On the road

September 3

Mixing it up on the roads of Wānaka prepared cyclist Mikayla Harvey to mix it up with the world’s best.

PHOTO: SUPPLIED

IN THE WINTER OF 2020, NORTHERN ITALY ENTERED ZONE RED, ‘LA ZONA ROSSA’, A SUITABLY DRAMATIC TERM FOR THE SEVERE RESTRICTIONS IMPOSED TO CURB THE SPREAD OF COVID-19.
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For local cyclists, both amateur and professional, life became confined. The capillary network of quiet, ancient Italian lanes – quintessential and deliciousback roads that are deserted save for the occasional four-wheel-drive Fiat Panda – were now off limits.

For those riders living in the small mountain city of Varese, close to the Swiss border, it essentially meant any serious training was restricted to just one climb named the Sacro Monte. Wānaka’s Mikayla Harvey was one of them.

“I couldn’t believe I would be stuck on this one eight-kilometre climb for months, but it was actually really enjoyable,” she says. “The views are beautiful. And although we weren’t supposed to train with others, I would end up meeting everybody there. ‘Oh hello! What a surprise to see you… on this one piece of road!’”

Although this particular challenge of life as a professional cyclist was unexpected, growing up in Wānaka prepared Mikayla well for it. Riding up and down the same road, time after time, day after day, is more or less the lot of the typical Wānaka-based road cyclist. “You can go in four different directions,” she says, “and they’re all main highways.”

PORTRAIT OF A CYCLIST. PHOTO: THOMAS MAHEUX

There’s southwest up and down the Crown Range Road. There’s south on SH6 to Cromwell. There’s northeast on SH8 to the Lindis Pass. Or there’s Mikayla’s own “classic long ride”, north through Makarora and the Gates of Haast / Tioripatea to Pleasant Flats. And back.

“It’s about 180 kilometres, that one. To make it a loop you’d end up having to go 1000 kilometres round via Christchurch.”

“frankly, road riding around the well- worn Wānaka asphalt can be terrifying”

Wānaka is known for producing world-class mountain bikers and triathletes. And the track cyclist Ellesse Andrews, who won a Silver medal in the keirin at the Tokyo Olympics, attended the local high school, Mount Aspiring College. But Mikayla is a roadie, and an exceptionally good one. Having ridden full-time since 2016, she burst onto the radar at the top tier of women’s professional road cycling, the Women’s World Tour, in 2020, when she finished fifth overall at the Giro Rosa.

“The smorgasbord of surfaces … are dead ringers for the strade bianche, those hodgepodge ‘white roads’ of ancient mud and stone”

It’s a big deal. The most competitive stage race in the world, the Giro is the women’s Tour de France. There hasn’t been an actual women’s Tour de France since 2009, although there will be a new eight-day event in 2022. The 2020 Giro covered 975 kilometres over nine stages. Stage two was a 124-kilometre jaunt from Paganico to Arcidosso with nearly 3000 metres of climbing (for reference, Aoraki Mt Cook tops out at 3700 metres), while the Assisi to Tivoli stage was 170.3 kilometres long.

PHOTO: SUPPLIED

As well as finishing just off the podium, Mikayla, who was 22 years old at the time, won the white jersey of ‘best young rider’ by five minutes, putting her in a club whose members include Olympic champions, world champions, and the biggest names of her sport.

How did she manage that? For starters, frankly, road riding around the well-worn Wānaka asphalt can be terrifying. “Getting off the road altogether is a lot safer,” Mikayla says. “Especially after training in Europe, where you can train on the quiet roads where you don’t see a car all day.”

Then there’s the culture, or the lack of culture. Here, road cycling doesn’t seep out of every pore of the landscape – or spill out of every café – like it does in Europe. Mikayla made do watching the Tour de France on television every winter with her grandparents, then learned her craft in schoolgirl group rides up in Clevedon and the Hunua Ranges, near Auckland, where she lived with her multisport-mad parents until the age of 15.

