In 2016 women’s WorldTour team Canyon-SRAM and Zwift came together to announce one of the biggest and boldest talent-ID initiatives we’d ever seen in cycling. This alliance saw the launch of the Zwift Academy, an indoor cycling contest that any woman anywhere – provided she had a smart-trainer – could complete at home. The prize at the end? A WorldTour contract.
After making it through eight weeks of e-sports testing and real-world finals, one rider would be invited to start the next season on Canyon-SRAM’s professional roster. Still going strong, today the Zwift Academy (ZA) is bigger and more influential than ever.
“Many people raised their eyebrows,” explains Beth Duryea, sports director at Canyon-SRAM, “some with excitement of what might eventuate, and some with hesitation.” It turned out the excitement was well founded.
“Now in its fifth year, the results achieved by the winners in real life at the top level of UCI races are testament to the value of this programme to identify talent and to provide a unique pathway to a career in professional sport.”
Not just watts
Proving that winning ZA is not just about churning out watts on the turbo, the 2018 winner Ella Harris has become a successful rider with Canyon-SRAM, while 2017 winner Tanja Erath has moved to Team Tibco Silicon Valley Bank for 2021. Leah Thovilson was the first rider to win ZA, in 2016, aged 37, after the competition was whittled down from 1,200 entrants. She spent two years racing professionally with Canyon- SRAM, signing for a second season in 2017, and now works with Zwift.
Incredibly, by 2020 the number of female riders taking part had grown to 20,500, and Thorvilson has observed how much it’s evolved since the relatively unknown entity it was when she began her journey.
“The Academy has grown, and the women who make it to the finals now have had that dream [for years],” she says. “They’ve watched all of the Academy and they’ve gone into this with the sole purpose of winning.”
The coaches behind ZA aren’t just looking at numbers, they’re factoring in real-world race results, taking every element of a rider’s ability into account. Thorvilson emphasises the importance of the opportunity ZA offers to riders from the US and the Southern Hemisphere, many of whom would otherwise fly under the radar on the international race scene.
“In New Zealand and Australia, it’s very expensive and challenging to get to Europe to race. You have to relocate yourself. It’s a hard pathway to build a palmarès that will get you noticed.”
Down Under on top
It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that both winners of the latest Academy are Australian: Neve Bradbury, 18, and Jay Vine, 25. The Academy expanded to include male under-23 riders in 2017, with the Dimension Data Continental squad, and the most recent edition offered two senior contracts, with Canyon-SRAM for the winning woman and with Alpecin-Fenix for the men.
We caught up with Bradbury on the weekend of the Australian National Championships where she bagged two under-23 podium spots – silver in the road race and bronze in the criterium.
“I think I was around 12 when my twin sister Isla offered me all her pocket money if I took up cycling,” she laughs, explaining how she had been more interested in ballet as a youngster. “I went into ZA definitely hoping that I could get to the top. You either win this big prize or you get second and you don’t get anything – it’s all or nothing.”
The finals were a week-long process, Bradbury explains: “The first four days were workouts, so you could do them in your own time zone and then the last three days we had set races – 5am for me. They based it on performance, how the team sees us, how we deal with pressure, all these different aspects.”
How did it feel to be confirmed the winner? “I didn’t know what to think, it was crazy, an absolute dream come true.”
Bradbury signed a contract immediately after the conclusion of the Academy, and Duryea looks forward to welcoming her: “It’s wonderful to see Neve is holding her own at the top level in Australia. We are confident she has even further potential and we’re looking forward to her coming to race with the team in Europe soon.”
Winner of the men’s contest, Jay Vine, is just as delighted to have landed a contract with Alpecin-Fenix: “This is cliched but it was very surreal. I kept thinking there was going to be a ‘gotcha’ moment but it never came.”
When Zwift Academy expanded to the men’s U23 peloton in 2017, Vine wasn’t eligible, as he was turning 23 the following season. “I put that to the back of my mind,” he says, “and had to try to focus on getting a contract in Europe the more traditional way, which was doing well in Australia and Asia and then hopefully being scouted or paying my own way to get across to Europe… When [ZA] was opened up to the elite category this year it was a no-brainer.”
Vine left nothing to chance: “We decided to make this a target for the year and I basically went in, in my top form. I didn’t do the sessions in order; when they were released, my coach and I essentially broke them down into sprint sessions first and then we worked through to the longer efforts at the end.”
Vine knew the finals would be super-competitive. “I have developed from being a rider who would just blow all my biscuits and show all my cards too early in races, to a rider who is capable of restraining myself and only giving energy when it was required. You can never rest on your laurels – just keep pushing all the way to the end.”
