From indoor superstar to cobbled spring races: Talking to Zwift Academy winner Leah Thorvilson

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It’s a cycling fairytale. A woman who only started riding less than two years ago wins a professional contract with one of the world’s top cycling teams, all because she entered a competition on her indoor trainer.

But in real life, fairytales don’t simply end with an unexplained “and they lived happily ever after.” So what is it really like for Zwift Academy winner Leah Thorvilson whose life was turned upside down when she quit her job to travel the world racing her bike with Canyon-SRAM?

With proven athletic ability but little bike racing experience, Thorvilson started with a gradual acclimatisation to team life in Australia before being thrown into the proverbial deep end last weekend when she did her first UCI race – a chaotic cobbled European race! We talked to Thorvilson to find out how she’s faring now that she has stepped into the world of professional cycling. 


It was the beginning of Leah Thorvilson’s year with a pro racing contract and Canyon-SRAM were losing no time in starting the Zwift Academy winner’s pro cycling acclimatisation. They brought the American out to the first UCI race of the year at Australia’s summer of racing, which was little more than three weeks after they had announced she was the winner. There were plenty of new signings across the teams that were finding their feet and settling into a new squad in the parched landscapes and summer heat of Adelaide in January. They were using the early lower-ranked race of the Santos Women’s Tour to hone the team work so they were ready when the Women’s WorldTour races hit.

However, unlike other new signings, Thorvilson was learning from the sidelines and she was doing far more than working out how she would manage a new team dynamic or new race level. The former long distance runner was walking into a pro-contract with one of the wold’s top teams in women’s cycling, knowing that before she could even think about getting out in an international peloton she first needed to start right at the beginning. For her it was time to work on the basics of how to race.

“I have a long background as a competitive athlete but most of it has been running and I’ve had very little experience racing, so prior to sticking me into a women’s professional peloton they wanted to get me into a crit,” Thorvilson told Ella CyclingTips in Adelaide as she sat back amongst her new team mates after the launch of another round of the Zwift Academy for 2017.

Thorvilson signed up for the Norwood Cycling Club Super Series, to add to her slim experience bank of about three races, take on her first crit and start building the skills she would need to ride competitively and, most importantly, safely in the women’s peloton.

“I actually didn’t think I was going to enjoy crits because it’s kind of everything that I’m not familiar with. It is not my forte,” said Thorvilson. “I don’t have a lot of experience riding in a tight pack. I don’t consider myself to be an expert at cornering so I was a bit apprehensive about it all but I actually loved it and it was a great learning experience.”

And learning experiences and change are something that the 37-year-old has had to become quickly accustomed to. Thorvilson only took up riding at all mid-2015 because she couldn’t run anymore. Initially she thought that it wouldn’t even turn into a sport where she would race at any level, let alone as a professional.

She used Zwift, which enables cyclists to ride together in real time and compete virtually, to avoid the monotony of training indoors. The competition where Zwift and Canyon-SRAM offered riders the chance to secure a pro contract was never one that she thought she could realistically win; not even when she was picked as one of the three semi-finalists from the 1,200 participants around the world that would go and train with the team.

Thorvilson with fellow semi-finalists Jessie Donovan and Yvonne van Hattum. Photo by Kate Veronneau

“I still honestly thought this is going to be the trip of a lifetime as I get to go and ride with these women who are among the the best in the world. How cool is this,” exclaimed Thorvilson enthusiastically.

“I’m thinking, well I’m going to get there and I know where my weaknesses are, I know I need work with my handling. They’re going to see that and I’m not going to be chosen, and that’s OK.”

But now just weeks after the announcement was made she was sitting in Adelaide, with her new team mates, still clearly trying to fully comprehend what her win and the opportunity was going to do to her life. The most obvious change was quitting her job as a development director at the University of Arkansas so she could commit to the life of a pro cyclist and put all her energy into learning the necessary skills to make this experiment of picking a professional rider using virtual reality a success.

“It sounds silly to say this, being that I’m here and there’s my team mates are behind me, but it still almost doesn’t seem real,” said Thorvilson, who had just been at a media launch of a new year of the Zwift competition with the rest of her team.

Thorvilson added that she didn’t think reality would really set in until she started lining up to race with the rest of the team. But when would that first UCI race with be? When she sat down and chatted with Ella CyclingTips in Australia in January she didn’t know that this was an event that was less than two months away.

Risk and reward

Thorvilson comes across as open, friendly, likeable and completely up-front and matter of fact about her lack of experience racing a bike. That is part of  what makes her such a relatable winner and makes the story of taking a “rough diamond” rider and signing them up that much more compelling and exciting. However, it also means there is an element of risk.

