In 2016 women’s WorldTour team Canyon-SR AM 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-SR AM’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-SR AM, “some with the 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 program 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-SR AM, 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 CanyonSR AM, 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.
Where are they now?
2019: Jessica Pratt 23, Australia Switched from a nursing career to pro cycling with Canyon-SRAM for 2020, Pratt bagged a top 10 in the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under GC with the team and is now off to pastures new.
2018: Ella Harris 22, New Zealand Still with Canyon-SRAM, Harris broke her leg during a recon ride for the 2020 Strade Bianche but came back with her usual resilience.
2017: Tanja Erath 31, Germany Won the Academy after graduating medical school, Erath moved from Canyon-SRAM to Team Tibco Silicon Valley Bank for 2021.
2016: Leah Thorvilson 42, USA Thorvilson won the inaugural Academy and has since traded in her pro jersey for a non-riding role within Zwift.
2019: Drew Christensen 19, NZ Rides with the NTT Continental U23 Cycling Team and is remaining with the squad for 2021.
2018: Martin Lavric 22, Slovenia Signed for a second year with NTT (now Qhubeka-Assos in 2020). He’s since returned to Cycling Team Kranj.
2017: Ollie Jones 24, New Zealand Spent a year with Dimension Data for Qhubeka and most recently Global 6 Cycling and e-sports squad Canyon ZCC.
“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 emphasizes 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.”
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