The people with a close eye on all that data in 2020 were Dig Deep Coaching’s Stephen Gallagher and Dan Fleeman, former pro riders, Zwift aficionados and now the Academy’s head coaching duo. They aren’t at liberty to disclose all their talent-spotting secrets but they are open about the fact that choosing the winners required “round-the-clock work for a number of months” as they accumulated data from tens of thousands of people from all around the world.
“There is this common idea that a high FTP is the be-all and end-all of everything, but there are so many different ways of performing,” explains Gallagher. “We wanted to present people with different skill-sets to the WorldTour teams, so that they could say, ‘we don’t necessarily want a climber, we want someone who is more explosive’ so we looked very much across the board from the outset – at performance, consistency and motivation to get stuck in – not necessarily just winning everything.”
During the finals, the data-watchers had to make absolutely sure they were making the right selection – the stakes were high.
“We really needed to build in some more real-world fatigue and performance metrics to see how the riders would handle certain stresses,” continues Gallagher. “We were getting [the finalists] to do outside rides prior to a lot of the workouts. That was done early in the finals and really built up over the course of the week so we could pick the best people who would succeed in real-world racing.”
What set Bradbury and Vine apart from the rest?
“They’re outstanding athletes and they already have a bit of history in the sport,” says Gallagher, “but they weren’t necessarily the strongest prior to our final selection. During the finals we were seeing the data coming in live and they exceeded our expectations. With that environment and everyone watching live, they rose again [by] another two per cent. They can perform under pressure, which is a key trait of a world-beater.”
But what does it take in terms of hard numbers?
“In the finals and the race up Alpe d’Huez, Neve was riding at five watts per kilo the whole way up. And if you consider how light she is, while still being able to do big capacity efforts of 30 to 40 seconds at 11w/kg, it was frightening how good her numbers were.”
The men’s racing in the final was equally impressive: “If you look at the men’s data, you have to put into context that they went onto the Alpe after six days, so there was a lot of accumulative fatigue,” Gallagher notes. “We had put them through the mill, and Jay was going over six watts per kilo. Then the next day he was doing one-minute efforts at 11w/kg. It shows the standard of rider we had brought into the final.”
Ride the Academy
When I was handed the presenter baton for the latest Zwift Academy Road Show, I completed all the sessions myself for insight into what the contenders were going through – Zwift marketing manager Kate Verroneau, herself an ex-pro, had reassured me I’d get a lot from it.
My fitness noticeably increased over the eight weeks, including my FTP, and I found an ability to dig deep like I hadn’t for years. For me, the motivation and structure it provided were hugely beneficial. If you’re someone who struggles to commit to a hard block of training – whether you’re dreaming of being the next Van der Poel or just content with nudging up your w/kg – the Academy is well worth considering.
I’m a natural sprinter and grasped the chance to ‘get it all out’ on the explosive sessions – and ZA provided the context, letting me reflect on these strengths against my weaknesses, and their implications for racing. There are not many coach-led programmes readily available that test you so thoroughly.
Throughout an unprecedented year, Zwift has become a regular feature in my living room, just as it has in thousands of homes around the world. And the brilliant thing is, you never have to worry about making it home after that too-hard long ride in which, in Jay Vine’s words, “you’ve blown all your biscuits.” You can simply head to the kitchen and grab yourself some more. The 2021 Academy will take place this autumn… we’d better start training for it!
Britain’s ZA nearly-man – ‘I was fully committed’
Damien Clayton, 28, entered Zwift Academy for the first time in 2020 and made it to the final five, coming incredibly close to securing the contract with Alpecin-Fenix.
CW: Tell us about entering the ZA.
DC: I just love turning my legs, whether that’s inside or out, so it added another dynamic to my training. I approached it in quite a rigorous way, which may have been why I did quite well in the process.
CW: How did you approach
DC: My coach planned it all into my training schedule. I took it quite seriously. I worked with my nutritionist as well – the impact of the turbo on your body is something people forget.
CW: How did you make peace with coming so close to winning?
DC: It was really hard. But I’ve really focused on the brilliant opportunity I’ve been given with Canyon-dhb-SunGod and I still get to ride the same Canyon, so every cloud!
CW: Would you go back with the aim to win next year?
DC: I think that was my last chance of getting up to that level and I want to be realistic. If I did it again, it would purely be for the training.
Matt Stephens’s view – ‘It’s not only about physiology’
Telling the riders they’d made it to this year’s final was Olympian, former national champ and now TV commentator Matt Stephens.
“This year was one hell of a project, it blew my mind – 10 riders remotely, all over the world. My involvement was helping to come up with the daily tasks that would give us as much information as possible to make the right decisions.
“Primarily the driver was physiological but a couple of riders revealed an interesting side to their character that came out through the way they engage on social media and the way they conducted themselves. A lot comes through in interviews. Jay, for example, is not only world-class but was calm throughout the whole process.”
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.
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