“To make it a loop you’d end up having to go 1000 kilometres round via Christchurch”

But Wānaka made Harvey. After her family moved down south, she raced the South Island junior racing scene for Mike Greer Homes, a team run by her parents in a manner more professional than many of the current teams ranked by the sport’s governing body, the UCI. Fun fact: Mikayla is one of seven Mike Greer alumni to have gone on to race in Europe for a team in the UCI ranks; six of them are still there.

(Not-so-fun fact: despite Kiwi women placing higher than the Kiwi men in the world rankings, Aotearoa didn’t qualify any female riders for the women’s road events at the Tokyo Olympic Games – this is because the Olympic startlist was just 67 riders, compared to the men’s 130. It’s a source of frustration when Mikayla’s results helped her country to 11th in the 2020 rankings, ahead of cycling behemoth France.)

In Wānaka, the mountain climbs are as steep and grippy as any in the European racing playgrounds of the Alps, Pyrenees and Apennines. Nor’westers rip down from Ka Tiritiri-o-te-moana, whipping up the whitecap froth on the lake and leaving nowhere to hide. The southern sun is fierce and the frosts bite hard. The stock trailers on the highway thunder by without remorse.

Wānaka is not like Nelson or Golden Bay, where you can ride around the quiet lifestyle blocks under balmy Mediterranean sunshine. Nor is it like Invercargill, where you can hide from the westerly gales in the cocoon of the indoor velodrome. Nope, to ride there you have to be good. If you can ride well around Wānaka, you can ride well anywhere.

Take the broad, flat farm roads of Flanders, the part of Belgium that is the home of cycling’s gritty heart. These lanes, known locally as betonweg, are just a wetter and danker version of the lanes around Hāwea Flat. The smorgasbord of surfaces that you find on Kiwi gravel are dead ringers for the strade bianche, those hodgepodge ‘white roads’ of ancient mud and stone that criss-crosses swathes of Tuscany, home to cycling’s soul. As well as the endless ascending, strade bianche featured heavily in Stage two of the 2020 Giro. Mikalya came seventh out of 125 finishers on that particular day.

“As a man, you have to be a climber or sprinter or puncheur, but women have to be good at all aspects of racing,” Mikayla explains. “You have to be more diverse as a rider.

“I’m more suited to ‘in between’ style racing. I love hill racing, but I’m not a climber, and I’m definitely not a sprinter.”

Professional bike races are now inserting sections of gravel or farm track in order to spice up what is becoming, at least in the men’s peloton, a worryingly sterile spectator sport. For Mikayla, who thrives in the sort of ankle-deep gravel that can put an end to many of her rivals’ chances, those hours spent carving up Dean’s Bank and the Hikuwai Loop have come in handy.

“Last year’s Giro Rosa was perfect for me,” she says. “Everyone was complaining about the gravel, but that played towards my strengths. I love that style of racing.

“Obviously not having the coverage of our racing really upset me,” she says, commenting on the race organisers’ last- minute failure to deliver on their promise of TV coverage of the sport’s blue riband event – another symptom of the persistent sexism in a deeply conservative sport.

Despite this, and despite the sudden closure of her team when the sponsors’ cheques bounced last season (the team pulled out of the Tour of Flanders the night before it took place), Mikayla has landed a deal with Canyon-SRAM, one of the world’s biggest teams, where she linked up with Dunedin’s Ella Harris.

“I’ve raced with Ella since I was 11, and it’s so cool we’re both over in Europe racing at the same level. We can now encourage other Kiwi girls, both our age and in the junior ranks, and show that Europe is possible. It should encourage more girls to dream about it. I think that’s pretty exciting.”

What with limited slots in the MIQ hotels and the incessant sacrifices required by the world’s most demanding professional sport, Mikayla’s future is in Europe. At the moment, that means the simple pleasures of just “going to a café, eating out at a restaurant, and going to visit Milan.” And training on more than one road.

Still, as much as she has been seduced by the passion, traditions and energy of the European racing scene, Wānaka remains close to her heart. “Kai Whaka Pai still does the best cappuccino I’ve ever had,” she says. “The coffee in Italy just isn’t the same.”

RICHARD ABRAHAM


This article is even better in print.


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