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Kiwi ‘rural rider’ taking cycling world by storm

After her cycling season was put on hold, Mikayla Harvey is making up for lost time in Europe. The Kiwi sensation is rising through the ranks and her rivals are taking notice.

Mikayla Harvey can't hide in the peloton anymore. The white jersey of her Équipe Paule Ka team doesn't blend in, even when it's covered in dust.

She used to get a few stray nudges and elbows in the bunch. Now she's getting the same treatment from the TV commentators, who mention her name as the 22-year-old shifts through the gears.

The self-proclaimed rural rider from Wanaka, who arrived in Europe "pretty clueless", is quickly solving the cycling mystery.

"I really feel like people are starting to notice me which is nice," she says from Switzerland. "You do get a bit more respect as well, and it makes it a lot easier moving around and positioning yourself in the race."

That respect has been hard earned. Harvey flourished on the dusty gravel roads of the prestigious Strade-Bianche last month, guiding team-mate Leah Thomas to a podium spot, and finishing a stunning 12th overall, winning the Under 23 classification in the process.

 
 

"I've never had a result like that before and I wasn't expecting it. Getting that result has really made me a lot more confident in my racing and I'm just so excited that I'm able to race up there now with the top girls."

And now Harvey has produced a brilliant start to the multi-stage Giro Rosa, which got underway on Friday.

During Stage 2 of the pinnacle event, she aced the gravel sections and finished an incredible seventh, earning the white jersey as the best young rider in the race. She’s also moved up to fifth overall in the general classification, a position she’s maintained after Stage 4 too.

Mikayla Harvey (left) recovers with her Équipe Paule Ka team-mates after the gruelling Strade-Bianche. Photo: Sean Robinson/velofocus.com

Like many of New Zealand's greatest cyclists, Harvey is always willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the team. While that often means chasing down moves and protecting her leader, her strong form means she's now being given the chance to go for personal results as well.

"It's been a bit of a change for me. Having the girls ride for me is quite different and it's a bit of pressure but I really love the opportunity," she says.

Well-known cycling journalist Orla Chennaoui recently named Harvey as her rider to watch, while English team-mate Lizzie Banks singled her out for her hard work during the Grand Prix de Plouay in France.

So it came as no surprise when Équipe Paule Ka offered her a two-year contract extension following her stunning Strade-Bianche performance.

"I'm able to focus on myself and my training now knowing I've got this amazing team backing me and I'm so grateful for them. I really got taken under the wings of them, and I've developed so much," Harvey says.

The journey she’s been on this year makes her form even more remarkable.

She wasn't even sure if she'd be able to get back on a bike again this season, after fleeing Europe for the South Island during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Once she arrived back in Aotearoa, she had a fortnight in isolation to contemplate a calendar decimated by Covid-19, as well as dealing with the state of her team, who lost their two main sponsors.

A crowd-funding campaign was launched to try and salvage some of the season, and, thankfully, French clothing company Paule Ka came on board with a four-year deal. When the sport's governing body, the UCI, drew up a new schedule, her hopes of returning to racing were back on.

Mikayla Harvey on the climb in La Course, the one-day race run by the Tour de France. Photo: Sean Robinson/velofocus.com

After returning to Europe, she's been living out of a suitcase, waking up every day feeling like she's in a new country. The sport is as normal as it can be in 2020, with riders getting tested for coronavirus twice before every race and donning face masks all the time.

Although it may be different to what she's used to, Harvey's just grateful to have any racing at all.

"You don't want to take it for granted because you don't know when the next race is going to be,” she says. “It might be cancelled, so you have to give it 100 percent because it's so special... when it's taken away from you, you realise how much you really love it." 

In a turbulent year, Harvey faced another frightening moment last month, when the team were forced to pull out on the eve of the Giro dell'Emilia in Bologna.

"We woke up at our hotel the day before the race, we went down for breakfast, and we could tell something was off. We ended up hearing that all our race bikes had been stolen,” she says. “I was super upset, and so was the rest of the team."

Harvey's bike was one of those missing, and they still haven't been found. Unfortunately, it's relatively common in Europe, with the same thing happening a week earlier to the Trek-Segafredo team at Strade-Bianche.

Harvey was back on her new machine in time for La Course at the end of last month, which is the one-day race run by the Tour de France

The event was held before the first stage of the men's race, offering the women rare and much-needed live TV coverage around the world. The racing didn't disappoint either, with British world road champion Lizzie Deignan edging out Dutch legend Marianne Vos in a thrilling sprint finish.

The Équipe Paule Ka team who rode this year's La Course. Photo: Sean Robinson/velofocus.com

The New Zealander was in the thick of the action alongside fellow Kiwi Niamh Fisher-Black. While they couldn't make the decisive split on the final climb, Harvey was thrust right into the mix at the end of the race.

"I've never been in a full bunch sprint and had my team-mates lead me out before. We were trying to get me some points for the Under 23 jersey, and I definitely learnt a lot, and I still managed to come 12th."

The superb showcase of women's cycling has led to calls for a fully-fledged women's Tour de France to be launched. Organisers ASO have responded saying a multi-day race will be in place in 2022.

"I don't see a reason why we can't have one,” Harvey says. “All the procedures are already set up there for the men. We just hope over the next few years it keeps developing, instead of moving a step backwards. We want to keep moving forward with women's cycling."

Preparing for the pinnacle race in women’s cycling, the multi-stage Giro Rosa, a host of the team’s best riders went head-to-head during the training camp in Switzerland, vying for six spots in the Italian event.

Harvey made the final cut, and has already proven herself a vital addition in the team time-trial, and on the gravel she loves. While she’s riding in support of her team leader, she will also want to hold on to her lead as the best young rider, a classification she finished fifth in last year.

While you can’t always tell with the mask on her face, it’s obvious Harvey is loving every second of life at Équipe Paule Ka.

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