British pro Nikki Harris has covered most of the major cycling disciplines over her career. She was mountain biking as a youth, joined the British Cycling track program aged 18, then moved to cyclocross and became British national champion twice. For 2016, she moves her emphasis to road cycling, joining the Boels-Dolmans team with a view to representing the UK at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The Olympics are a major goal for Harris. It's the same for every professional cyclist, she says. "Every athlete wants to be part of an Olympic Games. It's just in me. I want to say I was there."
"I’ve been doing 'cross for a couple of seasons now with the same team, and I just felt like I needed a change," Harris says of her move to the Boels-Dolmans team, which was announced for the 2016. The arrangement she made with the team allowed her to continue racing cyclocross for the remainder of the 2015/16 season, which culminated in her taking the British National Champion title and placing 5th at the World Championships. Her move is also motivated by a desire to improve her cyclocross racing.
"I’ve seen other girls cross over between road and cross, and it’s really benefitted them. And it's something totally new. I really want to get to the Olympic games to do a job there, so the road option seemed to fit in perfectly, and an opportunity came up with Boels-Dolmans, and everything seemed to fit."
While Harris has been cycling from a very young age, the idea that cycling could become a job didn't come to her until relatively late on. "I did mountain biking for quite a few years when I was a Youth and early Junior year. I raced a couple of the World Championships for mountain biking as a Junior, and then after that the British Track Team approached me to do some track, and persuaded me to move up to Manchester. That was when I was 18 years old, and that’s when I started to see it not just as a hobby but something I could turn into a profession."
It's clear that Harris loves the variety that racing in different disciplines provides, and the benefits that moving between them has on her riding skills and abilities. She comments that her experience in cyclocross has had a noticeable beneficial effect on her bike handling skills since moving across to road, but also that with the moves comes a learning curve. "I'm starting to get a feel for what kind of rider I could be on the road, and if I'm strong enough to do a job for Lizzie, then I want to do that."
She is referring, of course, to Lizzie Armitstead, World Champion, who will be representing the UK at the Rio Olympics. Harris and Armitstead are teammates on Boels-Dolmans, and will have ample opportunity to ride together over the coming months in the lead up to the Olympics. But there is no spot guaranteed for Harris.
"The qualification is [happening] at the moment. They are looking at riders, what they’re doing, how they’re performing, and I think that’s going to go on until the start of June. At the moment I’m doing as many races with the team as possible, and getting stuck in with the girls, doing my job and finding my feet a little bit on the road. I want to see what I can do on the road, then if I can do a job, my name will come up."
"I think in terms of what Lizzie is thinking for the person who’ll be there with her at the Olympics, she obviously wants someone who’s going to be there with her at the end of the race, not just at the start of it. If I'm good enough to do the job, then I really want to go. But if there's somebody else that’s better than me in that job, then I want them to go. I want to Lizzie to win the Olympics, so it’s not just about me being on the same team as her."
2016 is clearly going to be a big year for cycling, and women's cycling in particular. Aside from the Rio Olympics, 2016 also sees the first year of the new UCI World Tour, which kicked off at the Strade Bianche in Italy on the 5th March, a race which Armitstead won. With Harris' breadth of experience in cycling, does she feel like women's cycling is changing for the better in terms of support and recognition? She believes yes, though there is still a long way to go.
"In terms of there now being a world tour, the races being on TV and being streamed on the internet - a few years ago that wouldn't have been happening at all. I think cyclocross has done really well in the last season as I think nearly every race has been on the TV, and that encourages sponsors to come to the sport, which in turn brings money, which means more teams. Hopefully road can go the same way."
"People are seeing women put in just as much work as the guys do, so why not have equal opportunities? I think a lot of small things could contribute to making things go bigger - prize money, being paid an equal wage, television coverage, sponsorship. The UCI needs to take responsibility and make it equal, and they are beginning to do it but it's one of those things that's going to take time."
"For every men's pro team there should be a women's team," Harris responds, when asked where she'd like to see cycling in five years' time. "More equality - I think that would be a good place for the sport, and they'd have more fans, more followers, who would in turn bring more sponsors."
But for now, Harris is very much focussed on achieving her Olympic dream.