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Interview: Zwift Academy winner Leah Thorvilson – the novice who became a pro

Mark Bailey
16 Jun 2017

The winner of the inaugural Zwift Academy talks about her first taste of action in the Women's WorldTour peloton

Amateur cyclist Leah Thorvilson overcame 1,200 competitors in the 2016 Zwift Academy to win a year’s contract with the Women’s WorldTour team Canyon/Sram.

With registration for the 2017 edition having opened this week, the American talks to Cyclist about quitting her job to sample the life of a pro cyclist.


Cyclist: Leah, you won the inaugural Zwift Academy last year, which involved selection through indoor Zwift training rides and a training camp in Mallorca.

The prize was a pro contract with Canyon/Sram alongside riders like Hannah Barnes and Lisa Brennauer. How are you enjoying your pro experience so far?

Leah Thorvilson: It’s exciting and challenging and I am feeling equal parts amazement and joy. I’ve had my share of tough moments too, both in the races and in terms of navigating life in Europe.

But having previously been a runner, I love the team dynamic of this experience. Up until the last few races my approach has just been getting in the peloton and learning.

I haven’t yet been able to experience what it is like to truly contribute to the team. I look forward to being involved in something like Hannah Barnes’s third place in the Women’s Tour.

It would be wonderful to be a part of something like that.

Cyc: Since joining Canyon/Sram you have received plenty of tips from your teammates, including advice on cornering from multiple world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot.

Has it been strange to suddenly find yourself on the same team as such famous riders?

LT: It’s hard for me to believe when I look at who my teammates are. It’s a who’s who of women’s cycling… and then me! It is humbling and inspiring.

I’ve only been cycling for two years and it’s not a sport I grew up with so I didn’t have a cycling idol or hero that I looked up to.

The people I am learning from and who are my heroes are my teammates. Who gets to say that?

Cyc: You previously worked at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. During the three-month Zwift Academy process how did you fit in your training rides?

LT: I was up at 4-4.30am doing Zwift rides on my turbo but I was getting up that early before the Zwift Academy anyway.

All that changed was what I was doing – cycling not running. My schedule didn’t really change until December and the final selection camp in Mallorca with two other riders.

I had to ask my boss for time off to go, and he later said had he had known I would win he wouldn’t have let me go!

But I would have been ready to quit by then anyway. It’s not that I didn’t care about my job; just that I knew I had to see how far I could go.

Cyc: Was it a strange atmosphere on the final selection camp, knowing that only one of the final three riders would get the contract?

LT: The dynamic with the other two finalists was fabulous, and thank God they were there because it felt so intimidating being with the other riders – not that they weren’t welcoming, just because they are close-knit like a family.

In my mind if I did anything silly or obvious of a novice rider, I was conscious of it. But with the other two it was easier for us to relate to each other.

Each of us had our moments of thinking: what if it is me? And we also had our moments of thinking: no way will it be me.

There was no awkwardness and we still stay in touch. They are two wonderful ladies that I consider friends.

Cyc: When you were offered the contract, was there ever any doubt you might not accept it?

LT: No, I was fully committed. But even as we got whittled down to 12 and then to three, it still didn’t seem like that could be the reality.

I just wanted to ride it out as far as it would go, because I knew I wouldn’t get the opportunity again. There was some fear when it happened.

It was so exciting – and still is – but I remember I couldn’t sleep that night. At 1am it was like the reality of having to do what I said I was going to do was awesome and terrifying all at once.

Cyc: You were previously a high-level runner and only switched to cycling because of injury. How did the fitness levels cross over?

LT: The fitness definitely did cross over. I was a marathon runner and I have the same strength on the bike.

My strength is my power and my sustained power but I am not so strong in sprints or with top-end anaerobic efforts.

No marathoners are sprinters but in cycling, someone who’s not necessarily strong on power can still make it to the end of a long race and then sprint. But my aerobic ability was definitely helpful.

Cyc: You started the year by shadowing the team as the Santos Women’s Tour. What were your first impressions?

LT: I remember on the first day of the Tour I had more nerves than they did, even though I wasn’t actually riding.

Even coming from a running background, the energy that surrounds an event like that was amazing. I was also sitting there thinking: this is going to be me in a month.

That felt pretty crazy. Especially watching the criterium stage as it just looked so fast. It is so fast. But sitting there, yeah, it was hard to imagine that I was going to be participating in something like that just months later.

Cyc: Your first race was at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium. What was the main thing you learned?

LT: I was too far back. I hadn’t ever contemplated what to do if I got dropped and I was blissfully ignorant at that point.

I didn’t ever think about the fact you can get pulled, or ask questions about how to use the convoy to get back to the pack as those things hadn’t crossed my mind.

The narrow roads were challenging but the cobbles may have actually been my saving grace at times. I won’t say I am wonderful at them but they don’t bother me as much as they bother other people.

I only say that as I was always passing people on the cobbles. But the narrow roads and the riders being packed close together was all new for me.

Cyc: What skills did you pick up from racing in criteriums in Australia and Belgium?

LT: I did two in Australia and maybe three in the last few weeks in Belgium. I think taking the corners at high speed is hardest.

In most criteriums you are constantly cornering and I’m now at a place where I feel more comfortable going faster.

In high-level crits, people know exactly the right line to take and they are just fearless so you are at a disadvantage if you don’t do it the same way.

It is so hard to practise on group rides because you don’t have people trying to win. That is something you only learn by racing.

If you move up through the levels of cycling you learn naturally but it is hard to go in as a novice.

Cyc: What is your ultimate ambition this year?

LT: The goal at this point is the same as it has always been: I want to be able to come away having contributed to the team.

Some might say I have done that but I haven’t fulfilled that to my expectation yet. I want to be in a race where I put my teammate on the podium and can say I helped her do that.

At the risk of sounding negative, when I look at the talent on my team, winning WorldTour races probably won’t be my role.

If it happens, that’s fine, but I am happy to know I have contributed and put a teammate on the podium.

Leah Thorvilson was speaking at the launch of the 2017 Zwift Academy. Sign up for the challenge at

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