From Iowa to Dénia via Watopia with Zwift Academy finalist Liz van Houweling

Van Houweling went from racing in her living room to competing for a contract at the Zwift Academy finals.

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It’s been seven years since the inaugural Zwift Academy which saw 39-year-old American Leah Thorvilson beat thousands of hopefuls to gain herself a contract with Canyon//SRAM racing for 2017 (and a renewal in 2018). 

When Zwift Academy first launched the premise was to unearth raw talent using a virtual platform. Zwift helps bridge the accessibility gap to the top end of the sport for riders like Leah Thorvilson, the first Zwift Academy winner, who came to cycling late but had a lot to offer. The whittling-down process sees five hopefuls gain an invite to the training camp of Women’s WorldTeam Canyon-SRAM where the team’s directors decide who is the best fit for the following season.

Since its inaugural year, the Academy has taken on a life of its own, with the men’s Alpecin-Deceuninck team joining Canyon-SRAM in offering a professional contract for the 2021 season. Last year, a GCN+ reality-style series was made about the week-long finals process.

Lately, Zwift Academy has developed into a targeted pathway for riders to enter the pro peloton and, as a result, the winners in recent years are less likely to resemble Thorvilson and her successor Tanja Erath, and more likely to be young developing talents like 2020 winner, Neve Bradbury

For the 2022 finals, however, there is a contender who still embodies the original concept: Liz van Houweling, a mother of two who lives in rural Iowa. 

Before becoming a mother, Liz had dabbled in racing since college with road and track. After graduating she moved around, spending time in Indianapolis and Arizona before settling in Iowa where she met her husband, a mountain biker.

“I did mountain bike and cyclocross and gravel more when I moved to Iowa,” she tells me over Zoom from the finals in Dénia, Spain. “And the road racing scene just wasn’t as good. I think that the population density wasn’t as high as other places. So it just wasn’t very fun when you’re showing up with ten girls to a race.” 

She continued to race off-road before she, “got married, had kids [and] didn’t really ride a bike for five years.” 

“As a mom, it was really hard. I just felt like I didn’t have anything for myself. And I hadn’t been in control of my body for years and years,” she recalls. “So I just wanted to get back to feeling good physically and mentally just to have kind of an escape and something that made me feel better.”  

Enter, Zwift. Van Houweling’s brother-in-law bought her a voucher to try the platform for 30 days and she quickly became hooked. “I was super motivated by the numbers and seeing the improvement,” she said. “And I kind of jumped right into racing, even from the beginning.” 

Would she have gotten back into racing as a mum of two if not for Zwift? “No way,” she said. “It is just too much time and money and travel.”

“I did a couple of races last year, and my husband would just have to watch the kids and they’re three and four years old and are just little terrors. So even in a two hour mountain bike race for him to try to keep them entertained the whole time. It’s just too much.”

Travel is also a prohibitive factor that virtual racing avoids: “Where I live, the high quality races aren’t super accessible. So if you really want to have good, deep, high quality fields, you have to travel so far, and everything’s just getting more expensive, too. So I would not have had the motivation, or the time or the energy to really commit to a huge amount of in- real-life racing,” she said.  

Still, the potential to make a career out of cycling through Zwift had not crossed her mind. “I didn’t even know that there was such a high level of indoor racing,” she said.

“When I first started, my son was still napping in the afternoons. So I would always Zwift race when he was napping. And then I just kept getting better. And I mostly did the mixed races with the men for the first year and a half.”

She joined an e-racing team based in the UK, ProVision, where she continued to race alongside the men. “So that was where I learned a lot of my Zwiftcraft, as they call it, and just got better as a Zwift racer.”

Van Houweling described how she essentially raced herself fit: “I did very little structured training ever…sitting on the trainer, doing five by five minute intervals just didn’t sound fun to me.” 

Racing with the men also meant that she could view the race as just a workout, rather than competition. “I also just don’t like pressure in my life,” she said. “So as a female and a men’s race, you can always make the excuse of ‘oh, they’re men.’”

“So I also didn’t really know, honestly, how good I was compared to the rest of the women that raced at the time. It was just to feel good again and have something to do for me.” 

It wasn’t until January of 2022 that Van Houweling began to race with other women on Zwift. “Then they announced the eSports World Championships that were going to happen in February…that kind of became somewhat of a goal, I still didn’t really do structured training, but I would do like hill repeats up things. I knew I was going to need a really strong three to five minute power for that particular course. So I definitely changed my training a little bit after I qualified for the World Championships.”

Van Houweling now races for the women’s Saris-NoPinz team and is currently the 4th-ranked female Zwifter in the world with a much higher score than the other Academy finalists on ZwiftPower, the website that keeps tabs on virtual race results and rankings. 

Despite her experience in both the real and virtual worlds, Van Houweling mentioned again how she finds pressure difficult to manage: “it’s definitely not a strength of mine,” she admitted. “But I also am realistic. I am a mom, I have a husband that has a full time job. I have two kids. I know that cycling is only a very small part of my life, because my priority has to be my family.”

“I’m just trying to keep everything in perspective. And it’s not my entire life if I don’t win this pro contract, and I have to be realistic about what I can do, even if I do win it. So I’m trying to just enter this week as something that I can enjoy the experience and get the most out of it as I can but not put pressure on myself. It’s easier said than done but that’s my goal and I know that it’s not the end of the world matter what happens.” 

For someone who doesn’t like pressure, (she also mentioned that in college she chose cycling because  “it was less pressure than like a varsity sport”) the concept of having to pit herself against the other finalists in the fight for the contract is “very overwhelming,” as is the idea of being filmed. “I’m not a fan. So I definitely don’t like pressure. I don’t like attention. So my goal is to just stay away from the camera as much as possible. keep my mouth shut as much as possible, not draw attention to myself.” 

But there’s also plenty to look forward to, not least some road riding. “I haven’t ridden a real road bike outside in like, at least 10 years, I bet,” she said. As well as getting to know the other finalists. 

There’s also the excitement of being able to compare herself to other racers in the real world: “Just the whole like challenges on the bike. I feel like I used to race outside all the time. And now I primarily race inside and I’m fitter than I’ve ever been, even when I raced outside when I was younger.” 

Mainly, though, Van Houweling’s goal is “to be an inspiration that there’s not one direct path to having an incredible cycling life experience. You can do it in a variety of ways.” 

“I know they say they’re looking for the next pro racer, which is true, I’m sure, but there’s a lot of ways that they can go about it.”

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