In 2016, the online training platform Zwift launched an ambitious project. Working with the Canyon//SRAM women's pro road team it wanted to see if it was possible to discover racing talent using its online training.
After months of recruitment, goal-setting and training tasks, 12,000 women were whittled down to just one — Leah Thorvilson — who joined the Canyon//SRAM team for 2017, her first ever season of racing.
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Leah Thorvilson is an experienced elite marathon runner and took up cycling just prior to joining the Zwift Academy program, but how does that translate to road racing, where fitness is only part of the equation, and just what does the life of a pro road racer involve?
BikeRadar Women spoke to Thorvilson to discover the highs, lows and challenges that she experienced after becoming the first winner of the Zwift Academy, an event that quite literally changed her life.
BikeRadar Women: First, tell us in your own words how the Zwift Academy process worked
Leah Thorvilson: "We had three months of competition all based on Zwift activities and group rides. There were 12,000 of us to start with, then they selected 12 of us, and we had another set of tasks to compete. We were sent Wahoo Kickr Snap trainers and Quarq power meters to put us all on the same platform.
"We competed for another three months, then they selected three finalists and we all went to Mallorca to their team camp in December. At the end of the week I was offered the contract."
How did that feel?
"Surreal! I'd heard about the competition through a friend of mine when I first got on a bike, because I had to buy a trainer as I was recovering from some surgery. They were like ‘you should do this, you would totally win!’ I really took that comment with a grain of salt.
"I read about it [Zwift Academy] and I thought it was a really great idea. I even had thoughts of what would it take to win, but I wasn't going in expecting to win. I was thinking 'I’ll enter this thing to have some fun and see how far I can go, but I wonder what the mentality is for someone who is really good and going for it'. So I entered just thinking that I wanted to see how I did in the rides, that there were so many women and that it was such a long shot.
"About half way through qualification I received a survey and they were saying ‘this in no way means you’re going on to the semi-final, but you’ve shown some strong performance and we want to know more about you. What’s your race experience, what are your goals, do you want to be a professional, what would stop you accepting a pro contract', things like that.
"And when I got that, I thought ‘now they’re watching’. You think you are out there battling on your own, so when I knew they were watching I thought ‘I just want to make it through to the next round’. I had zero expectation of getting through. Then of course when I made it there, I thought ‘I just wanna make it to Mallorca!’
"When there was finally three of us, I think we all went through moments of thinking ‘it’s not me’ and ‘wow, maybe it could be me’. And in the moment that they announced that it was me, I was completely speechless because I knew my whole life was about to change. Obviously very exciting, but once it sunk in I was like ‘holy shit, I’m going to have to go home and quit my job and get ready to start this new life' and it was a little bit terrifying."
What changes did you have to make once you were told you had won?
"Leaving my job, that would be the big one. I know there are women out there who compete and have full-time jobs, but I don’t know how they do it, and I knew for me, with going back and forth overseas, it wouldn’t work.
"I was a donor relationship manager in fundraising at a university and you can’t develop those relationships when you are overseas. We talked about keeping me on part-time but it wasn’t going to be possible, because often you don’t know exactly when you’re travelling. I’ll know there’s a trip I’m going on, but I won’t know what my departure or return dates are until five days before the trip, but they were asking months out and it just wasn't going to happen.
"So with that, I was able to really tailor my life around my training, and doing those little things that get neglected when you have to prioritise a career. Being able to do yoga, being able to do a lot more meal preparation.
"People were like ‘you’re going to have so much free time!', but it’s not the case, because I spend lots more hours on the bike and I spend more hours caring for myself, which is part of the new job. I’ve also been all over the world!
"I’m surrounded by people who’ve been doing this since they were like six, and trying to assimilate into that culture. Once you’re out on the bike and you're in the race, you let it all go, but I still get nervous. I can be out on a training ride with my team mates and do something that’s a little bit not right, and they probably aren’t paying attention, but in your mind you’re trying hard to not look like a rookie — but I am!"
Is pro life what you expected? Has anything surprised you?
