Leah Thorvilson: From Zwift turbo training to pro team
The chance of a lifetime, a childhood dream or the plot of a Hollywood movie. All three could be used to describe one woman’s ascent to the pro ranks ahead of the 2017 road cycling season. Tom Owen finds out how Leah Thorvilson went from Zwift turbo trainer to CANYON//SRAM team…
You’ve heard of CANYON//SRAM, the world-beating women’s race team and you’ve heard of Zwift, the immersive virtual world that connects to your home turbo trainer. The former has been a dominant force on the highest level of professional cycling for several years, while the latter has shot to global prominence, breathing fresh life into indoor training rides. But did you know that the two teamed up at the end of last year to offer one cyclist a life-changing opportunity?
The Zwift Academy was created to give one rookie amateur from anywhere in the world the opportunity to win a spot on the CANYON//SRAM team for 2017. All they needed was a Zwift account and a turbo trainer to participate. Entrants came from all corners of the globe, including mothers, businesswomen, artists and students – and over the course of the Academy, they became better, faster, stronger athletes.
Of the 1,200 participants who entered worldwide, three finalists were chosen to participate in the pro team’s pre-Christmas training camp in Mallorca, with strongest performer receiving a year’s contract to ride for the team.
We caught up with the winner of the Zwift Academy and CANYON//SRAM’s newest signing, Leah Thorvilson, ahead of her first season as a pro racer.
Speaking in the Christmas break immediately after the Mallorca training camp, Thorvilson is looking to the future with ambitions to achieve as much as possible in her year with the team.
“I want to get enough experience racing and work on the areas that need improvement so that when the season ends I can look back and feel like I was able to contribute something.”
As far as she is concerned, it’s not just about this year, though. “It would be great to be sitting in this position next year and talking about which races I am aiming for and what my goals for actual achievements are within those races – but this will be a big learning year, so I am setting my expectations accordingly. “
Thorvilson is quite upfront about having next to no experience when it came to bike racing up to the point she joined the Academy, which makes her achievement all the more impressive.
“I'd done one individual time trial, one team time trial and three or four road races, with the largest race field being 15-20 women.”
That must have made being dropped into a professional outfit quite a baptism of fire then? “It was very intimidating. They are a very close knit group. They treat each other like family. Not being part of that family and being several levels below them in skill level, I was constantly analysing myself and praying I wouldn't do anything drastically stupid or embarrassing. As we all got to know each other better throughout the week things got easier. They offered me guidance, which I really appreciated. Their enthusiasm in welcoming me to the team felt really good!”
Thorvilson is new to bike racing, but not new to elite competition. She was previously an Olympic-level trials marathon runner and as such she has a lot of base fitness to draw on. While running is as individualistic a discipline as you can get, the team elements of cycling have been a steep learning curve for her.
“My elite competition history is in running, so it is completely different. While you do run with friends sometimes in training, you don't need your skill levels to match, and one person's terrible running form doesn't have the potential to negatively impact the person they are running next to. With cycling you have to know and trust the riders around you to be able to perform at your best. The team aspect is different. As far as the importance of training and the regimented schedule each day, I think that is the same.
We ask her about the possibility of becoming a loyal domestique*?
“To be able to help the team get a big win, to be a success both for myself and also for this project would be a dream scenario. I want Zwift and CANYON//SRAM to be able to take pride in trying something outside the box and having it work. I guess in a perfect world it will work so well that I will earn the chance to do it again in 2018.”
The exciting news is that Zwift will be repeating the Academy in 2017, so there's another very cool chance to earn a women's professional cycling contract.
We’ll be catching up with Leah later on in the season to see how she’s finding things in the pro peloton
*A domestique is a road bicycle racer who works for the benefit of his team and leader. In French, domestique translates as "servant". The use of the term dates back to 1911, although such riders had existed before then.