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Q&A: Niamh and Finn Fisher-Black’s dad, Jim, on the pair’s super start to 2024

Jim Black believes improved confidence has helped his kids take a step up this year.

Image: Eurosport

It’s been a terrific start to the year if you’re a fan of Niamh and Finn Fisher-Black. The Kiwi siblings have each hit the winners’ list already, with Finn (22) winning the Muscat Classic and a stage of the Tour of Oman, and Niamh (23) riding to an impressive win on the queen stage of the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana.

Few people will have enjoyed these early-season successes as much as Jim Black, Niamh and Finn’s father, who helped guide the pair from their first races as young children, right through until they became established professionals.

Speaking to Escape from his adopted hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand this week, Black provided great insight into how Niamh and Finn first got into cycling, how similar they are personality-wise, what’s helped them both step up in 2024, and a whole lot more. The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Matt de Neef: You’re a cyclist yourself, right?

Jim Black: Yeah, I rode when I was young, and then packed it in when we moved out to New Zealand in the early 2000s. I started just doing a bit of club racing, whatever I could do with work. I’m very much a weekend warrior. I still ride, but not racing.

Was it because of your riding that Niamh and Finn initially got into cycling?

Not really. I think they were aware that I was a cyclist and there were always bikes around the house and stuff. It was actually just … we were just driving through Nelson one day, we’d been living there maybe a year, and we were going past Trafalgar Park, the rugby ground. And they both suddenly piped up and said “There’s kids on bikes in there! Can we go do that?” And so I took them along to that.

That was junior trackies, which was run by the local bike shop owner Jim Matthews from Village Cycles. He was racing basically from like five-year-olds up. Any bike you had, you just bring it along. The only stipulation was you had to wear gloves and helmet.

They started with that and it was great fun. It became Sunday afternoon – that was locked in. Even if we were on holiday, we had to get back Sunday afternoon for junior trackies. That was the big highlight of the week.

I was probably a little bit reticent about them getting into cycling. I’d been based over in France and racing there in the early ’90s and I’d had a belly full of coming up against some enhanced athletes. 1995 was my last year racing there and I just came away very disillusioned and depressed from the whole thing so I was pretty cautious about them getting involved, I must admit.

At the 2020 Kiwi Road Nationals, Niamh won the elite & U23 women’s road race and Finn won the U23 men’s road race. (Image: Concept78 Photography Cycling)

How old would they have been when they did those first track sessions?

Finn was probably about six. Six or seven I should think. Niamh took a little bit longer. She was desperate to go but I think the first two times we took her down there and she got her little Tour de France yellow jersey that her uncle had given her on, she stood there too shy to even start for, I think, the first two times. But once she started you suddenly saw the real Niamh come through. She’d always been quite a shy little girly girl and then suddenly you got her on a bike and she turned into a sort of animal. *laughs*

Did the fact they both came up through the ranks at the same time help each other, do you think? 

Oh totally. It’s always been the same – from that age, if one did well in a race, the other would have to match them. And I can’t believe, you know, this last couple of weeks, it’s the exact same. Finn gets a win, Niamh has to get a win.

I think their first decent results were on the same day. I think when Niamh got second on a Giro stage [September 19, 2020], Finn was second at Ronde de l’Isard. Yeah. They always mirror each other. Same day.

Has it been a bit of sibling rivalry or do they just kind of inspire each other on?

There wasn’t a lot of rivalry between them. It was more just wanting to keep up with each other basically. Not in a negative way; I think very much in the positive way. If one saw that the other could do something, they’d go “Oh, I can do that, too.”

It’s always been very supportive. They spur each other on because they make each other realise what they’re capable of. There certainly was no animosity or grudge there.

How much of their racing do you get to see these days?

Well, I head over to Europe for a month or two in our winter, their summer. I’ve seen very, very little of Niamh’s racing actually, to be honest. Her first year in Europe, I got over to a little bit and took her off to Belgium, stuff like that.

I managed to get to the Vuelta [last year] and saw three stages. So that was really good to get over and be there for those. I mean, it’s difficult and now, even watching on TV, with GCN+ gone it’s just a nightmare. I use a mixture of different VPNs and Sky here [in New Zealand] but Sky haven’t had the women’s Het Nieuwsblad or [Omloop van] het Hageland. Women’s cycling’s … it’s such a shame that it’s gonna take a hit from that, I think.