A nice publicity idea could turn into a far less appealing story to sell if the Zwift Academy rider Canyon-SRAM signed just spends the year sitting on sidelines and is only a pro in name or, even worse, is a liability when out on the race course.

Taking an amateur and trying to insert them into a professional team is a concept that has been tried in a number of sports and in cycling there is a notable example, that wasn’t overly successful.

More than a decade ago Team Discovery launched a competition called the Race 2 Replace when Lance Armstrong was retiring.

It was a race to decide on one person to ride as an honorary member of the team at the U.S. National Championships time trial. It was a plan that set off on the wrong foot straight away, with a vastly lower than expected number of entrants.

The winner, A.J. Smith was then not eligible to race the championships as he fell outside classification rules, which included being on the ProTour roster by a set date. In the end he was able to ride and delivered a result that would have put him in 48th position out of 53 finishers but the result wasn’t included in the official times. Smith, an experienced rider with previous high-level experience from when he was younger, was also vocal about doping in the sport and after the event was critical of the team’s decision to hire Ivan Basso because of his tainted past. It wasn’t exactly a public relations triumph.

“I want it to have a happy ending”

Zwift, Canyon-SRAM and Thorvilson are bound to be hoping for, and working toward extracting, a much more successful outcome. For a start the Zwift/Canyon-SRAM competition is very different. The winner was based on a long process of elimination with more contact to ascertain the mental and physical characteristics of the rider. It is also far more than a one-off race commitment. Thorvilson is signed up for a year, not a day, so while she has plenty to learn, she is also being given more support and time to learn.

Thorvilson seems keenly aware of the implications of her position. She is determined to make the story a success as not only is it her shot of a lifetime, but could influence the opportunities for future riders who could benefit from this pathway to the pro peloton.  The competition is already slated to go ahead in 2017 and there is the potential for it to ramp up even further in 2018 with a virtual development team.

While Thorvilson was keen to join the fray, she was not in any hurry to step out into the women’s peloton before she had prepared and been deemed race ready.

“I know they’re not going to put me or especially the team in an unsafe situation,” said Thorvilson. “They know the race courses and what they are like and where it would be appropriate and where maybe not. So I think that that will be a judgment call that everyone will have to make together.”

“I’m trusting their knowledge and experience … I don’t want it to be something that it’s like, ‘well we tried that and we brought her into this thing and then threw somebody into a race experience that they weren’t ready for and look what happened.’ I don’t want it to be bad. I want it to have a happy ending.”

THE FIRST UCI RACE

So that brings us to Thorvilson’s first UCI race earlier this week. That first race can be a nerve racking day for any new professional, even when they have spent years of their life working through the cycling ranks to reach that point. The rider is all of a sudden surrounded by names they’ve looked up to and a field that is aggressive and oozing with experience. The pressure is on, because, after all, this is now their livelihood not just a hobby.

Then add in minimal race experience, some cobbles, perhaps a hint of irritation among some members of the peloton that a novice has all of a sudden ended up in a pro team and the fact that the whole world’s attention has been bought to the fact that you are starting to race in a press release.

This was the situation Thorvilson faced when she lined up at the UCI 1.1 ranked Omloop van het Hageland with her new team Canyon-SRAM to take on the cobbles of the Belgian race on Sunday. It wasn’t an easy race to start with, as cobbles generally mean chaos, crashes and a high attrition rate. That certainly turned out the to be the case this time.

“It didn’t go perfectly. I didn’t position myself well enough early to avoid some crashes that split the group. I was able to chase back after one, but not after the second and third,” Thorvilson told Ella CyclingTips earlier this week. “I was not hurt and was fighting my way back through the convoy amongst other girls who were in the same chase.”

The fight back ended though as she was pulled from the race over halfway through, but Thorvilson had plenty of company in the DNF (did not finish) stakes. The riders who actually made it across the line to register a result were in the minority. There were 80 that finished and over 100 on the DNF list, including many other professional riders.

“I don’t think I made any major errors, I just lacked the experience and confidence that has to come with practice and time,” explained Thorvilson. “Each race I feel I will hold on to the good things, take a look at what didn’t go so well, assess what to do different next time and always look forward to progress.”

And in just her second international race on Wednesday her progress was enormous. Thorvilson finished an impressive 74th at the 100 kilometre long UCI 1.2 classified Le Samyn des Dames. She was just three minutes and 51 seconds behind the winner and was well away from any danger of hitting the long DNF list which contained the names of many experienced professionals.

If we continue to see improvement even close to this level, it seems Thorvilson will deliver that “happy ending” she was looking for.

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