A career in medicine or in pro cycling?
That was the decision Tanja Erath was presented with a few weeks ago, when she was in the midst of finals week for both medical school and the Zwift Academy.
Now in its second year, Zwift Academy is an innovative talent identification program that uses the multiplayer indoor trainer tool, Zwift, to analyse an athlete’s potential through a series of indoor workouts and tests. After copious amounts of trainer time, the winner is awarded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a one-year contract on the Canyon-SRAM UCI Women’s WorldTour team.
Well over two thousand women competed in the six-week program world-wide, and three finalists were chosen to attend the team’s winter camp in Koblenz, Germany. Erath was one of them.
A former triathlete, Erath, was forced to end her multi-sport career in 2016 when a chronic leg injury prevented her from running long distances. She turned to fixed-gear criterium races for an athletic outlet while studying medicine. The outlet quickly turned into ambition, and with a pro contract up for grabs the Zwift Academy sparked a pro cycling career.
Balancing the rigorous demands of medical school with the Academy’s intensive indoor riding and testing program was tough, but by the end of November, Erath had secured both an invitation to Canyon-SRAM’s team camp and a degree.
“I didn’t start to work yet, because I wanted to give Zwift a chance. And since it worked out, the hospital has to wait a little bit,” Erath told Ella CyclingTips, with glee detectable in her voice.
Last week in snow-covered Koblenz, Erath out-performed her fellow finalists. She had held her own in the lead-out practice as well as a snowy mountain bike ride. And when the three finalists competed in their final Zwift race, she showed strength and smarts when she made a strong break. Still, the moment of truth came as a shock to the 28-year-old German.
“Total disbelief. My eyes just watered as I heard my name. And then the girls, the team, came in with my bike and jersey. And I looked at it and saw the UCI WorldTour team logo and I was like, ‘this isn’t real. This isn’t happening,'” recalled Erath.
“I was stunned and happy and had so many feelings in one moment. It was a crazy feeling.”
And that feeling will likely remain for a while. It will follow her as she packs her bags to adopt the pro lifestyle, moving to Girona, Spain, to avoid “the bad German weather.” It will turn her stomach as she lines up for her first UCI race in the spring, next to her cycling idol — and now teammate — Hannah Barnes.
“I’m scared but I’m really looking forward to it,” Erath said. “I just want to do well and I want to show that I earned the chance to join the team and prove myself.”
From Recovering Triathlete to Redhook Podium
Erath was 11 when she started competing in triathlons, and a successful 15-year career followed. The bike had always been her strongest leg, even when it wasn’t her favourite.
“I rode because I had to. I didn’t really like it. I found it a bit boring. It took several years before I had the patience for long rides and learned to appreciate the calm on the bike,” Erath said.
But her career came to stop when a prolonged leg injury made running painful. Unable to complete even a middle distance triathlon, Erath quit and tuned to cycling instead.
“Triathlon is a very intensive sport in terms of training and eating and sleeping and everything. I just was looking for something a little bit more easygoing. I found that in fixed gear racing, because people are really easygoing,” Erath explained.
Waving aside the dangers of high speeds, tight packs and no brakes, Erath threw herself into racing. It wasn’t long before she competed at the famous Redhook Criteriums and even snagged a podium.
“I really like jumped in the cold water. But it worked out quite well. I surprised myself because I never saw myself as a great bike handler. But yeah it worked out quite good right from the start. But in some ways it also didn’t. I was looking for something easygoing but as I did a few Redhook crits, I saw that the performance and training of the girls and the guys are quite professional too. So I ended up being quite ambitious too,” she said.
Erath quickly gained pack riding skills as well as a wicked sprint.
“I have been told now that I am a sprinter,” Erath said with a laugh, acknowledging that triathletes do not usually excel in quick bursts of power. But with a five-second power number of upwards of 1200 watts, there’s no denying her innate talent.
“I think maybe it changed a little bit after one year of crit racing. Maybe it was always there. I’ve never worked on it,” she acknowledged.
Leah Thorvilson: “There’s no comparison”
But impressive numbers isn’t all it takes to succeed in the pro peloton, which was something last year’s winner, Leah Thorvilson, learned the hard way.
Like Erath, Thorvilson turned pro at the stroke of a pen. Thorvilson had bested 1,200 Academy participants to earn the spot on Canyon-SRAM for the 2017 season, but the pro contract was only the start of the challenge.
Despite the fairytale start, the 2017 season was 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, and even prolonged her contract for another year.
The program learned from Thorvilson’s challenges and tailored its second edition to attract riders with more experience — a feat in which they succeeded, Thorvilson reckons.
“It doesn’t compare. [Erath] is much more experienced than I was,” Thorvilson told Ella CyclingTips. “She’s got the same kind of eager, wide eyed, happy approach to it. It’s all very new and exciting and surreal for her and in that I think we’re very much alike, but we’re different types of riders and coming into this from different levels.”
“I think anybody who’s going to even attempt a Redhook race has got skills and a little level of a wonderful kind of crazy, and then to be able to podium at those races…clearly she’s aggressive and confident on the bike. I think she’ll be a real asset to the team.”
While Thorvilson is happy to offer her new teammate a shoulder or ear to help her through the transition into the peloton, she doesn’t think Erath will need it.
“I think it’s still a big hurdle. No matter how you’ve come up through the ranks, to go into your first professional race is intimidating. But I think negotiating the peloton will come more easily for her because I think she’s got experience doing that, that I didn’t have,” Thorvilson said. “It won’t be without challenges, but I think she’ll take to the racing a bit quicker than I did.”
While Zwift’s sponsorship dollars enable 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. As such, Erath’s race schedule will be determined by the management of Canyon-SRAM Racing and it has yet to be revealed. Though if she’s allowed to dream, Erath wants to race La Course.
“That’s one race I really dreamed of. There is just something about the flare that fascinates me,” she said. “But I don’t know my schedule yet and I’m sure I will get to travel to many places and get some really good opportunities. My ultimate dream until now was to have a chance to be a pro cyclist. Now that I have it, my goal is to finish my first UCI race, doing good and being supportive of my team.”