20 August 2022

Cycling: Zwift Academy’s ground-breaking, online, talent ID program

February 17, 2017

Last year, Zwift, the online fitness platform for cyclists, ran a groundbreaking talent ID program, which invited riders to try out for a UCI World Tour pro contract by riding Zwift, the winner Leah Thorvilson, will be riding with CANYON//SRAM Racing this season. Sportsister spoke with Kate Veronneau to find out if you really can find a future champion via an online app.


Can you tell us about the background to the Zwift Academy – how did it come about?

The idea was loosely based on Nissan’s GT Academy, which let video gamers compete to win a real life professional car racing contract. We saw an opportunity to bring the concept to Zwift, demonstrating the game’s potential to expose real pro tour cycling talent that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

While we were still thinking about a way to execute this program, one of the world’s top women’s teams, CANYON//SRAM Racing, approached us with the idea to hold a competition for a pro contract with their team in Zwift. It was a match made in heaven. Zwift Academy was born.

Have you seen this done successfully before?

Only in car racing. It is definitely unprecedented in the world of pro cycling.

Were you concerned that you would’nt  find anyone of the right calibre to join the team?

No, based on the riders’ performance data that we saw early on in the Qualification stage, we were confident we were attracting the right caliber of riders. In cycling, your power is measured by how many watts you can push per kilogram of weight that you are. This metric (eg. 4.5 w/kg) is easily tracked in Zwift and can give an accurate indication of whether a rider can churn out the power needed to compete on a pro tour level.

The participants completed a fairly rigorous program of structured workouts and group rides. Our judges looked at data from both the competitors’ Zwift rides and their outdoor rides (via Strava) and they were highly impressed with their output. There are many other factors that make a rider a strong racer, but this was a good starting point.


How did you go about choosing the final three?

We started with a Qualification stage. This was open to any female riders over the age of 18. We had over 1200 women from every corner of the globe sign up! The riders were tasked to complete a challenging series of structured workouts and group rides in Zwift over the course of 3 months. Our panel of judges comprehensively reviewed and verified their data. 12 outstanding riders were selected to move on to the Semi-Final stage.

The Semi-Finalists each received Wahoo KICKR Snap trainers, Wahoo Balance Bluetooth scales, and Quarq power meters to use in this next round of training. They were challenged to a new series of structured workouts, Zwift races and outdoor rides, including two FTP tests and a 3 min critical power test. They were subject to interviews and had direct access to trainSharp, our Zwift Academy coaches.

Their performances were once again analyzed and compared. After another 2 months, our panel of judges selected 3 Finalists (and 2 alternates) who were invited to join CANYON//SRAM Racing at their team camp in Mallorca, Spain, in December of 2016.

Above: Winner, Leah Thorvilson

It’s a huge life-change for the three potential athletes, did anyone turn down the opportunity?

It is a massive commitment and we did have two riders that had to turn down their Finalist selection. One rider is currently in medical school and the other rider had work conflicts that would not allow her to attend Finals at CANYON//SRAM Racing team camp in Mallorca. It was a very difficult decision for both.

Were the existing members of Canyon Sram involved in the final decision?

Yes. CANYON//SRAM Racing team members and management followed the competition closely from the onset. Zwift Academy delivered 3 Finalists to team camp in Mallorca in December, and the ultimate selection was made by the team. The 3 Finalists spent the week with the team – training, attending team meetings and sponsor obligations, and eating all meals together. They were tested on and off the bike to see how they would handle the life of a pro bike racer. The team was responsible for determining which rider was the best fit, based on both synergy and skills. It was an exciting, dramatic week, which we captured in a series of 4 videos.*

Above: Kate Veronneau, Zwift, Partnerships Manager

How do you factor in team dynamics?

Prior to the Finals, we had group rides, workouts and an active Facebook group that gave the participants an opportunity to interact with their competitors, on and off the bike. This gave us an initial indication of whether a rider was a good team player.

During the team camp, the 3 Finalists were evaluated not just by their strength on the bike, but how well they integrated with the team during the training and the week’s activities. This is the 2nd year that the CANYON//SRAM Racing team has been together. It’s no easy task breaking into a tight team dynamic. The newest member of the team had to demonstrate good communication skills, an openness to learn from more experienced team members and an ability to read and respond to the team’s signals on the bike, allowing them to ride seamlessly in the group.

Many of the Zwift Academy participants came from other team sports and they showed this throughout the competition. They supported, challenged and motivated one-another. It was one of the unexpected bonuses of the Academy- we started out by building a competition, but we ended up building an amazing community. Women of all ages and walks of life joined the Academy not just for a shot at the pro contract, but to chase their own cycling goals within the structured training and encouraging community that Zwift Academy offered.

Our 2016 Zwift Academy Champion, Leah Thorvilson, now the newest member of CANYON//SRAM Racing, is starting out with a huge fan base, made up of her competitors from the Academy.

Can you give me some stats on how many women took part – ages – how many got involved with Zwift because of the initiative?

Since our launch, we’ve seen a 37% increase in women’s participation in Zwift. Zwift Academy has been an integral part of that growth.


Following successful 2016 pilot, the Zwift Academy returns in 2017 with ambitious participation targets and the introduction of eRacing

Find out more here: www.zwiftacademy.com

Danielle Sellwood, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine









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