What does it take to become a professional cyclist? Years of training, racing and building your physical capabilities to almost superhuman levels? Or is it down to pure, natural talent that’s just waiting to be unleashed?
In attempting Zwift Academy, I’ve been banking on the latter. The virtual platform’s eight-week training programme has a couple of professional contracts on the line – one each with men’s UCI ProContinental team Alpecin-Fenix and Canyon//SRAM Women’s WorldTour team – and as well as being a great late-season tune up, its combination of 12 workouts and races are designed to reveal the diamonds in the Watopia rough.
Eight Zwift workouts into this year’s Academy, I appear to be slipping backwards – I’m now outside the top 10,000 and my shot at a pro contract is disappearing into the distance like Tao Geoghegan Hart on the Stelvio.
Like the first third of the challenge, the four training drills I’ve just completed individually focused on FTP, sprints, VO2 and anaerobic. Rather than being pure tests of ability though, they looked to build on the learnings from the earlier sessions, mixing blocks of efforts at various percentages of my FTP with free ride segments where, once again, the erg mode on my smart trainer would be turned off.
A couple of the workouts (VO2 Development and Anaerobic Depletion) were easily the hardest things I’ve ever put myself through on a bike, and after the pleasant surprises revealed in my second diary entry, the results of my latest workouts made for grim reading.
At no point had I matched, let alone surpassed, my efforts from the first four sessions, and I still had arguably the toughest tasks (two segment rides and two races) to come to complete the Academy’s requirements.
Although my attempts to win Zwift Academy have always erred on the side of ‘fanciful’, there are two competitors out there who will stand at the top of the pile come the end of November. So what does it take?
Enter Drew Christensen. The 19-year-old Kiwi was the outright winner of the 2019 men’s edition and as a result has spent a disrupted 2020 season racing for the NTT Continental Cycling Team. Was he, like me, hoping to unveil some hidden natural talent when tasked with laying down his power profile on Zwift? Not quite…
“Essentially, my whole family are cyclists and I looked up to my brother [Ryan],” Drew tells me. “He was racing for the British team Canyon-dhb. He’s helped me out quite a lot and I look up to him as my idol.”
As a youngster, Drew had competed in races in New Zealand and was “quite good at them”, but knew he needed to go to Europe if he wanted a career in cycling.
Through Cycling New Zealand (the equivalent to British Cycling) he had competed in Canada and France, and was gearing up for the Junior World Championships road race in Yorkshire during last year’s Academy, where he went on to finish a respectable 32nd.
He also admits he was fairly au fait with Watopia, and even used it as preparation for worlds.
“I’ve done so many Ks on Zwift,” he says. “I think when I was 16 I had a Zwift addiction. It was summertime back home but I’d just ride on the LeMond erg. By the time I started Zwift Academy, I already had the Tron bike and everything.”
It’s quite clear we’ve approached the challenge from very different starting points (to reiterate, I’ve never started a real-life race, let alone represented my country in a World Championship). Does he have any tips for my remaining sessions?
“I sort of thought I’d give it a stab and see how I did,” says Drew. “I think that’s what maybe gave me an advantage, the ‘why not’ mentality. I’d also just say to take every ride one-by-one.
“Don’t see that you’ve got ‘this many’ workouts to do. Put it into your week training, work around your easier days and your workouts. For me, it was more the ‘one more interval’ mentality. Ultimately, it’s more about the journey than it is about the destination.”
I think I’m going to need more than a ‘why not’ mentality to ride myself into contention for a professional contract, but at this point just completing it will feel like an achievement – and considering it’s giving my training some focus as lockdown 2.0 bites in the UK, I’ll settle for that.