Tanja Erath is gearing up for her first season as a pro road racer with Canyon//SRAM having won the 2017 Zwift Academy. After months of training programs, virtual rides and races and fitness tests, she was one of the final three invited to a team camp at the Canyon HQ in Koblenz, Germany. We caught up with her to find out what the Academy was like, her hopes for the year ahead, and her advice to anyone thinking of taking part in 2018.
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For anyone who missed out in 2017, is tempted to try again or give it a go for the first time, the Zwift Academy will return for 2018 and we'll share all the information on how to sign up as soon as we have it.
When and why did you decide to try your hand at the Zwift Academy?
My former teammate in triathlon told me about the Zwift Academy in 2016. Back then it was already too late to enroll, but I decided to give it a try in 2017.
Did you go into it with a view to trying to win?
I would say 'kind of'.
I loved to watch Leah’s (Leah Thorvilson, winner in 2016) process in 2017 and I loved the idea of doing all of this myself. So the idea of starting the academy was mainly about the dream of going pro.
Then you enroll and see the 2,100 women. You start to Strava-stalk some of them. You realise how far away that dream still is. So I told myself 'you can do nothing more than to give your very best and see how far you can get'.
Could you take us through the process you followed, and how you felt at each step.
It all started with the first 'stage', the official first step of the academy. Everybody could enroll and complete the 15 workouts (two races, five group rides and eight structured workouts) within six weeks.
For me this first stage was nearly my first contact to Zwift. I did two or three preparation rides on Zwift, but was still quite new to it when the Academy started. Right from the start I really liked it.
The workouts were challenging. Some of them even scared me, when I looked at the numbers. The races were so much fun and I could really push myself to and sometimes over my limit. I am sure my roommate now thinks I am crazy!
The group rides were super nice to get in contact with the other girls, to hear how they feel and to do some easy spins in between the workouts and races. The whole program was a great training; I felt super fit after finishing all the workouts.
In the end the judges looked at the numbers and selected 10 of us for the semi-final.
As we know, I was one of them and more than happy to make it to the semi-final. Furthermore all semi-finalists received a Wahoo Kickr, so I finally got my own indoor trainer. For the first stage I borrowed an old trainer from a friend of mine.
The semi-finals took place in the first two weeks of November(1st -14th Nov.) including seven workouts; three outdoor and four indoor workouts.
This was bad timing for me, because I finished my medical studies with my final exam on 7th and 8th of November!
How did you find it fitting in Zwift training around your studies?
It was hard to set priorities. After six years of studying you want to do well and the exam should be your priority.
But making it to the Zwift Academy semi-finals with a shot for a spot in the finals or even a pro contract is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
On the other hand, the exam helped me not to worry too much about the academy. As life never works as you plan it, I got a cold right after finishing the first workout on day one, so I didn’t have to decide between studying or academy, because academy was no option. After passing the exam it took me one more day to feel healthy enough to start with the academy again.
No matter how big the chance, I would never risk my health. Health is more important than any possible achievement. Sometimes athletes, especially young athletes, do not see the risk of a “normal” cold in combination with intense training.
I told myself 'you can do nothing more than to give your very best and see how far you can get'.
In some ways, as I only had study and exams it was easier to fit in training than in the first weeks when I was also working full-time in the hospital, although after a day in the operating room I was sometimes more looking forward to putting my legs up. But I still had an advantage as I only had to care for myself and my small flat: huge respect to the women with a job and a family to care for who still finished the Zwift Academy!
Anyway, after I recovered from my illness, there were five days left to complete six of the seven workouts. I was not even sure if I could finish them in time but I did, completing the last one late on the 14th. I felt so relieved! Exam and academy pressure fell off of me.
I was visiting my parents in the south of Germany, when I received the call that I made it to the finals. First I was perfectly happy. Then, because I was in disbelief, I waited for another call telling me: “Oh we made a mistake. It is not you. Sorry.”
But I got no second call and so I booked my train ticket to Koblenz, where the training camp took place. I arrived there quite early in the morning and had some time to process that all of this is happening and all of this is real until the other finalists, Bri and Siri, and the team arrived at the hotel.
Was there any one moment when you thought ‘I could win this’, and if so what was that like?
I guess when I was told I made it to the finals, I really thought about what winning this means. Changing your whole life, moving to Spain, racing, travelling etc.
Then I thought the chance that this might happen is 33.3333%, so that’s quite something. I felt so curious about it. I started to have that intense feeling of: “I really want this! More than anything else right now!”
What was it like being in the final three, at the training camp, meeting the team?
It was intimidating at first. But I started to feel comfortable quite early. In the beginning it was like all those first days in a new job or a new school. You don´t know anybody, you don´t want to do things wrong or act strange. Leah really helped us to feel comfortable right from the start since she knew how we feel and what we “needed”.
The other girls were very interested and asked a lot of questions and I guess there is no better connection to start with than sharing the same passion. I shared my room with Bri and we connected very well right from the first moment. Every evening we talked like three hours about what the day was like. That was awesome!
Our first rides with the team were MTB rides. This was very unknown territory for Bri and me, but Siri was more experienced with mountain biking. But we quickly lost our fear and got along quite well with the bikes and the girls.
You’re not new to competing or riding: do you think this will give you an advantage when joining the team?
I think experience is always an advantage, but my bike racing experience mainly grew this year as I only did three road races in the years before.
I think the fixed gear racing helped me to gain confidence on the bike and in the peloton quite fast. After a heavy crash at the Red Hook Crit London, where I fractured my jaw and cheekbone, I have just started to feel more confident in the corners again.
I hope the experience I gained about my body and myself as an athlete in the 15 years as a triathlete, will help to develop in 2018. I am looking forward to learn a lot about tactics and racing from my team and teammates.
What kind of changes have you made or are you making to prepare for the year ahead?
I´ll move to Spain, that’s maybe the biggest change, but it will be good to escape the cold German winter weather.
I am not a student anymore, and I won't start to work as a doctor as my colleagues from university do. I have a new team and a new bike. A bike with brakes and gears this time.
I´ll stay with my coach, Utz Brenner, but we will increase my training time and kilometers.
What practical and/or motivational advice would you give someone who is thinking about trying the Academy in 2018?
Don´t think too much about the stars (the ones you can earn throughout a workout) and about what your numbers are. Just enjoy the program since it´s a great way to push yourself to the limit and to gain more fitness and self-confidence on the bike.
Always make sure you have enough water, great music and a good internet connection. These are the three most important things for a good Zwift workout - at least in my opinion!