British cyclo-cross champion Nikki Harris (Young Telenet-Fidea) will tackle the infamous sands of Koksijde this weekend, hoping to continue her impressive start to the season and better the second place she achieved last year.
She has earned two victories in ten races this season, at Ronse in the Bpost Bank Trofee and Hamme-Zogge in the Superprestige, and earned a host of podium places in between – including two in two World Cup events and behind compatriot Helen Wyman at the European Championship.
And Harris is hoping to take her good form into what she says is one of her favourite courses as she bids to win her first career World Cup event.
“Koksijde’s pretty difficult because of the sands – it’s such a specific course,” she told RCUK. “But it’s actually one of my favourites.
“Last year I was second at the World Cup there and I’ve always said I’d love to win there. One of my goals is obviously to beat Katie Compton and take a World Cup podium, and it would be amazing to take first on a course like that.
“It’s pretty special riding there. There’s always so many spectators and people come across from the UK so there’s always good support for us too. It’s a special ‘cross, that’s for sure.”
On her season to date, she added: “I’m really pleased with my form actually. Obviously to win some races and perform early on – it’s been good.
Koksijde is a special ‘cross, that’s for sure. It would be amazing to take first on a course like that
“I’ve not really started building up on my training yet because I’ll start to train more in the next couple of weeks for World Championships and everything. I’m happy with how my condition is at the moment, it’s surprising.”
Harris’ form is all the more remarkable given the tragedy her Belgian team suffered just one week before the race at Ronse.
American team-mate Amy Dombroski tragically died while training after being involved in a collision with a truck, and the 26-year-old’s funeral was held the day before the race at Ronse.
Harris was among those to speak at the funeral, and admitted Dombroski’s death was hard to come to terms with.
“It was really, really difficult because Amy died literally one week before the whole cross season started for me,” she explained.
“I’d actually been sick too – even before the road Worlds I’d been sick with a chest infection – and after everything that happened with Amy it made me question everything.
“It sounds stupid but all the little things like just going out on my bike – I was nervous, thinking about Amy and I’d only seen her a few days before it happened.
“It’s been so difficult the last few weeks trying to keep carrying on with racing and training, while knowing your team-mate – who should be at the races with you in the camper van – is not there. It’s just been really, really difficult.”
It’s been so difficult the last few weeks trying to keep carrying on with racing and training, while knowing your team-mate – who should be at the races with you in the camper van – is not there
Harris paid tribute to the American after surprisingly winning at Ronse in the opening round of the Bpost Bank Trofee, forming a letter A with her hands and looking up as she crossed the finish line.
She said: “Winning at Ronse wasn’t expected at all because it was Amy’s funeral one day before.
“Her family all came over for the funeral and then they came to the race and watched and I just thought, Amy wouldn’t want me to be all miserable, she’d want me to go out there and give it my all.
“It was a real shock to win that weekend because I’d not stopped for blooming days and I felt awful but I was really pleased to do it because I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Despite the circumstances, and her illness, the win has triggered a great start to the season however, with Harris currently third overall in the Bpost Bank Trofee and second in the World Cup.
For the 26-year-old it marks another huge step in her rise in the sport, something she attributes to greater experience on the elite circuit but admits is still a great surprise to her.
She explained: “I think one thing is confidence and another is training more, learning more what my body can deal with.
“I train a lot with Matt [Brammeier, her boyfriend] now which helps. Also, taking the summer a bit more steady and concentrating on getting a good base and really focussing on the ‘cross has helped.
I can just remember a few years ago, when I used to look up to all these girls that I’m beating now – it’s a bit crazy!
“And I now know what a lot of the courses are like now, I know how they ride. All those little things help.
“I can just remember a few years ago, when I used to look up to all these girls that I’m beating now – it’s a bit strange to be honest because everybody keeps saying to me, ‘how do you keep getting podiums all the time?’ but it’s a surprise to me every time I do! I still really appreciate it – it’s a bit crazy!”
