“I think it took people by surprise, more so than myself,” said Canyon-SRAM’s Ella Harris, reflecting on her unconventional route to getting a pro contract.
“I think the people I raced with could have been a little bit miffed at the fact I just landed myself this contract on one of the best teams in the world, but I think people have gradually come round to the idea.”
Harris is the latest success story to emerge from the Zwift Academy, a programme for emerging talents to get noticed by professional teams via the online training platform.
The 21-year-old joined Canyon-SRAM at the start of the 2019 season, having triumphed over the 4,900 other women who entered the academy.
Harris was one of three finalists chosen to join the team at a training camp in Malaga late last year, eventually emerging as the winner of a pro contract with squad.
But Harris’s rise to the top wasn’t the overnight success story it may have seemed, having started racing at 15 and chasing her opportunity to become a pro rider from the relative seclusion of New Zealand, spending time racing in Australia and the USA.
“There isn’t really much racing in New Zealand. We have just local club racing, or sometimes we have like a series of road races, but there’s not really much on offer there.
“Being in New Zealand is quite difficult to get yourself to Europe, both physically and financially. [Turning pro] was one of those things that I always wanted to do, I just wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.
“I had a broken elbow for six weeks in 2017 so that really got me into Zwift, but apart from that I was only really using it just when I needed to.
“I’d come back from racing in the US in the winter, so I wasn’t sure what training I wanted to do. Then I saw the Zwift Academy was on and one of my mates said that I should give it a go and it just started from there.”
Of course Zwift has its detractors amongst cycling’s purists, who feel riding outdoors is the only real way to ride, but indoor racing and training is growing in popularity, with rumours that the Giro d’Italia could soon include a virtual prologue with a maglia rosa awarded.
On the sometimes disparaging response to virtual riding, Harris said: “I think people who don’t appreciate Zwift probably haven’t really looked into it before.
“Some people are very quick to criticise Zwift and the Zwift Academy, but it’s more the fact that they might not be so educated on what’s actually involved in it and perhaps a little bit ignorant to the whole idea, and they haven’t actually looked into it themselves.
“It’s actually quite a robust, legitimate process. It’s not just pulling someone’s name out of a hat for a contract. It’s not like it’s just a fluke.
“I think with other Zwift initiatives, like the Giro prologue, it’s definitely quite a radical idea, but at the same time, eSports are becoming increasingly popular globally. I think it’s just something that people need to gradually accept. It’s just one of those innovative ideas.
“And it’s a modern world. So things keep evolving.”
Following a rigorous series of workouts, races and group rides on Zwift, Harris made her dream a reality and joined the German-based women’s team on the start line in 2019.
But how does it feel for a young rider to be catapulted to the summit of the sport?
“At the start, it was quite daunting turning up to a team camp with riders that you’ve looked up to for many years, that you’ve watched on the TV and the World Champs and suddenly they’re your team-mates.
“Then it’s quite intimidating because there’s so many different things to learn that you’re not told. You learn as you go, you just keep making mistakes and eventually, you learn.
“The fitness has been fine. It was actually a reasonably smooth transition, fitness-wise.
“Once I actually did races with the team, and the other riders could see that I could ride a bike and I wasn’t actually a hindrance then you immediately gain a lot of respect.”
Harris, from the city of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, has been thrown into the deep end of top-tier women’s racing, opening her season at the New Zealand National Championships and following up with a string of one-day races in Europe.
The first setback came swiftly, when Harris crashed on the first stage of the Healthy Ageing Tour and suffered a broken collarbone, four months into her professional career.
“I was pretty disappointed to crash out of the Healthy Ageing Tour, especially because it was it was a five-day tour and I only did half of the first day. But I had the motivation to race in the Tour de Yorkshire, so that sort of got me through. I didn’t want miss out on that race. So that got me back on Zwift and gave me the motivation to keep training.”
Harris underwent surgery and was back on her bike less than two weeks later and returned to the peloton at the Tour de Yorkshire.
Another setback followed however when she returned home for a break in July and hit a rock while out training, falling and breaking the same collarbone again.
Harris was back in action at the RideLondon Classique at the start of August, doing a job for her team. The race ended in disappointment for Canyon-SRAM, with Tiffany Cromwell their best-placed rider in 18th.
As Harris looks to the final phase of her first year as a pro, what was the high point so far?
“The highlight for me has been getting more confident within the team and within races, and being able to experience and do so many races that wouldn’t have been possible this time last year.
“I have to pinch myself every so often to think about where I’ve come from.
“If I think back to last year, signing up for the Zwift Academy and never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d actually win the thing.
“The whole thing’s just been a bit of a dream.”