Sink or swim: How the Zwift Academy winner fared

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Leah Thorvilson has had a very unusual start to her cycling career. After winning Zwift’s inaugural Zwift Academy competition in December, Thorvilson was rewarded with a contract on one of the top professional teams in the women’s peloton.

As Canyon-SRAM’s newest member, Thorvilson made her UCI, Pro and WorldTour debut this season – all within just two years of buying her first road bike.

But despite the fairytale start, the season has been one heck of a trial by fire. While Thorvilson’s power numbers and fitness are world-class, she lacked in peloton hours.

As a result, she found herself struggling for position, hanging on for dear life and off the back of the peloton more often than on the front. Furthermore, while her team welcomed Thorvilson with open arms, the peloton wasn’t all that stoked on having a racing newbie in their midst.

But Thorvilson persevered through it all, getting stronger each and every race and taking any criticism in stride.

As we are nearing the end of the season, Thorvilson is also nearing the end of her one-year contract with Canyon-SRAM. We caught up with the American to learn how this season has been for her and what’s next.

“They’re going to have to pull me for me to not finish,” a worn-out but determined Leah Thorvilson had told Ella CyclingTips mid-way through the 10-day Giro Rosa.

While parts of her were secretly longing to be at home in Arkansas with her boyfriend instead of battling the world’s best cyclists up mountains in Italy, she sure as hell wasn’t going to quit. The officials would have to make her. Unfortunately, after hanging in for dear life day after day, the sixth stage got the better of her. Thorvilson did not make the time cut and was pulled by the officials.

Still, while she may not have been able to appreciate it in the moment, even just lining up at the Giro Rosa, women’s cycling’s toughest event, is an honour bestowed on only the world’s best. World-class cyclists will spend years working up to that opportunity, and the 38-year-old American got her chance just months into her career.

“It was really, really hard. You get out there day after day, beating the shit out of yourself and mentally it’s really tough. Tougher mentally than it is physically because if you get off the back, it’s a lonely hard drive and it’s easy to beat yourself up in the last kilometres,” Thorvilson said.

“Still, I have to stop and take a deep breath and take it all in sometimes. The Giro is among the top coolest things I have done in my life.”

Thorvilson with teammate Tiffany Cromwell.

From Cat 4 to UCI Pro with the stroke of a pen

Last winter, the former long distance runner competed in the  Zwift Academy, an innovative talent identification program that uses the multiplayer indoor trainer tool, Zwift, to analyse an athlete’s potential through 14 weeks of indoor workouts and tests. After copious amounts of time on the trainer, Thorvilson beat her 1,200 fellow Academy participants and was rewarded with a one-year contract on Canyon-SRAM.

With only three bike races under her belt, she made her Canyon-SRAM debut at some local races in Australia in January before being thrown into the proverbial deep-end at a cobbled European Classic.

“The first night I arrived in Belgium for a six-week stay I waited till my roommate was asleep and literally was laying on the floor, doing everything I could to not cry loudly and wondering how I was going to make it through. Nothing felt familiar and nothing felt OK,” Thorvilson told Ella CyclingTips.

The struggle is apparent in the results. Out of her first five European UCI races, she finished only one – Le Samyn de Dames, where her teammate Tiffany Cromwell finished third.

In the midst of the peloton, Thorvilson was terrified. Terrified by the slick cobbles, by the aggressive riders around her, by the narrow roads and road furniture. Terrified to crash. Terrified to get dropped, but most of all, terrified to embarrass her teammates.

“It’s hard to go from having done Cat 4 races to UCI pro. It’s just hard,” said Thorvilson.  “I worry about embarrassing my teammates and our staff.  You know, when your entire team is at the front of the peloton and you come in dead last, it’s hard.”

“So day after day, I try to figure out how to change my mindset to where I can feel better, perform better and be a better team mate. I’m trying to be the most positive self I can be, but it’s a challenge in terms of confidence.”

It didn’t help that Thorvilson’s addition to the pro peloton was met with a lot of scepticism and critique. Even our own SHEcret pro said she  advised her teammates to stay clear of Thorvilson.

“There are some [riders on other teams] who have been really, really nice and sweet, and have gone out of their way to come up and encourage and support me.  And I haven’t had anyone directly say anything rude to my face, but I know it’s being said,” said Thorvilson.

“Sure, I get hurt but at the same time, you can’t be mad about something that’s true.”