How much of their racing have you seen this year then?

I’ve managed to find bits of coverage on YouTube afterwards. Valenciana – I managed to watch that and that was very good. The Saudi and Oman races – SBS had pretty good coverage of that so yeah, the old VPN on to SBS is a lifesaver.

I know both Niamh and Finn have had some amount of success in recent years, but at least from the outside, it feels like this year has started particularly well, for both of them. Is that your perspective as well? 

Yes. They were actually both back [in New Zealand] for a decent amount of time this year. They were both pretty in the bubble and training hard and they’re both gonna build themselves up for a big year. It’s a contract year [for both of them], of course, so extra, extra important. Extra weight on that. But yeah, I think it was coming for a while and I think with both of them it’s just getting some self-belief and a bit of confidence.

I was going to ask – do you think something has changed for them this year? Is it just a confidence thing? As somebody who knows them both very well, obviously, what are you seeing that others maybe aren’t?

I think it’s the confidence. I think physiologically we’ve known both of them have got the right ingredients. For Niamh, it’s difficult being in SD Worx. The chances are few and far between and she’s very motivated for a working role and the same to be honest with Finn. 

UAE [Team Emirates] – they’re so stacked. His chances are few and far between and I know going to Tour Down Under was a big aim for him. He actually ended up with COVID. He basically had COVID for half the week, did a test before going off to Geelong [for Cadel’s Race] and realised it was [COVID]. So I was a bit cross with the UAE team doctors that they didn’t test, but anyway. So yeah, that was a bit of a panic. And he’s like, “I’ve got to show that I can do something.” Because he was realising that he wasn’t going to get another chance until Tour de Suisse maybe.

So it just gives you an idea that within those two teams, they’re so few and far between – the chances – that you gotta jump on them.

They ended up riding for Finn in the Tour of Oman right? He won stage 2 and then was leading into the final stage …

Yeah. Adam Yates is a fantastic teammate, and just was riding 100% for Finn. And it was only on that last stage when Finn said to him “You’ve got to go” and he [Adam] had to cover that attack [from Soudal-QuickStep’s Jan Hirt. Yates went on to win the stage and the race overall – ed.] But super nice guy. Both Yates brothers are super nice guys. But yeah, Adam was riding fully for him and that’s just a great compliment to be given that chance, really, especially when Adam’s going so well himself.

Finn in the red of Tour of Oman leader, chatting to Adam Yates on the final stage.

What sort of rider do you see Finn as?

It’s difficult. Growing up, I was always convinced, in terms of his physiology and his ability to recover and for high power outputs for a short period, I was always convinced he was Classics material. But I think, the Classics he’s done, I think he just realises that you have to have that immersion in Belgian roads and culture. I think you have to live there. You have to know the courses inside out, you need to be training on them, you need to be deep in that psyche. And you’ve got to be able to really suck up the hecticness of them.

I mean, he was always more a TT rider, but he’s actually drifted more to … his ideal at the moment would be the sort of 10-minute climbs, 15-minute climbs. And repeated 10-15 minute climbs, that seems to be where he really excels. Maybe that’ll change as he gets older. I still think there’s room for him to improve on 20-30-minute climbs as well. But I never really thought he’d be a climber, I must admit. That surprised me.

You were talking before about Niamh and about SD Worx. It seems like she’s really found her feet in the last couple years, but do you think it would benefit her having more opportunities elsewhere? Or do you think that it’s still a good thing that she’s surrounded by such champions at SD Worx?

Yeah, it’s a difficult one, isn’t it? It remains to be seen. If she can really, wholeheartedly believe in herself, yeah, I think opportunities elsewhere [might benefit her] … I think that’s what was nice about Valenciana was there was just a lot more confidence there. She took it on. I said to her, she did a Remco. She put her head down and didn’t look back.

She was just literally confident that she could just ride everyone off her wheel. I think that’s something that’s changed. And if she can take that and keep that confidence, especially on those steep climbs, hard, long stages, with repeated climbs when she really comes into her own – if she can take that confidence elsewhere maybe she would get a few more chances to actually do that.