Having opted to move out to Belgium to ride at elite level a few years ago, Harris has not looked back, admitting it was a hugely important step to make.
She is joined on the circuit by compatriots Helen Wyman (Kona Factory) and Gabby Durrin (Rapha-Focus), with the trio’s results this season placing Great Britain number one in the world rankings.
Rising 19-year-old star Hannah Payton (Kinesis Morvelo) has competed at a number of events too – as she will again in Koksijde.
Harris is now hoping others will begin to follow their lead, as the sport continues to enjoy an increased profile in this country.
“It was definitely an important decision coming out to Belgium,” she said.
“It’s a little bit easier for me with having Matt out here in the summer but for the winter there’s no other choice but to be out here permanently if you know World Cups and the like will be your goals.
It’s about getting stuck in to the whole ‘cross scene and seeing younger riders come over, and knowing they’re following in our footsteps
“You’ve got to do all of those smaller races, and pick up UCI points at them all. It’s just easier to travel to the races. I’m used to it now, but I enjoy it and it’s good.
“Great Britain being number one is definitely something important and it’s always nice when we can pull on the GB jerseys at the Europeans and at the World Championships.
“I’d like to see a few more girls coming over too and doing a bit more of what me and Helen have done, and living out here.
“It’s about getting stuck in to the whole ‘cross scene and seeing younger riders come over, and knowing they’re following in our footsteps. At the moment there are not too many coming over so it would be nice to see a few more faces.”
Despite choosing ‘cross however, Harris could quite easily have settled on any of cycling’s disciplines having excelled on the track, the road and on the mountain bike scene too.
In 2001, Harris was under-16 national champion at mountain bike, cyclo-cross and circuit racing and earned her first senior title in the former aged just 17 – a title she won again last year.
She also competed on the track at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and represented Great Britain at this year’s road World Championships when she supported Lizzie Armitstead.
However, she states ‘cross was always her preferred discipline and she is now keen to focus solely on her bid for further glory going forward, having signed a new deal with Telenet-Fidea.
I just love ‘cross really. I love everything about it. It’s short racing, it’s really fast and it’s got a bit of everything in it
“I’ve done track and road and mountain biking but ‘cross is where I started cycling when I was younger. When I started back doing it a few years ago, it just reminded me how much I loved it and it’s something I just thought if I put my mind to I can be quite good at.
“I just love ‘cross really! I love everything about it. It’s short racing, it’s really fast and it’s got a bit of everything in it – technical sections, running. I really enjoy it.
“It was one of my reasons behind re-signing with Telenet-Fidea because I’d actually got an offer from Specialized-Lululemon to sign with them. They obviously knew that I wanted to do cyclo-cross as well but we were talking about doing bits on the road and how that would work out.
“But then I decided, you can’t do everything and be good at everything. I think if you really want to be the best at something you have to really put all your eggs in one basket. I think doing the road, as well as ‘cross would just be too much and I’d just be tired come the ‘cross season.
“This year, I never targeted the road worlds or anything like that – I just got asked to do it to do a job and if they asked me again I would do it to help the girls out. I’m not going to say no to an opportunity like that.
“But the road is definitely second to the ‘cross. It’s not something I can see me really wanting to progress at in the future. I just do it because it helps the ‘cross.”
While Koksijde remains her most immediate target, Harris is already looking ahead to February’s World Championships too having had to withdraw last time out through injury, and is also keen to retain the national champions’ jersey in 2014.
She explained: “Over the last few months I’ve been saying I’d love to have another good ride in Koksijde and then I’ll be going away for a bit of training to Spain. Then it’s the whole Christmas block.
“The World Championships is definitely one of my major goals – I was really gutted not to ride the World Championships this year because of my knee injury and then obviously the nationals is always going to be something that I want to win.”
And if nothing else, there is one further target for Harris and her Telenet-Fidea team-mates to target over the coming months.
She concluded: “It’s always a bit of a battle with the guys to see how many podiums we can get and I think the girls are winning at the moment so that’s good!”