Off Road but Still on Course

From the archives of Conquista Magazine the long read with Nikki Harris.

Originally published in issue 1 of Conquista Magazine in 2013

Nikki Harris, like her partner Matt Brammeier, is not one to duck a challenge or opt for the easy pathway. Pro Cycling’s Mr & Mrs National Champion share a number of similarities in the manner in which they have fought their ways to the top, largely outside of the established system. Both were part of their respective National set-ups at Team GB for important early phases of their careers. Both chose to leave this ‘safe’ environment and strike out alone in their quest to make it to the top. Whilst we explain Matt’s story elsewhere this issue, here we take a deeper look at Nikki’s career. Both could have perhaps taken easier routes, but a passion for riding and a willingness to back their own ability has always seemed to take priority over sitting back and taking an easier, more comfortable route. Conquista spoke to Nikki immediately after her victory at the Superprestige Hamme-Zogge, which reinforced her current position as one of the top Women CX riders in the World.

CQ: How did you first get into cycling? Who or what made you want to race bikes?

NH:My dad was into motocross but he kept breaking bones, so he decided to give MTB and cyclocross (CX) a go and that’s when I got in to it. I remember going to races and not really enjoying it too much at first, but I would get a Mars bar and some sweets for finishing, so that was my motivation.

CQ:You were pretty good off-road as a Junior, rode the Junior World Championships MTB 2003 in Switzerland and became National Champion in 2004. Have you always loved racing off-road? What about it do you prefer to road or track?

NH: I always enjoyed racing on the track but the training was just so boring and dull! I spent so many long days in the velodrome in such a dull, soulless environment that I decided enough was enough. I had started my cycling off-road and always had fond memories of racing as a kid, the atmosphere at the Cross races was always very family orientated and still is to some extent. I just enjoy it so much more than riding on the road or track, also I’ve been pretty successful so far so that always helps.

CQ: You joined British Cycling (BC) and started to do well on the track. What were those four years like? How did you fit in with BC? What were your goals / aspirations?

NH: I had some success early on in one of the World Cup bunch races so I always thought it could be something I would be good at. Of course back then it was where all of the focus from BC was at, so there was obviously some pressure from them to push myself on the track. I was never really part of a ‘program’ as such. I was always on an individual program, traveling and training with the other teams together. It was good fun at times but as I said the training was just so time consuming and dull I never really loved it as much as I needed to.

CQ: Why did you leave BC, and do you miss being so closely involved in that set-up?

NH: In a way I miss some of the support they can provide, especially the medical advice, but I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore and really wanted to try cyclocross again and see how far I could take it. It was always going to be a bit of a gamble going for it alone as such, but it was something I was willing to do and a risk I was ready to take.

CQ: Your return to off-road racing came in 2008 – was it a bit of a shock to the system – ploughing through the snow in winter instead of the comparative comfort of the indoor velodrome?

NH: I decided I’d give it a little go and see how it went. Dip my toe back in the water and firstly see if I still enjoyed it as much as I’d remembered. That was going to be they key at first, I knew that if I really put my mind and 100% energy into an area of the sport for long enough, and with enough commitment I could be successful to some degree. But I just had to be enjoying it otherwise it would be a no-go. Cycling is just too hard to do if you’re not enjoying it. It was a shock at first, driving to the races in my little Peugeot, sorting out my own equipment and generally doing everything alone and outside of the bubble. However, as soon as I’d finished my first race I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do! I wasn’t immediately successful but i just knew it felt right and was what I needed.

Jaarmarktcross Niel 2012.women elite race.
Jaarmarktcross Niel 2012.women elite race.

CQ: When did you move to Belgium? How is life living in what many consider to be the home of cycling? Do you get recognised in the street – do the people in your town know you and say hello? Can you speak the lingo?

NH: I was staying out in Belgium doing some kermess races in 2006 as part of the track program when I met Matt; he was living not far away with the DFL-Cyclingnews team. That was my first real stint in Belgium. I did one more winter on the track and then have been back-and-to to Belgium ever since. Everything is so much simpler here, the training, the racing and life in general. They just understand cycling a whole lot more than at home. For example if you go to the doctors in England with a knee injury they would 99% tell you to take 3 months off the bike and probably give you some paracetamol and send you on your way. Here in Belgium the first thing they would ask is what your racing program is. They understand how it works, and how athletes think. They just get it a whole lot more and it just makes it so much simpler. I understand a lot of the language but learning it has been pretty difficult to be honest, I’ve not really been in an environment where I’ve had no choice to speak it and I think that really kicks you into touch and makes you learn. But to be honest I’ve not been too stressed about learning it, its the only country in the world that speaks the language and I’m not planning on setting-up camp here forever, so I’m fairly relaxed about it. I’m just really thankful that most of them speak English; it makes my life a whole lot simpler. More and more people are starting to recognise me but I wouldn’t say I’m famous or anything, obviously the locals around where I live all know who I am and are all really good supporters of me so that’s pretty cool.

