Story: Kiwi Rider’s Long and Crazy Race Home
In the longest 'race' of her career, young pro cyclist Mikayla Harvey fled Italy, Switzerland and then Spain to escape Covid-19 lockdowns, and return home to Wanaka. Now she must wait to see if her team survives the effects of the pandemic.
In a rush one morning, Mikayla Harvey stuffed some clothes in a suitcase, grabbed her bike and tumbled into a taxi. Italy was going into lockdown. With a stack of races coming up in her second season on the Women's WorldTour, the Kiwi cyclist didn't want to get stuck in Lombardy. She wasn't thinking about coronavirus; she was worried about her racing calendar.
"It's crazy because the bag I packed up, I wasn't expecting to bring all the way home to New Zealand," she says. Harvey fled her base with Kiwi flatmate and Bigla-Katusha pro team-mate, Niamh Fisher Black, and headed to Switzerland to stay with their team manager. The popular Dutch race, Ronde van Drenthe, was coming up in a week, and Harvey was concentrating on that, even as she started to absorb the alarming reports on the news about Covid-19.
"Thinking back now, I don't know why on earth I was so focused about racing, considering how bad the whole situation in the world was," Harvey says.
Cycling's governing body, the UCI, eventually reached the same conclusion, cancelling the race and those for the next fortnight. Yet while the peloton stopped, Harvey's adventure escaping from Europe had only just begun. After seeing out a week in Switzerland, she decided it was time to move on again. She couldn't return to her apartment in Italy with the situation worsening, and no sign of the lockdown being lifted.
So she went to Girona, the Spanish city where several Australian and New Zealand cyclists spend their careers. The day after she arrived though, the country went into lockdown as well. "I remember walking around and everything was closed. It just felt like a ghost town, there was no one around," Harvey says. "I went into the supermarket and so much food was gone. That's when the reality of the situation sunk in."
The 21-year-old couldn't go outside, let alone train, and she had no idea how long the strict conditions were going to last. Her friends and family were talking to her on the phone, growing increasingly worried about how bad the situation in Europe was. With the government calling New Zealanders to return home, and the price of flights skyrocketing, Harvey decided it was time to carry that same bag and bike to her final destination: Wanaka.
"Going to the airport was a crazy experience. There were no people; it was so weird. It was nice getting the whole plane pretty much to myself. It's something I probably won't ever get again," she laughs. Harvey arrived back in New Zealand (without her bag and bike, which finally turned up 10 days later) and found herself trapped again. This time it was two weeks of self-isolation at her parent's home – keeping her distance from her family.
"It was hard, it was really weird. I just felt out of place for a wee while,” she says. “There was so much uncertainty. Everything slowly started to sink in and I was finally able to ground myself, and just accept the whole situation and what had happened." She spent 14 days in her room, doing a lot of yoga, working out in the mini gym set up in the house, and even doing a little drawing. In that time, the UCI were painting a picture of their own, revealing how the rest of the season would unfold.
They've suspended all events until July 1, with the two-highest profile races - La Course by le Tour de France and Italy's Giro Rosa - affected. The WorldTour is postponed until August 1. "We don't really know until the borders start to open up again...when you actually think about the reality of it, we might not even be racing this season," Harvey says.
It's a damaging scenario for the sport, which rests in a delicate financial position at the best of times. Several teams have already been forced into pay-cuts, including Australian outfit Mitchelton Scott, who fellow New Zealand cyclist Georgia Williams rides for. Harvey’s Swiss team launched a crowdfunding campaign to “ensure our survival in 2020, as well as secure a long-term future.” The team, who sit in the top 10 in UCI world rankings, have had both of their title partners withdraw payments to the team over the past month.
Women's cycling is in a fragile position. While it's fought hard over the last few years to gain recognition, gaining crucial sponsorship and television coverage remains a big challenge.
"It's definitely scary,” Harvey says. “A lot of teams are going to struggle. I don't really like thinking about it too much because we literally have no idea what the future of our sport is.”
Harvey is thankful to have the support of her Bigla-Katusha team though, and is optimistic they can bounce back. "The pay might not be as good, but I just want to keep going with the sport. Eventually, once the economy picks back up, I just hope everything will keep on rolling," she says. And if it does, Harvey will be ready. She "fell in love" with the sport in her first professional season last year, feeding off the frenzied European cycling atmosphere, and relishing the full-on racing.
"I developed so much as a rider. I remember my first couple of races, it was just like a mad panic the whole time, I didn't really know what I was doing," she says. That didn't last long. She quickly found her feet, getting stronger with every race. She completed the demanding Giro Rosa (wearing the white jersey for best young rider after stage 1) and won a time-trial stage at the Tour de Bretagne Feminin.
Her current hiatus is made even more challenging by the special memories of last year often popping into her head. While the deserted chipseal Wanaka roads are no match for the cobblestones of a Belgian 'Spring Classic', Harvey's happy she made her way back to New Zealand. "I realise how safe it is here, and the people - we all just get together and try to fight it together,” she says. As she keeps turning the pedals, there's plenty of time reflect on the turbulent past month, and a race to get home that even the most dramatic of cycling events won't be able to replicate.
Words: Henry Rouse of LockerRoom (this story was originally published in Newsroom.co.nz and is republished with permission.)
Images: Sean Robinson