Gaining a route into professional sport is anything but easy. We’ve all watched enough sports movies and documentaries to know the cliches, right? It takes a perfect combination of hard work, opportunity and a lot of luck to make it to the top percentage of athletes within a given sport. And maybe the odd music montage.
Cycling is no different. But perhaps unlike mainstream sports, which have countless more avenues and a clearer path to potential success, becoming a professional in the saddle is a challenge that’s slightly different. While we’ve seen talent plucked through the likes of the British Cycling Performance Academy, the sport is still a long way away from maximising the potential of the masses.
Read this: The best cycling tech you can buy
But it’s an issue which could have a solution in its sights. With the emergence of power, fitness platforms and indoor training programmes among the cycling community, it's becoming markedly easier to build a profile and showcase potential.
And the most popular virtual cycling platform among the cycling community, Zwift, is also at the forefront of finding this emerging talent. Now in its third year, the company’s Zwift Academy will once again be letting riders compete amongst each other in the hope of gaining a contract with a professional cycling team.
Two contracts are up for grabs in 2018 — one with Women’s World Tour team Canyon/Sram Racing, and the other with the U23 Men’s Team Dimension Data — with hopefuls entering into an eight-week programme involving 10 workouts, four group rides and two races before the contestants are whittled down. All this, of course, taking place from the riders' indoor training setup.
Taking the indoor route
One person who knows all about the challenges that come with competing in the Academy is last year’s winner, Tanja Erath. After spending much of her racing life competing in triathlons, the 28-year-old only recently made the switch to full-time cycling due to injury.
“A friend of mine, someone who used to be my teammate in the triathlon, told me about the Zwift Academy. She saw me desperate to do something when I had to stop running because of injury problems. I was always a good cyclist in the triathlon, and because I just missed out on entering for 2016, I decided to give it a shot in 2017,” she told us.
Read next: How to master Strava
“I was always confident in my ability, but, it’s funny, during the process you start to Strava stalk a few of the other competitors; you’re scrolling through the watts and you start to think, 'I don’t have a chance against these riders'. But you never know what the professional teams are looking for — it could be your peak power, your watts-per-kilo or anything else that’s an indicator of potential - it changes with each rider, I think."
And, as is the nature of Zwift, these sessions were all fitted in around Erath’s daily life, which also involved studying for a degree in medicine, at the time.
“Thankfully, my time management has always been pretty good,” she joked. “And I think from a sporting perspective, coming from the triathlon definitely helps. When you compare the training, just focusing on cycling is pretty easy. I’m only thinking about one discipline, as opposed to three. And, now I think back, maybe I didn’t sleep that much along the way, but I’ve always been an active person.
“I became a nurse before I studied medicine, and I just kept that same kind of routine when I studied. Now, I have a lot more time — I actually do sleep now, and I care about what I eat instead of skipping breakfast. I guess the biggest change now I’m a professional is that I’m able to put my day around my training, instead of my training around my day.”
Not just for the amateurs
But it’s not just budding cyclists like Erath that are taking advantage of the benefits Zwift brings, either. British cyclist Mark Cavendish, widely regarded as the best cycling sprinter of all time, and winner of 30 stages of the Tour de France, is one of the many professionals who now incorporate Zwift into their training regimen.
“I have to be honest, if someone would have tried to talk me about Zwift a year ago, I would have told them, 'Listen, I don’t train on an indoor trainer, I want to be out on my bike”. But, obviously, I got knocked off at the Tour last year, and that meant I couldn’t go out on the road because of my shoulder,' he said.
Read this: The best sports watches and wearables
“So I gave Zwift a go, and it completely changed my perception of indoor training. It was no longer this monotonous thing of staring at a wall and going through motions with a load of numbers in front of me — what am I supposed to do with that, anyway? I’m a gamer, and it kind of gave me that same feeling. Sometimes I actually now choose to go on it instead of going outside, which I never, ever thought I’d do. I only wish it was around the whole time I’ve been a pro.”
Now I’m a professional, I’m able to put my day around my training, instead of my training around my day
But unlike the riders going through the Zwift Academy, those currently in the professional peloton will have entered the field mainly through outdoor rides. And since the indoor route presents a very different style of racing, Erath told us she was initially a little concerned about how her ability would be received within the her team and the cycling community.
“I thought it might be an issue when I came into the peloton, but I was surprised, really, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I mean, we do talk about it sometimes, the different routes we’ve taken. For example, I was racing in California and in the last climb I was chatting with some of the sprinters. They were just more or less impressed by the fact I was able to turn professional through indoor racing.”
Riding into the future
But the odds are still slim for anybody looking to make it to the professional ranks through the Zwift Academy. Although it offers a life-changing opportunity for two riders, countless others are left exploring other means, if they’re serious about turning professional.
“I had a plan that if it things didn’t work out with Zwift,” Erath continued. “I would have taken half a year off after studying and gone into racing full-time and tried to make my break. But what I realise now is that it’s so tough to show your potential if you don’t have a team. If you’re a solo rider, you’re just not in that community circle.”
And as Zwift CEO and co-founder Eric Min told us, it’s up to platforms like Zwift to make sure that more cyclists of the future are able to explore going professional through both indoor and outdoor means.
“Half the professional tour’s riders are on Zwift, so we’ve already proven we’ve got that credibility among the athletes. And I think it’s a matter of time before these professionals want to compete, so it’s our job to help them do that. It’s also our job to make sure future riders look at cycling as something they can do both indoors and outdoors. It’s an education thing, and once we get the real cyclists into it, more will follow.”
Min also isn’t too worried about rivals to Zwift, adding that the community filling the platform is a crucial aspect to its future.
“If someone came out with a better version of Facebook, would you leave?,” he said. “You can’t underestimate the network we have in place, because, generally, there’s only one of each of these major networks, and we’re working hard to make sure we’re the go-to for indoor cycling.”
With entries for Zwift Academy currently open, those registered will begin the journey in early August, before the 10 women and 10 men are chosen as semi finalists in October. For now, the programme will again provide two winners with professional contracts. But if the training platform is able to continue churning out elite-level talent for the professional peloton, expect its popularity to grow rapidly in the coming years, and perhaps even more teams exploring it as a route to pick up the next generation of cycling talent as a result.
More cycling reads
Hot sports watch deals
Wareable may get a commission