CQ: Women’s cycling infamously is even worse than men’s cycling when it comes to rider wages. How have you survived? Do you benefit from any other sources of funding and how would you have survived without it?

NH: Of course back in my track days I was lottery funded so that paid my way. After that I was lucky with The Rayner Fund, I was the first female to get funding from them. I had to twist their arm a bit to get them to commit to me so I was so happy when they finally said they would help me out, not just on a personal point but also that they were showing some interest in women for once. As with so many riders I simply could not of got to where I am now without them, so I’m eternally grateful for their support. The difference is still huge but its getting closer, some organisations are starting to show us some more respect and I see it only getting better and better.

CQ: You have quietly built up your reputation whilst in Belgium as a top world CX rider. You now regularly podium at World Cup events. To what do you attribute your steady rise to the top? It didn’t happen over night did it – it’s been a gradual process of improvement year on year?

NH: There haven’t been so many major changes, I just learned from my mistakes over the year and just generally learned to push myself a lot harder than I did before. I started to train with Matt a lot more and he helped me out with training during the summer. I lost a bit of weight because I was training a lot harder and have gradually just moved closer and closer to where I am now. It’s hard to put a finger on it and say it was this or it was that, I just focused on everything a little differently. Worked out what my weaknesses were and worked hard on them, just simple hard work works most of the time. Or maybe I hit the 10,000 hours, who knows 🙂

GP Sven Nys 2013
GP Sven Nys 2013

CQ: Tell us about London 2012. There was talk of you competing in MTB – what happened?

NH: I had some thoughts about it and was thinking to try to tie it in with what I was already doing, but we (Team GB) only had qualified one spot for the games and it was always going to be tough to get in front of Annie Last. MTB, as like Cross isn’t something you can just dip in and out of and expect to be competitive. Its something that takes years to get to the top and I just didn’t have the time or drive to get there in time. Also financially it just wasn’t viable, there would be no way of funding it as BC couldn’t commit to me until I had some good results, but of course you don’t just get results overnight. So it was kind of a non-starter but I would have been happy to give it a go and tick that box.

CQ: 2013 National CX Championships and your long-term rivalry with Helen Wyman. You won the jersey, despite some injury worries in the run-up to the event. How did it feel to bag the jersey? Surprise? Relief? Your rivalry with Helen seems very friendly – do you think it drives you both on to beat each other?

NH: Its kind of funny actually because the media and press kind of big-up this major ‘rivalry’ between us both simply because we are both British. To be quite frank I don’t give a shit if I beat her or she beats me, I just want to win and be successful. Its never been about just being the best Brit. Maybe its something peculiar about the British mentality to be number one in your country but it never even crosses my mind in a race. However, the Nationals was such a relief I can’t explain. I had a pretty serious knee injury that ultimately put me out of the Worlds a few weeks later; I was really struggling to ride my bike at all. I was in the hospital a week earlier and the specialist told me I really should stop my season there and then but he understood how important Nationals were. I spoke about it a lot with Matt and we decided I would try and get through the next 2 weeks. Try and get something from the Nationals and consolidate my 3rd place in the World Cup series, then reassess after that. I took a full week off the bike before Nationals, did 2 laps on the Friday and then raced. It was such a relief to win. I had salvaged something from the season that was looking like it was soon going to be over so I was happy I could finish with something so positive. I’d been so close the last few years and had always wanted to win, it means so much as a CX rider to have that jersey so it has always been a big goal.

UCI World Cup Koksijde 2012.
UCI World Cup Koksijde 2012.

CQ: 12 October 2013 is a day I guess you will always remember for the wrong reasons. Your teammate and friend Amy Dombroski was tragically killed while on a training ride in Belgium – in collision with a truck. What has the impact been on the team – and on you personally? As someone who rides on the roads in the UK I understand the risk and the daily threat also. Does it affect your confidence? What happened to the driver? Matt has had his own brush with a truck, and also lost a teammate in Carla Swart at HTC in similar circumstances. Can anything be done to prevent future tragedies?

NH: The answer is quite simple, not much. Its such a dangerous sport we participate in, if you seriously sit down and think about how many times you’re ‘nearly killed’ it’s actually quite a lot. There will always be risks, especially when we are riding with other road users, riding in different countries with different traffic laws and even different road layouts can throw you sometimes. I guess we all have a responsibility to try and minimise the risks and not get carried away into taking little risks here and there to try and keep some momentum or beat our best time to work etc. Most of the time its the silly avoidable accidents that kill people, so people should consider if they can adjust how they are riding sometimes and in general just take less risks. It was pretty hard to loose Amy, I’m not going to say she was my best friend or anything as I’d only known her a couple of years, but we spent a lot of time together training and of course sitting in the camper at races. It hit us all hard and it will take a long time to recover from mentally, but we will never forget her. I guess the one positive we can take from accidents like Amy’s and Matt’s is that it makes us realise how dangerous it is and subconsciously I think it makes us ride a little bit safer, even when we’re not thinking about it.