 ‘I was not prepared’

When asked if she felt prepared for this undertaking, Thorvilson uttered a plain and definite “no” before letting out a big laugh.

“I don’t know if I have felt ready for anything I have done this season. I certainly wouldn’t say that I was prepared. But how can you be when I simply don’t have the same experience?” she said.

“I suppose I was as ready as I could possibly be given my experience so far. I knew starting this off, it would be and continues to be one new experience after the other. I knew what I was getting myself into. I wouldn’t say it’s unfair. It’s definitely not a perfect situation, but I don’t want to say it’s unfair. It’s not like anyone wronged me.”

With that said, Thorvilson acknowledged that the Zwift Academy program could use some improvements.

“I know that [Zwift Academy] is a new program and who knows, maybe the person who replaces me next year will be more experienced, but if the person chosen has the same lack of experience as I did, I think before coming here they need more races under their belt,” she said.

“It would have been better if it had been a two-year program. But as much publicity as this has gotten, maybe this time around they’ll get some women who are high-level club or amateur riders who see this as their foot in the door.”

Zwift told Ella CyclingTips that indeed the second edition of the  Zwift Academy will incorporate changes tailored toward cyclists with racing experience.

“The program last year was a bit time intensive and during a difficult time for racers, so this year we changed it to where it is a bit shorter and doesn’t start till after the Northern hemisphere’s race season,” Zwift’s Kate Veronneau told Ella CyclingTips.

Starting on September 1, the Academy will run for just six weeks, incorporate Zwift racing and riders will be asked about their previous race experience. The Zwift Academy has also added a men’s programme in partnership with Dimension Data.

“I know it’s been a very difficult year for her, in terms of the learning curve, but I still think we hit the jackpot with Leah,” said  Veronneau. “She still is a shining example of what can happen with this program.”

“With that said, I don’t 100 percent agree with how quickly she was doing WorldTour racing, but I don’t think it is at all out of her grasp either, and I think she’s actually coped really well. She’s had a lot of highs but also some low points, as we all do in racing.”

While Zwift’s sponsorship dollars enabled the Canyon-SRAM team to add an additional rider to their roster, Zwift has no say in the racing the Zwift Academy rider will or will not do.

“We have no say in the programme that the Zwift rider will complete. Once they are on the team, they are just a new rider on the team and Canyon-SRAM is going to develop them and use them for whatever need they have,” Veronneau stated.  “Leah is extremely strong but no one expected her to be winning races. And, from what I have heard, Leah’s teammates and management are all very excited about Leah’s progress and how this all has evolved into a positive experience.”

As the season nears its end, so does Thorvilson’s contract with Canyon-SRAM racing.

What’s next

By May of this year, things started improving for Thorvilson. At home in the U.S., she had a strong showing in the national individual time trial championships. In the national road race, she was a valuable teammate for Alexis Ryan.

“Going into that race, I had told myself that how I feel about this race will be determined by what Alexis says at the end of the race.  If she tells me that I helped her, it will all be worth it,” Thorvilson shared.

“And when I saw her after the race, she gave me a huge hug and said that I made a massive difference in the race, helped them bring back a breakaway and that gave me a feeling that I had accomplished something that mattered … that was definitely a highlight for me.”

But now the number of race days is shrinking for Thorvilson. As the season comes to an end, so does her contract with Canyon-SRAM.

I kind of feel like now that I’m finally starting to get comfortable, it’s almost over,” commented Thorvilson, who’s spot on the Canyon-SRAM roster is reserved for the next Zwift Academy.

“I don’t know what’s next. I would like to keep competing but I don’t know what the options are going to be. What do I want? Well, I’d love to have another year, but I’m just trying to be realistic about things so I won’t be let down.”

Despite the hardship, Thorvilson is in no way deterred from professional cycling.

“It’s been a challenge every single day. Whether it’s a language barrier or feeling like my teammate doesn’t like me or feeling like the girls in the peloton don’t want me around, or ‘I’m never going to be good enough’ … it’s just hard. But do I regret it? No! Not for one second,” she said.

“I have to keep believing that it will get better. I still want to keep racing. I’m not going to quit trying. Maybe it’s the drive to want to do be better. Or maybe knowing that, no matter how upset I may be after a race doesn’t go well, I would be ten times more disappointed if I had gone home without trying.”

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