But I mean it remains to be seen what way the women’s racing scene is gonna go and whether they’re gonna get more races like that. Certainly men’s racing the last few years has gone that way – it’s all about those crazy-steep climbs and finding just absurd places to go and race your bike. And that will suit her if it comes into women’s racing as well but yeah, it remains to be seen.

Niamh winning the queen stage of the recent Setmana Ciclista Valenciana.

You spoke before about the confidence aspect. For those that don’t know Finn and Niamh, how similar are they personality-wise?

Oh, chalk and cheese really. Very different. Niamh’s just … there’s never downtime. She never eases off, she’s just so serious. She’s so 100% committed and she can be kind of a bit critical of Finn but I think Finn is just as serious and just as committed but he’s just got a much more laid-back attitude and doesn’t get so worked up over small things as Niamh does. Everything’s gotta be perfect whereas Finn is a little bit more accommodating.

They’re both traits you need. You need to be able to detach and be a bit laid-back, which she is – she’s learned that. You can see she’s learned from years in the peloton now that she’s realised when you have to be switched on and when you can just let it slide. She’s getting much better at that. But Finn’s always had this ability to be super-relaxed.

I always think back to when he was a junior he took the world record for the 3 km individual pursuit on the track – in qualifying he just obliterated it, smashed it. Cycling New Zealand was supposed to have got all the things in place – commissaires, the right people so that it would be validated. But they hadn’t. So he had to come out in the final and do the same again.

Then they were almost over the top. They were checking every little thing and literally, he’s getting on the bike at the start, and they say “No, your socks are too long.” I’m panicking. I’m running around trying to find a second pair of socks and he just calmly got off the bike, sat down, and he said “Don’t worry, Dad. It’s OK.” He put the socks on, got back on the bike, and did it and took half a second off his previous time. Just did it again. I couldn’t understand how he could just detach himself and calm himself down and wasn’t flustered by it, and he’s shown that a few times.

I say that but it makes it sound like he’s super laid-back. He’s not. He’s wound up kind of like a coil but he kind of knows when to focus and when to just let it slide.

That’s a good trait to have!

Yeah, exactly. People often say “What sets them apart?” And I think it’s things like that. That’s a huge skill and you see that certainly in a lot of top sportspeople, their ability to know when to come into focus and put the effort in. It’s something next-level.

What’s it like at Christmas when they come back to New Zealand? Do they both get a chance to unwind or are they both still pretty focused on getting the pre-season training right?

Yeah, they’re both pretty focused. Very little downtime. They literally just base themselves here. They hardly caught up with friends much and they were just very, very serious. Certainly no partying.

How involved are you in their racing careers? Do they ask you for advice? 

I definitely stand back. If they come to me for advice, I’m there, but I keep well out. They know cycling so much better than me. Their understanding – there’s nothing really I can add, but just more support. I just always want them to finish safely. I don’t really care too much about their results, I just want them to be safe and happy and enjoying it.

I’ll help where I can and obviously with injuries – I’m an osteopath so I’ve been doing a lot of work on Finn this Christmas. And so I help with the injury side definitely. I’m always there if they’re asking “What should I do about this? What should I do about that?” That’s the bit I can help with, but in terms of the specifics of racing and training, I leave that very much up to their coaches.

What do you hope for for them both, more broadly?

I guess I just want to see them living up to what I know they’re both capable of. I would obviously love to see them take the big wins, but it’s more that they’re still enjoying the cycling and the racing and getting out of it what they want as well.

I’d love to see Finn go a bit better in the TTs again. Last year, he was starting to show his time trial ability. I think there was a fourth at [Tour of] Poland and top 10s at [Tour de] Suisse and [Tour de] Romandie. And so yeah, he’s starting to show again what he can do on a TT bike. And certainly, the equipment’s all up to spec at UAE now.

Niamh’s win really excited me because … I guess both their wins early season have shown what I’ve always thought they were capable of. Finn very much that holding off a bunch, that fast, last three, four k’s – that’s that pursuiter. That ability to do that is very cool and I’m really pleased to see him doing that because that’s how he used to win races as a junior. It’s really cool to see him do that again.

And Niamh, the same thing. That’s her territory, that ability to literally just ride people off her wheel, which I think she hasn’t been confident enough to do and probably hasn’t had the chance to either. But definitely, I think the start of this year she’s gone in with a few more watts. I think she’s definitely taken a step up physiologically. So, yeah, hopefully more of the same.

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