You won the Zwift Academy in 2018, but when did you first try Zwift?
I first jumped on Zwift in July 2017 when I’d just purchased a basic direct drive trainer and was getting a little sick of training outdoors during winter. Initially, I only used Zwift when the weather was really bad, but in late November 2017, I had a nasty crash which resulted in quite a comprehensive elbow break requiring surgery. I spent five weeks solely on Zwift before I was able to ride on the road again, and despite only riding at the same intensity without any intervals, my fitness was high enough to take to the start line of two UCI races in Australia just under two months later.

What inspired you to sign up to the Zwift Academy?
I initially signed up during a five-week trip to the US for criterium racing, and conveniently the Academy was due to start the week after I returned home. I’d actually decided against giving it a go, as I wasn’t too sure how it would fit in with my training and racing at home. A friend asked me whether I was still planning on doing it, and that was the wee nudge that I needed to contact my coach and get it slotted into my programme.

I was relatively inexperienced on Zwift at this point and didn’t quite realise the capabilities of the programme. However, the usefulness of the workout feature really impressed me and I completed my first proper Zwift race.

What was your cycling background prior to entering the Zwift Academy?
I first decided to fully concentrate on cycling over five years ago, not long after I moved to Dunedin from Christchurch, and joined the local cycling club – I was competing in both triathlon and running at national junior level but stopped both of those in order to see where cycling could take me. Ever since then, I’d been steadily progressing and have raced for NZ National U19 Development teams and the NZ Elite Women’s National team, in addition to being a member of a couple of domestic women’s racing teams.

I’d gained solid results nationally and also raced internationally in Australia, USA and Canada. I would probably attribute most of my bunch riding and bike handling skill development to a lot of local club racing and very hard group rides alongside some very strong weekend warriors and Masters men at home.

© Zwift Academy

So you won the Zwift Academy and a contract with CANYON//SRAM, which involved moving 6000 miles from NZ to Girona. How did the move go?  
It wasn’t really the move to Girona that was the biggest deal for me, in fact, I found the transition reasonably smooth. It took me a week or so to get my bearings around town and a little bit longer to become familiar with the new training roads, but I never once felt overwhelmed with the change in location. It was nice to have the feeling that I was returning ‘home’ after a race because it didn’t take long for Girona to feel familiar and like a place where I could work hard, but also reset and relax if need be.

It was, however, pretty surreal to be residing in a ‘professional cyclist’s paradise’; a place I’d heard about and seen pictures of but never thought I’d actually get to visit. I think the fact that it’s such a well-established cycling/ex-pat community and destination made the move far easier as it didn’t feel quite as foreign as it could have.

How did it feel to suddenly have the pro cycling contract you’d worked hard for?
At first, it felt a little bit strange to be thrust into this professional team with a complete lack of results or credentials on an International level to my name. Coming back to NZ was when the magnitude of what I’d achieved sunk in; everyone at home who knew me was so supportive and excited that I’d this lucky break. I guess they’d followed my progression through the sport and many had taught me the cycling ropes over the years, so knew I was a reasonable candidate for the opportunity!

In saying this, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with how I was being perceived in the wider NZ cycling community. I felt that perhaps there were a few bitter people ​who were envious and a little miffed that I’d almost been able to ‘leapfrog’ the uncertainty that comes trying to ‘make it’ in cycling.  The majority of people were incredibly supportive and congratulatory, but I still sensed an underlying confused public perception from a few. This definitely heightened my doubts and insecurities about joining CANYON//SRAM, but I knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime and literally all I could possibly ask for, so I brushed aside the unknowns and slight criticism as much as I could.

Winning a pro contract is a huge achievement – were you at all apprehensive about the changes coming your way or did you take it all in your stride?
When I was progressing through the Zwift Academy, my entire focus was on the end-goal of actually winning the competition. The prize was everything I could have ever wanted for myself in sport, so I was completely invested in making it a reality. When I was ultimately announced as the winner, the enormity of the situation I’d found myself in suddenly hit me that afternoon after the announcement. I remember thinking along the lines of, ‘What have I got myself in for? This is actually happening for real now’.

© Chronis71

It wasn’t until I’d won that I actually started to think through what it meant for me, where my life would be heading and the changes that I’d be facing. There was even an initial moment where I thought that perhaps I’d got myself in a little too deep, and now that I’d achieved this massive goal of winning the competition, I wasn’t sure if I was entirely capable of accepting the opportunity and the challenge.

What was it like joining the CANYON//SRAM team as a relatively unknown rider?
The experience of integrating into the team can only be described as a mixture of emotions – from being overwhelmed, dejected, on edge and out of my depth to complete happiness, elation, dreaminess and, finally, great satisfaction when I started to feel accepted by my teammates. With each race I did, I felt the respect levels from others grow as both they and I realised that I could ride a bike at a reasonable degree in Europe.

Once I was able to begin establishing trust and faith in my ability to perform jobs in a race, from both the team and my own point of view, I had the feeling of ‘belonging’ and contentedness in the team which was tough to gain but extremely worth it. It’s a really nice feeling to be 100% comfortable in an environment which was initially so foreign and uncertain.

