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The Unusual Contest That Gives Everyday Cyclists a Chance at Going Pro

How advances in indoor cycling technology created new ways for teams to find talent.

Leah Thorvilson on a bicycle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by LC/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images.

Thanks to a number of new technologies, indoor cycling has become a growing part of the exercise and fitness world. In the old days, indoor cycling systems like trainers, which allow a bike to be ridden indoors, barely resembled the experience you’d get out on the road. Workouts typically needed to be short to compensate for discomfort. Now, tools like indoor turbo trainers simulate the sensation of climbing hills or the natural side-to-side rocking of a bike to appeal to those who normally crave the outdoors, while Peloton and Flywheel bikes bring the energy and convenience of a spin class into your own home. Online platforms such as Zwift create an immersive, entertaining experience to keep riders engaged throughout an indoor workout. For recreational and competitive athletes alike, this has been a game changer, turning rainy days, jam-packed schedules, or injuries into opportunities for worthwhile workouts. Zwift has also added another unusual dimension: It’s become a discovery ground for professional cyclists.

Last week, Zwift began its third annual “Zwift Academy.” The eight-week training program— composed of 16 events and featuring a mix of interval workouts and virtual group rides and races—is designed to build participant fitness and test mental and physical limits. Academy members can complete these workouts at their convenience as a fitness boot camp (with real-world and in-app prizes), but when the program concludes on September 30, those who’ve particularly excelled have a chance at a pro cycling contract. Zwift chooses 10 individuals to proceed to a more challenging semifinal round; from there, three are selected for an in-person round of finals in mid-November. This year, there are two competitions running simultaneously: a women’s cycling academy, whose winner earns a contract with Canyon-SRAM pro cycling, and a men’s academy, whose winner gets a Team Dimension Data contract. Both of these teams are world-class, racing across the globe at the highest level of the sport.

Those at all familiar with the sport of cycling may picture riders at its most famous event, the Tour de France, muscling up steep alpine grades, whizzing around hairpin turns, and trying to dodge the many crashes that send cyclists tumbling onto the pavement. It may come as a surprise that such a physical, outdoor, team-oriented sport is finding professional members through an indoor training program. But thanks to smart trainers that replicate outdoor conditions—adding resistance when you’re riding up a virtual hill, for example—and accurately measure power output, professional team managers can use the platform as a cost-effective talent identification camp. Power in cycling is a measurement of the torque and angular velocity a cyclist applies to the pedals as they ride. Since their introduction to the pro peloton in the late 1980s, power meters have proven an increasingly accurate way both to measure athlete effort levels and to structure workouts for maximal training effect. With knowledge of the power stats of professional athletes, team managers can identify whether an individual has the raw strength to thrive in the pro cycling peloton by looking at data alone—and that’s why Zwift has proven the ideal platform for such a task.

The traditional route to professional cycling sees riders rise through the ranks by first excelling at local races, then regional ones, and then national events, scoring spots on increasingly prestigious teams along the way. Team managers look out for rising talents and solid performers who make regular appearances on the podium. In some ways, Zwift offers a shortcut to this path, which can take years to navigate. Leah Thorvilson, the inaugural 2016 Zwift Academy winner, was an elite marathon runner who picked up cycling after a series of injuries. She’d only completed a handful of actual races when she won her pro contract. Many were critical of her sudden leap to the highest level of the sport: Part of the benefit of that lengthy traditional route to professional cycling is it gives cyclists the time to develop the bike handling skills and experience needed to successfully navigate a 100-person-strong peloton. Thorvilson herself has admitted to feeling like she’d been thrown in the deep end. But while she struggled at the outset, failing to finish four of her first five professional races, Thorvilson has ultimately succeeded in becoming a valuable asset for her team. Canyon-SRAM was impressed with her progress and renewed her contract for the 2018 season.

According to Thorvilson, Zwift Academy has made changes to take real-world race experience into greater consideration since then. 2017 women’s academy winner Tanja Erath not only excelled at the virtual training portion of the contest, but the former triathlete also had podiums in a number of prestigious fixed-gear criterium races, a type of racing that requires excellent bike handling and cornering skills. Still, the fact that Zwift Academy is now in its third year for women (and second year for men) is a testament to the advances of indoor cycling technology and the accuracy of both on-bike and on-trainer power meter systems. Without these, a competition like this would be impossible.