For Niamh Fisher-Black of the New Zealand National Team the Gravel and Tar Classic provided the opportunity for a bit of personal redemption after a puncture disrupted last year’s race.  She found that redemption and then some as she and teammate Samara Sheppard ended up 1st and 2nd.

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McCormick & Fisher-Black set records straight at Gravel and Tar

Gravel and Tar La Femme was the season opener for a number of riders who lined up for the 115km race from as far as Australia, Switzerland and Great Britain as well as New Zealand.  Fisher-Black last raced on the UCI circuit back October so when we caught up with her the evening before the big event at the pre-race criterium there was a sense of uncertainty coupled with excitement about how the race might pan out this year.

“I’m feeling pretty good actually.  It’s been a big summer of just training so this will be the first proper race back really, it might be a bit of a shock to the legs but we’ll see how it goes.  I’m pretty excited about it,” Niamh told RoadCycling.

Her memories of the inaugural Gravel and Tar La Femme were a bit of a mixed bag.  On the one hand racing with Mike Greer Homes Women’s Cycling yielded two podium places for the team for Jenna Merrick and Rylee McMullen.  On the other Niamh suffered a puncture and crossed the line 9th; a sense of what might have been lingering on the gravel and road surfaces that led to Palmerston North.

“[2018] was tough.  As gravel is it’s always going to be hard.  I had a really good team last year with Mike Greer Homes, we made it a really tough race and had a really good day last year.”

Niamh Fisher-Black celebrates taking the women’s title, photo Gravel and Tar

For Samara Sheppard the opportunity to race Gravel and Tar La Femme comprised part of a road season she was inspired into after a storming finish to her 2019 campaign saw her reach the Zwift Academy finals for Canyon-SRAM as part of three riders selected from almost 9,000 applicants.  Sheppard, who’s career has been largely oriented around mountain biking in the past, loved the opportunity to experience a professional road environment.

“I got a taste for what it would be like to be a professional road cyclist and it’s really motivated me to start 2020 off with a few road target events,” Samara told us.

Until Thursday of last week Samara had never taken her road machine out on gravel roads, so a giant step into the unknown took place on Saturday.  However, you don’t become a three-time mountain bike national champion and two-time Oceania champion without some serious bike handling skills and Samara’s hope was that those skills could prove transferrable in the Manawatu.

“[Gravel and Tar La Femme] is a really exciting race like that because it’s a lot more about line selection, being smart and making sure you and your bike get through the sections safely.  So coming in with a bit of awareness on how to approach the race from a mountain bike perspective will pay off today,” Sheppard said confidently.

Confidence well-founded as New Zealand dominate

Fast forward a few hours and Niamh’s excitement and Samara’s mountain biking confidence were shown to be well-founded as the pair were part of a dominant New Zealand National Team that also included Lee Boon and Cecilia Crooks.  With Australia looking to make it two wins from two after Brodie Chapman took out the first edition, the New Zealand National Team set about imposing themselves strongly on the race to ensure that history would not repeat itself.

“From the start we wanted to be a presence and be at the front and be in any of the moves that came; and we were able to do that,” Samara told us.

Niamh Fisher-Black faces a big year ahead as part of Katusha-Bigla, photo Gravel and Tar

“It was so similar to mountain bike marathon dynamics in terms of once you got to the gravel it became much more of an individual effort and a tough effort as well.  I really enjoyed that aspect of the race and it was tough out there for everyone.  “

The day began in the worst possible start for Niamh, however, who faced an early setback on the first sector of gravel and had to recover some ground, but once she was back on board the 19 year old set about making a big solo impression on the race.

“Samara was putting a lot of pressure on from the start, so everyone was thinking ‘oh this is going to be a hard day’, and then on the first gravel section it split almost straight away.  A split went up the road and I had a crash on that section,” Niamh explained.

“I managed to fight my way back, it all came back together a bit between the gravel sections, and then on that second gravel section at the climb I just put my head down and decided that this is where I’m going to go.  I looked behind me at the top and no one was there!”

Niamh launched her attack with some 60km of racing still to cover, but the Kiwi was fearless in her approach to the distance ahead; digging deep and putting in time over the rest of the field to build an advantage that would ultimately prove insurmountable.  For Sheppard in the chase group it was the ideal situation that took the pressure right off of Team New Zealand.

“It was a perfect scenario for us.  Niamh rode really well on the second gravel climb to get away and then all I had to was follow the wheels, and I was in a really fortunate position to follow the wheels until about 5km from the finish when I attacked to try and win 2nd place.  So it was the perfect scenario for us coming home 1 and 2,” she said.

At the finish line Fisher-Black stopped the clock arms aloft after almost three and a half hours of racing.  28 seconds later Sheppard joined her and the pair then had a wait of just over 1.20mins before Ella Bloor took the final spot on the podium.  Gravel and Tar La Femme is a race that is more than a little demanding and it was with a little relief that Niamh had crossed the line let alone won!

“I’m absolutely relieved it’s over!  It was a tough, tough day out.  It’s pretty epic to come back this year, I had something to get this year after a puncture last year,” Niamh told us.

Samara Sheppard’s mountain biking prowess proved invaluable in Gravel and Tar La Femme, photo Cameron McKenzie Photography

2020 promises to be a significant one for the new reigning champion.  Niamh will join Katusha-Bigla and team up with a fellow Kiwi who took on the international scene in style as a super domestique for Danish rider Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig.  Mikayla Harvey got the opportunity to race with the Bigla outfit last year and this year the two former teammates find themselves reunited.

“A first pro season is going to be a big step up for me, a learning experience where I’ll be learning every step of the way from teammates who have a lot more experience than me but I’ll see where I can go with it,” Niamh told us.  

“It’s really good to have Mikayla, that bit of support, she knows what’s going on in the team, she know’s everyone and she can help me along the way which is just awesome.”

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