Introducing: Alex Morrice, the latest women’s Zwift Academy winner

The 22-year-old on going from her final year of uni to her first year as a professional cyclist.

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As soon as she had an inkling that she might be the next Zwift Academy winner, Alex Morrice started worrying about how her on-screen reaction would come across. 

“I know it sounds silly,” she tells me via Zoom after returning to the UK, where she is from. “But I was trying to prepare myself for how I would react if I’d won. You just don’t know what to say, like the amount of people looking, cameras on you, and suddenly, you’ve been offered a professional cycling contract. How are you meant to react?” 

Being filmed is a new pressure that the Academy finalists have faced for the past two editions of its six-year history. Alongside vying for a professional contract under the watchful eyes of team managers and pro riders, the finalists are now also documented in a reality-style series that airs to GCN’s 3.3 million YouTube subscribers. 

“It was crazy, like the amount of cameras and production staff and team managers, I couldn’t really picture. But once we had the first couple of days of filming done, you got much more used to the kind of craziness of it and just tried to focus on your own actual cycling rather than being in a reality show.” 

Cameras forgotten, Morrice was able to focus on the task at hand: completing daily sessions and races in an effort to win a professional contract with Women’s WorldTeam, Canyon//SRAM. 

As shown in the series, the week got off to a bumpy start for the finalists, with fellow competitors Liz van Houweling and Will Lowden being sent home early after testing positive for COVID-19. 

“We were all then told to be really careful with Covid and take tests every day. So that was causing a lot of anxiety because we were all sharing bedrooms. It was all a bit more tense after that,” Morrice says.  

“It was a good thing for us, because we had one fewer competitors, but obviously it kind of scares you a bit, like that could have been me.” 

Now 22 years old, Morrice only got into cycling while studying Natural Sciences at the University of Bath, although she had always been sporty. She reached regional level playing netball during high school and continued the sport throughout university. “And then second year of uni, I was getting injuries from netball and getting a bit bored with it,” she recalls. 

Morrice continued with netball but took up triathlon alongside it until her third year. When that time came, she was completing a placement year working at a bank which, due to lockdown, she had to complete entirely from home.

“I found it a really, really hard year. Personally, other things were going on at home. And I needed an outlet,” she says. “So I joined the bank cycling club, where they do Zwift rides before and after work on some days. 

“All the guys that I was chatting to in the cycling club were really encouraging,” she continues. And after a while she “committed myself completely to cycling” taking on a coach recommended to her by a colleague. 

Morrice only started racing at the beginning of this year. Her first race, a local criterium “was like 35 minutes long and I just loved it. And that was in January in the UK.” 

She made rapid progress, winning most of her races thereafter.

“It was funny because I really didn’t believe in myself at all. I kind of thought every race, I’m not going to do very well, like all these other people look really good, they know what they’re doing, they know how to pin a race number on and I’m just turning up asking all the silly questions.” 

Once the flag drops, however: “I kind of go into a completely different mindset and fully focus on just trying to win the race.” 

It wasn’t until June, however, that Morrice started to race on the road, and she quickly started winning. She placed second in her first ever UK national series race before heading to Ireland for the Rás na mBan, an “intense” week where she “learned a lot” before starting the Zwift Academy as soon as she got back. 

Morrice knew after her summer of racing that she had the potential to go far in the Zwift Academy. She had in fact begun the process last year before being forced out of the early stages when she broke her shoulder blade in a freak commuting crash. But she watched closely. 

“I watched it all,” she says. “I was watching Maud [Oudeman, 2021 winner] and watching Imogen [Alton, 2021 finalist] and all the other young girls there thinking that could be me. I was getting so into watching the series last year that I really had it in the back of my mind – ‘I really want to be there and that could be me there’. So doing the workouts this time around, I was definitely fully committed to putting everything into it to get to the finals.” 

Her attitude worked, and Morrice found herself on the way to Spain for the finals where she bumped into Cooper Sayers, the Aussie rider who reached last year’s finals too: “So I definitely got an insight from his year last year as well, which was great.” 

Those who have watched the series will know that the finalists were immediately subjected to a brutal indoor testing session, “and no-one enjoys indoor testing,” says Morrice. “It’s just brutal. It was 40 degrees or something, we got to 40 degrees, the room was really, really hot, like melting. And you’re in there just wanting to be outside on the Spanish roads, but you’re just giving everything inside instead.” 

Luckily, she didn’t have to wait long to get on the Canyon team bike and ride alongside her fellow finalists and the pros.

“It didn’t really feel like we were competing against each other,” she recalls. “It just felt like I was out there training with friends, with a fun few intervals throughout the day.  

“We were riding with the team, which is, like, really cool. Chatting to them, with the team car behind us. And that just felt like just such an incredible experience. You’re not going to forget this.” 

Although she was confident going into the Academy process, Morrice wasn’t convinced of her chances all the way through the week. 

“I knew even though I put 100% effort into the hill climb, I was still third, so realistically, on the second day, I didn’t think I’m doing that well. And then the third day was different because it was a skills ride and then a Zwift race. So that broke up the week a lot, because the skills I enjoyed doing and there was less pressure on just pure power, it was more about confidence in your technical skills.” 

After the skills session she got rider of the day, “but I wasn’t really fully expecting it. And so my confidence after day three was much higher than it had been. I was like ‘maybe I could win.’” 

Then she crashed during a race simulation, bringing Canyon//SRAM pro Pauliena Rooijakkers down with her, “I thought, ‘nah that’s not good. That is not going to help me at all’.

“[But] I think they saw that there was oil or diesel or something on the corner. There was video evidence of it all happening, I’m sure it will be in the programmes, they would love that clip and make it really dramatic.”

Sure enough, the episode shows the full extent of the crash, with Morrice losing her front wheel and skidding right underneath the barriers as Rooijakkers crashes into her, going over the bars. Morrice can be heard apologising profusely and asking after the condition of Rooijakkers. 

Later that day, Morrice and the two others were tasked with their final challenge: a hill climb up the well-known Coll de Rates.

“In February I did an effort up the climb and I was like seventh on the Strava segment,” Morrice says. “So I knew I was quite good at that. But then I also knew that Chiara and Nele were like crazy, crazy good up climbs.” In addition, Morrice had her injuries from the crash, “I had my hand all bleeding and open and I just kind of tried to cling on. I wasn’t going to not ride.”

Ultimately, she placed third after “the hardest effort I ever had to do.”   

“When I got back from that ride, I thought ‘so they’re gonna make the decision after this?’. I had no idea what they would have thought because of what happened that day, so much happened that day. I couldn’t really process it all at the time, but I just knew that I’d actually finished the challenges, which was something I was really proud of.”

In the end, it was more than enough to impress the judges, and Morrice was crowned the winner and offered a WorldTour contract with Canyon//SRAM for 2023.

So what are her hopes for the upcoming season?  

“Mostly I’m looking forward to just having the time to train with the girls and go on these training camps with them and learn so much from that, and see how my fitness and strength on the bike improves from just properly being able to focus on training.

“Obviously, last year, I was trying to balance my degree with training, but now I can recover properly, and focus on other parts that I neglected last year like strength and conditioning. I’ll be doing that properly with a coach now which is really important to me because I’m just really excited that I can properly focus on how I can be a better bike rider.” 

Despite her significant potential, Morrice has a modest approach to her upcoming first season as a pro: “I don’t have many expectations on results to be honest. I think racing at this level will be such an experience that I’ll never take for granted.”

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