What would you say were the biggest learning curves of your transition to pro racing?
I wasn’t new to road racing and I’ve always been very keen to watch as much as I can online, and read racing articles as a way to gain further knowledge and insight. Because of this, I was fairly familiar with different tactics and strategies, alongside the basics of team racing, but my knowledge in this area has been strengthened by experiencing more racing and putting various ideas into practice.

Since being with CANYON//SRAM, I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to elements such as energy conservation in races, nutrition surrounding races and a greater understanding of strategies, to name a few. I also conduct more comprehensive race research than I used to, for example looking at previous race outcomes in certain conditions on particular courses, and even as basic as checking the weather forecast – the wind has never really been a factor in previous racing I’ve done!

© Sean Robinson/Velofocus.com

Another learning curve came from having a greater awareness of how everyday decisions or actions can affect on-bike performance. I try to make sure I properly follow my programme without going unnecessarily overboard in training (a regular occurrence that I’m guilty of), and also just listening to my body more intently. If something is hurting consistently then it’s trying to tell you something – don’t push through it and hope it magically disappears.

How has your training changed since joining CANYON//SRAM?   
Winning the Zwift Academy meant a new partnership with Zwift-affiliated coach Kevin Poulton, which meant a change from the NZ coach I’d been with for a few years, and big differences in my day-to-day training. Over the course of the year, my total training volume didn’t go up too much, but this was balanced out by the fact I was having many more specific blocks of rest periods off the bike.

I never really had an ‘off-season’ before, whereas nowadays I’m more in tune with the European cycling calendar so I had a reasonable break in June and a solid off-season during November.

Prior to 2019, my weekdays would consist of 2-hour rides with one rest day and two longer 3-4 hour rides on the weekend, whereas now I prefer active recovery to rest days and spread the longer rides more frequently and consistently throughout the week. This has meant my overall annual workload has only gone up by 2000km and 60 or so hours, which is reasonable but not extreme. However, a regular week of training is generally far bigger now.

Fitness-wise has it been a step-up or has it been manageable?
My training with Kevin has certainly been a reasonable step-up in terms of specificity and quantity, but all the changes have been manageable and I haven’t felt at all as if the jump has been too great. In fact, I relish the opportunity for more time on the bike as, beforehand, I was content but didn’t feel challenged. Now I feel that I do just the right amount of training for the level I’m expected to race at.

I do have to concentrate on getting the specifics right in sessions though. Although I’d say I’m a perfectionist when it comes to nailing every detail during intervals and efforts, sometimes I can be a tad excessive with the amount of time I find myself in zone 3 during easy endurance rides. It’s definitely a work in progress for me, but I’m getting better at sticking to the desired intensity e.g. actually riding recovery during recovery rides!

© Chronis71

Talk us through a typical week of training?
When I’m in the middle of a training phase, it’s normally very substantial with far more volume than I used to do. Previously, I’d never really ride more than 500km a week, but now that’s a standard amount and almost on the low side of what’s normal. The biggest week I did last year was just under 800km and close to 30 hours in the build-up to Tour de l’Ardeche and the Yorkshire UCI World Road Championships, but I’d say between 600km-700km is normal for any given week.

If it’s a recovery ride, I generally do between 60 mins and 2 hours, depending on how cracked I’m feeling, but for any other standard training day, it’s normally a minimum of 2.5-3 hours. I’ve never quite hit 30 hours of training a week, but 27-28 hours was a common occurrence last year. In a regular week, I’d say that 20 hours is fairly standard, although there’s normally an additional 5 or so hours for body maintenance such as stretching, rolling and activation.

Do you work on intervals and other specifics?
I do a reasonable amount of intervals, but more spread throughout the course of a longer, 4-hour ride, and the efforts are generally varied without too much overload. I like how my intervals are integrated into endurance rides and have some degree of flexibility in terms of location and timing – better than cycling straight to a 5-minute climb and going up six times at maximum effort.

To list a classic ‘Kev session’ off the top of my head, a fairly standard session might look like 4.5 hours, including 20-second sprints near the beginning and a 10-minute max hill effort at the very end.

Is Zwift still part of your training?
Last year, I did a lot of Zwift racing as part of the KISS Super League and this was a great way of achieving a short but high-intensity workout to complement my normal training between outdoor races. I also did quite a bit of Zwift riding when I injured my collarbone as I was solely training indoors, but this year Kevin is looking to incorporate Zwift into my training plan more, regardless of whether I’m trainer-bound or not. When looking at ways I can improve on the bike, Zwift is a key tool that we believe will help me to make further inroads, so this is likely to become a more regular addition in my programme.

© Arne Kenzler

Check back here next Wednesday for the second part of Ella’s interview, where we cover her racing, collarbone injuries, and hopes for 2020.

You can follow Ella via her Instagram: www.instagram.com/ElllaHarrris

To find out more about the Zwift Academy visit www.zwift.com/academy.