We joined Leah Thorvilson, winner of the 2016 Zwift Academy, now pro cyclist for the Women’s World Tour team at the Rapha Club House in Soho, London, to celebrate the launch of the 2017 program and ask her for a few tips and hints as to what it might take to become next years’ winner.
A competitive marathon runner from 2004-2012, Thorvilson was introduced to cycling following a series of injuries that resulted in 4 surgeries in 3 years. Following her most recent surgery and a bone graft on her femur, the doctors assured her that running was out of the question for at least a year. Not one to sit still, Thorvilson "took up cycling just to not go crazy".
Initially unable to cycle outside as a result of the recent surgery, Thorvilson took to the turbo and was immediately hooked; ‘It wasn’t just pounding away the miles, you really had that interactive experience and got to meet other people’. Soon after, Thorvilson read an article about Zwift’s attempts to find a pro cyclist and thought it sounded cool. Never once considering she might win, she signed up on a whim and now looking back, she describes the experience as ‘pretty crazy’ to have made it through.
When asked what it was that made Thorvilson stand out from all those who entered the competition in 2016, Canyon//SRAM's Team Manager, Ronny Lauke didn’t hesitate “Her personality". Thorvilson used the academy as an opportunity to create a new life for herself, “she is a nice person and showed how dedicated she is when she was at the training camp".
Leah Thorvilson: Next stop pro peloton
It was both ‘terrifying and exciting’ to be announced the winner of the Zwift Academy 2016 Thorvilson exclaims. Before her first pro race the biggest peloton she had even cycled in was about 15 women and having been told that it is something you ‘have to experience’ Thorvilson is now in full agreement, the pro-peloton ‘is something you can only learn by doing’. Thorvilson still considers herself as a Work In Progress in that regard; ‘There are aspects that have become more comfortable and others that are still a struggle’ she smiles.
Having taken up cycling just two years ago, Thorvilson is using the pro-peloton to learn the basics; ‘where exactly you want to sit on a wheel, your position in terms of where the wind is coming from, when to hit your breaks when you are taking a corner, when it makes sense to attack in a race vs. when you should sit back and help the teammates out’ she explains. In fact, every race has become another lesson, Thorvilson proudly admits.
"Leah has learned the hard way but has taken every guidance and every advice with strength and not everybody would have been able to handle that" Louke confirms "It requires a lot of energy and willingness to go through that which she has gone through". That’s where having bags of personality comes in according to Louke, the training won’t be easy and no doubt there will be some tears shed along the way but with hard work and determination the results will shine through.
Thorvilson highlights the talent her teammates have and their ability to seamlessly re-plan a race within a race. "I’ve sat through the team meeting and heard them develop race plan but anything can happen and so sometimes an element of that plan can fall apart, as a result of the performance or a crash or something. As a spectator, I think you see it but don’t necessarily realise what you are looking at but when you are watching a cycling race and you see how beautifully it moves". Being inside that and knowing what it takes to make that work is phenomenal and each member of the team exhibits those qualities. "Sometimes I feel like an outsider, but I get it, let’s be honest, I am. I do have stupid questions." Thorvilson explains that the juxtaposition of wanting to be a part of the team but also to stay out of the way can be challenging.
Whilst her power output is higher than most of her team-mates, Thorvilson is inexperienced as a bike racer. It’s human nature to want to stay in your comfort zone and do the things you are good at but you need to recognise your weaknesses and drill on those she adds; ‘Don’t wait’! A light-hearted topic among her friends to start, Thorvilson’s lack of bike handling skills ‘wasn’t so cute’ when the team arrived in Mallorca. Of course, it’s not always easy fitting the training in with a full-time job and life in general but if Thorvilson had the opportunity to take herself back or if she had known she was going to win, she would better recognise her weaknesses and focus on the elements in which she lacked experience in. Be proud and confident in what you are strong at but get out and work on the elements you need to work at as if you are going to win she advises.
Leah Thorvilson: What’s next on the list?
It’s hard to say what the future holds at this point, we are half-way through the season and Thorvilson is still learning a lot. Following the launch, Thorvilson was homeward bound to race in her first ever National Race in the USA. Later she returns to Europe to take on the Giro Rosa with her team-mates. "For women’s cycling that’s about as big a stage as you can get … It’s hard to imagine what that will be like". What next year has in store will probably depend on how Thorvilson performs for the rest of this year so she isn’t worrying too much about that now, her plan is to take each race as it comes and continue to develop.
Tips for Zwift Academy 2017: Make a presence for yourself.
The inaugural Zwift Academy saw 1200 registrants from 51 countries and building on the success of last year’s program, Zwift and CANYON//SRAM are expecting to triple that number in 2017, so give yourself a reason to stand out. "Don’t make an arse of yourself" but don’t rely solely on the numbers, Thorvilson advises anyone wanting to give the Zwift Academy a shot this year. "It’s the little things that will make you stand out and might make the difference in terms of the team wanting to bring you on to the next level".
If you want to try your hand at the Zwift Academy and earn yourself a pro contract on the Canyon//SRAM, head over to their website here.