How does the chance to join a professional road cycling team sound? If you want to see just how far you can push your cycling fitness and skills, you might just get yourself a place on the Canyon//SRAM women's team for 2017 - and you can do it all from the comfort of your own home with the Zwift Academy. Well, nearly.
Zwift is an online training video game that allows you to ride virtually with hundreds, even thousands, of riders around the world. All you need is a laptop with the Zwift app installed, a smart trainer and power meter if you have one, or a simple trainer with a speed/cadence sensor, so long as they're ANT+ or Bluetooth devices.
Your customisable avatar (including gender, clothing, etc) rides through virtual environments, including flat routes, climbs and cobbled sections, while other riders online ride around you. You might even spot a pro or two as you ride.
It certainly injects fun into indoor training sessions, and with functionality including new group ride capabilities, mountainous stages, and the ability to communicate with other riders, not to mention a stats-rich display, it's easy to see why it might be the perfect way to identify road cycling talent of the future.
What is the Zwift Academy?
Zwift recently added a massive mountain to its virtual reality course
Essentially, the Academy is a year long training and vetting process that will, at the end of the year, result in one woman being selected to join the Canyon//SRAM pro women's team.
Zwift are sponsors of Canyon//SRAM, the UCI 4th ranked team in the world which includes riders such as Trixi Worrack, Tiffany Cromwell and Hannah Barnes, and it's in collaboration with the team that the idea for the Zwift Academy came about. With the metrics that Zwift can record, it allows remote monitoring of a rider's performance, and is perfectly positioned for talent spotting.
The Academy will work in three stages: the first is recruitment to the Zwift platform, the second stage is where those who are interested in the Academy itself can register their interest and demonstrate their talent, and the third whittles the field down to first 10, then top three, then finally one rider.
While raw talent is certainly a major part of what Canyon//SRAM and Zwift are looking for, there are other talents and skills required, such as the ability to ride in a group, strategise, race-craft skills and of course how well they fit in with the team. Ultimately, while Zwift will help identify who has the raw ingredients, it's down to the members of Canyon//SRAM and Team Manager and DS Ronny Lauke to decide who has the diamond qualities.
Something for everyone
So what about those of us for whom the chance to join a pro team is nothing but a daydream, or people who just want to train indoors and aren't interested in the competition side of things? Zwift is keen to emphasise that there are plenty of reasons for everyone to get involved.
"[The programme] is in spirit about promoting cycling, getting more people involved, and improving as a cyclist," Steve Becket of Zwift tells BikeRadar. "Everyone can get something from it, and it can help you be a better cyclist. It can also be a pathway to cycling outdoors too."
Apart from the opportunity to see how your riding progresses, there will be group rides led by members of the Canyon//SRAM team, a group of ambassadors who will help spread the word around Zwift and organise in-game events, with a recognition program that will acknowledge how each individual participant has progressed.
Zwift Academy stage 1: getting involved
The first part of the Academy programme is all about setting up the Academy, spreading the word about it, and getting more women online and riding with Zwift.
Throughout April and May there will be regular group rides, initially with three rides per week which will run at different times to suit the European, US and Asian time zones as far as is possible. Each of these group rides will have designated ride leaders, will last for 1 hour and will have three different pace groups (fast, medium and slow) to ensure all abilities of rider are catered for. As the programme progresses, the composition of these rides will change in response to the riders, with some rides becoming longer as rider skill and fitness develops.
There'll also be a member of the Canyon//SRAM team at one of the rides each week, and they will co-lead with the Zwift ride leaders. They'll be on hand to talk to and encourage riders using the Zwift in-game communication tools.
Zwift Academy stage 2: data screening and talent development
On the 1st June, the Zwift Academy portal opens, and this is where riders can register their interest in taking part in the programme proper. Stage two will last approximately three months.
This stage is all about data screening – looking for that raw talent – and giving everyone the opportunity to really develop their riding skills, whatever level they ride at. Over the course of stage two, there will be two main types of activity: training rides that are designed to be hard, and push people in the group riding environment, and workout modes where participants have to follow a structured training programme, beginning and ending with an FTP (functional threshold power) test. Together, these will help indicate both what the rider's overall ability is like and their potential for further development, by observing changes over the three-month period.
Zwift and the Canyon//SRAM team will also most likely be screening data from outside the Zwift game, looking at how riders have performed in the real world by looking at data from Strava or Training Peaks.
Zwift Academy stage 3: the finalists
Come September, after three months of data crunching, Zwift and Canyon//SRAM will select 10 riders as finalists who will progress to the next stage of the Academy programme. This final stage will be in two halves.
The first half will see each rider following a bespoke training regime which requires indoor and outdoor riding. They will also each be assigned a mentor who will guide and advise them through the process, and will be given the equipment they need to allow them to perform to the best of their ability, including smart trainers.
Then a second selection will occur, with three riders from the final 10 picked to attend the Canyon//SRAM training camp which will take place in Europe. This will allow the team and staff to see how those riders perform in a team environment. Ronny Lauke is keen to find a rider with the right characteristics and attitude, not just the right numbers.
"Zwift can help find the rough diamond," Beckett comments "But it's up to Canyon//SRAM to polish them up. They know what they are looking for."
How to get involved in the Canyon//SRAM Zwift Academy
All riders who want to take part in the Zwift Academy programme, whether they want to join the group rides or are shooting for a place in the team, need to get set up on Zwift. The app can be downloaded from the Zwift website, and each participant will also need the following equipment:
- Laptop or computer with Zwift app and internet access
- Smart trainer with power meter OR turbo trainer with ANT+ cadence/speed sensor OR Wattbike
- ANT+ stick or Smartphone with Bluetooth connectivity to pair your trainer to PC/Mac
Watch this space for more information as we'll update this article as the Zwift Academy programme progresses.
Do you have any comments or questions about the Zwift Academy? Pop them in the comments section below.