CQ: You went out in your next big race and you won- the image we have inside the cover of our magazine this issue is you crossing the line. Your face says it all, but in your own words, we’d love to understand what did it mean to you to win that one? It was very moving to see and it touched a lot of people.

NH: It was a really hard period of time, I’d been pretty sick leading up to the season and had missed a lot of training already. I wasn’t feeling great and then the tragedy with Amy hit us all. It was hard to do anything, hard to ride the bike, hard to even eat, so racing was always going to be difficult. We had been at the funeral the day before in Belgium and Amy’s family were at the race the next day. I knew it would mean a lot for them if one of us could get a good result so I really tried hard to put things out of my mind and just race. Somehow I managed to pull off the win, all I could think about was Amy during the last few laps. Sometimes when your teammate wins a race and is basking in the spotlight you can get a little envious or jealous. But Amy was so happy every time one of us did well, she would have been so happy for us that day, it was a special moment and one I won’t ever forget.

winner: Nikki Harris (GBR) honoring her deceased teammate Amy Dombroski (who's service was held only 2 days earlier) Bpost Bank Trofee - GP Mario De Clerq 2013
winner: Nikki Harris (GBR) honoring her deceased teammate Amy Dombroski (who’s service was held only 2 days earlier)
Bpost Bank Trofee – GP Mario De Clerq 2013

CQ: Women’s Cycling is on the up. The Women’s Tour of Britain (ToB) and even Tour de France. Have you benefited ‘materially’ yet or is it just ‘feel-good’ stuff at the moment?

NH:Actually when I looked into the road teams it was pretty laughable the numbers some teams were throwing about. It’s still a long way off where it needs to be but I think it definitely is moving in the right direction. The ToB could and should be a massive turning point for us, if we can get the best riders in the world there in a great race that is publicised to the max, and of course on TV it could be the turning point we all need. I think we need to stop bitching about the money and start thinking more broadly of how we can make the sport more attractive and accessible.

CQ: What is your favourite race / venue and why?

NH: I’d say either Koppenberg Cross or Koksijde. Both races have their history and are two of the biggest races of the year for me. Also there are always lots of Brits coming over to watch so it makes it extra special to put on a good show for them. I really would love to see the rumours of a British World Cup come true in the future though. That would be awesome.

CQ: How hard is Cross? I mean, its only forty minutes – right – how hard can that be?

NH: Haha, I’ve heard that a few times before, but for anyone that has ridden one you will never hear that question. You should know, I saw your result last Saturday! Its always a long day at the Cross, we need to be at the course at least three hours before the race, we do pre laps, testing different tyres and pressures etc. Then comes the actual race, its forty minutes of full-on exertion, using muscles I never thought I even had. It’s a bloody long day, which at least makes sleeping pretty easy at the end of the day 😉

CQ: Do you have any ambition to race on the road or track again?

NH: I’d never say no to anything but for the next few years my focus will be 100% on cyclocross.

CQ: What is your biggest motivation and what is your next big target?

NH: My biggest ambition is to become World Champion, after the last few months I’ve got a lot of confidence and motivation from my results and i believe more than ever than that goal is more than possible. My next big goal is Koksijde just a few weeks away, it’s a special one, I was second last year so I want to go one better this year.

CQ: Matt is famously sometimes spotted at your races. It’s not normal to find a pro bike rider standing in a muddy field in winter is it. He claims he’s useless and doesn’t help – but what’s it really like having him around at races?

NH: Yeah he’s pretty useless haha. Nah it’s nice to have him around at some races when he’s not training. He does help out a bit sometimes and takes does a good job of keeping a bit of the stress off me.

CQ: Your Twitter profile says: “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got”. What is the origin of that? It suggests you are open-minded to innovation, new methods, techniques, etc?

NH: I just think some people get bogged-down in the same routine and never open their mind to new things, and expect things just to get better on their own. If you want something you have to fight for it, keep working hard and moving forward. Not just expect things to just fall into place.

And there, in a nutshell, in a twitter profile, is what has epitomised Nikki’s approach to bike racing throughout her career. Not too afraid to try something new, evolve and progress, even if it might mean one step back to eventually go two steps forwards. An attitude underpinned by hard work, a passion for racing and real love for her sport. Never content to dwell within a comfort zone or a cosy environment – but instead to get out there and push the boundaries to explore what might be achievable. It all makes Nikki a formidable opponent – maybe one day those rainbow bands will be added to the red, white and blue bands she already wears so proudly and deservedly.

Words: Trevor Gornall and Nikki Harris

Images: Kristof Ramon and Cor Vos

Originally published in issue one of Conquista Magazine