7 things I learned from my first season in the pro peloton


Tom Owen catches up with Canyon//SRAM’s Leah Thorvilson, six months into her first year as a pro cyclist. We find out how steep that learning curve really is…

At the start of the year we brought you the story of Leah Thorvilson, who won herself a place on the roster of professional cycling team, Canyon//SRAM, through a pioneering programme called Zwift Academy. Now, at roughly halfway through the season, and with Le Course by the Tour de France and the Giro Rosa both on the cards for Leah, we find out what she has learnt about herself and the pro scene after six months in the pro peloton.

1. You may feel like an outsider
“When you join a pro team it’s tough to fit in instantly. We are all lined up with the same goal and the same passion, but it’s like taking a star player from a kids’ little league baseball team and telling him he’s going to pitch game 7 of the World Series. He might be good, but everyone’s watching him walk out on the field thinking, ‘Really?’”

2. The learning curve is steep
“I am still picking up racing skills every time I race. You can go out and practice technique drills and group rides, but nothing can prepare you for the peloton other than just being in it. I won the academy in December, raced some practice events (smaller, non-professional races with men) in Australia in January, and was in my first UCI race at the end of February.”

3. Your numbers only mean so much
“I am constantly being reminded that power isn’t everything, which I understand. Zwift was based largely on power numbers, but clearly doesn’t represent how well you will handle the bike and handle the peloton. It takes strength, for sure, but the technical and savvy rider will almost always beat a strong rider without skill. Those who have the skills and the power combined are the most formidable forces.”

4. Not everyone will be pleased to see you.
“I haven’t experienced any hostility about the way I got to the pro ranks. It may be there, quietly or behind my back or in another language. But I haven’t heard it. I have heard comments about my lack of experience and it doesn’t hurt my feelings or anything, because it’s true… it just makes me extra nervous about screwing up.

5. It’s bike racing - nobody said it was going to be easy
I think the only time I remember actually wanting to quit a race was the fourth race I did, which was following a crash in my third race where I banged my head really hard. That scared me and I didn’t realise how hard it would be to put myself back in the game. Otherwise, I’ve never wanted to back out.

It’s hard, really hard. The mental side of it is the challenge. The first few races were tough and not knowing at all what to expect. They were the most intimidating. I don’t know that the races are any less difficult now, it’s just that there are different challenges. In the beginning I was concerned with getting dropped, or crashing, or things like that. Now I am concerned with getting to the position I need to be in to fulfil my role for my team.

6. It’s definitely not all glamour
I started my first races in Belgium, which isn’t famed for its pleasant climate and we had a few cold, windy, and wet days of training. It definitely isn’t all glamour, but what job is? Hannah Barnes asked me once if I regret my decision to do this, and I said no, without hesitation.

7. I have something to offer the team.
I have come a long way since the beginning of the season, but I have so far to go. I am now at a place where I am being given a role on the team before a race and I am expected to deliver. This is a change from the first few races where my main objective was to learn and find one thing to improve each race. It’s crazy to think about starting the Giro and La Course. I think that I will be able to do well in the stages with the longer climbs.

I look forward to those. I would say at this point I have two big goals; the first is to be a part of a race, all the way to the finish, where I help put a teammate on the podium. The second is to continue to improve to the point that another year of riding professionally is an option.  

I really am just doing my best to keep learning and keep improving. I think if I do those two things, the goals will fall into place. I can only do so much, so I’m just taking it one day and one race at a time.

Zwift Academy will run again this year, having launched in London earlier in June. For more information, visit academy.zwift.com

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