"I worried once I’d made the team about whether my fitness was up to par. I could keep up with my other teammates at the camp, but it was really just a base phase for them. It wasn’t like they were going out trying to hammer workouts, so you couldn’t really compare. So I thought, am I going to go into this first race and just be embarrassed and not at all be able to keep up. But it wasn’t my fitness that was the issue — it was purely a matter of bike handling.
"The mental and emotional challenge has been the hardest, because it’s so easy to beat yourself up. I know what I need — more time, more experience and also more confidence — but then you go into these races and everything you’re not confident about comes to fruition and it’s hard to go back out in the stage races and say ‘today it’s going to be better’ and then it’s not.
"Then you go on to the next day and say ‘it’s going to be better’ and you can tell yourself these things like a mantra but if the same things keep happening you feel like you’re never going to improve.
"But then you step away between races, and when you come back to the next event it's like 'oh okay, I have got better!'
"I think I'm a pretty positive person, but it doesn't come so easy sometimes when you feel you are behind the curve and you are letting yourself down and letting your team down."
How have you been working on your bike handling skills to improve them?
"My biggest challenge is being comfortable in the peloton. They ride so close!
"But there’s no real way to train for that other than doing it. It's time in the peloton and time in races [that helps]. Even when I’m back home and we’re having a fairly large Saturday morning ride with the fastest men in the city, which might be 30 guys, it’s not the same as racing in a peloton of 100 and something women. But I can really see an improvement in myself in UCI races.
" So that, and then cornering. I have worked on that, but it’s another one where I think the biggest thing I need is more racing experience.
"You can go out and practice corners over and over and over, and of course I’m comfortable rounding a corner at 15, 18, 20, maybe 22 miles an hour, but 27 or 35 miles an hour? It just feels different, and I’m still waiting for the moment that it feels like 'oh, okay, I get it'.
"Every time I take a corner really fast I feel like I’m going to wipe out. I’ve even had the experience where I just went with it and I flew off the road and landed on my head.
"I don’t think in another year I’d catch up on the performance level to one of the all-round riders who are winning stage races, but I do think I could improve and get to a level where I’d actually be effective in a WorldTour race."
Do you feel your performance has improved over the year?
"Yeah, I really saw it. The Giro was really hard mentally. It was my first stage race and it was my first WorldTour race, and it felt like every day I was dropped on descents and I was chasing. Every day I hoped it would be better, but I didn’t see an improvement there.
"But then I went to Thuringen the next week where it was a UCI race, and there was a little bit more wiggle room. It wasn’t like everyone there was super experienced or everyone there had perfect handling, and I was able to contribute to my team, to get up and do some work on the front, and seeing myself finishing closer to the peloton or with the peloton.
"My last race will be Lotto Belgium, and I feel like that will be more like Thuringen. I am confident I’ll be in a good position and be able to help my team. That’s a good feeling and I like the stage races, it’s just when you finish it’s such a wonderful feeling of having pushed yourself mentally and physically.
"I love the feeling of being completely done. I used to run before I started cycling and I think that’s why I loved the marathon. That culmination of everything you’ve worked for and then having absolutely nothing left when that race is over. It’s the best kind of tired."
Do you plan to continue to ride and race?
"For sure! If they were to say ‘this has always been a one-year program’, that’s fine, but I don’t feel like I could just go to another team. I have a certain value to Canyon//SRAM because I’m their project, but I don’t know how easy it would be to sell me to another team. That's not to say I wouldn’t try, but I don’t know if there’s an opportunity for me.
"Despite all its challenges, I’ve enjoyed this life. There are some days where I don’t say that every day, but what job does? Sometimes you have a bad day at the office.
"If I could choose to have this as my job, for as long as I can ride it out, I would."
Would you do it again if you had the chance?
" Absolutely, with my hand on my heart. How many people can say they’ve done this?
"When I got the survey and it asked ‘what would prevent you from taking this contract’, my answer was ‘injury or death!’ because I am going to see this through as far as it goes. I’m 38, I’m not too old to be doing it, but I can’t step away and decide to do it later either. This is my shot."
If you're interested in joining the Zwift Academy program for 2017, we've got all the information you need on how to get involved, the process, the timeline, and what to expect — read our article on Zwift Academy 2017 — all you need to know