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From virtual reality to real world racing: the newest way to turn pro

Joseph Delves
31 Mar 2017

Unconventional route secures pro contract at team Canyon-SRAM

Once confined to the lab, the sort of equipment used to deduce the potential of elite athletes is, in today's data-driven world, within reach of most cyclists.

This is a development not lost on pro cycling team Canyon-SRAM. With so many riders out there, could the information being captured by their training devices point the way to as yet undiscovered cycling talent?

To find out the team partnered with Zwift to create a unique virtual racing academy, giving riders the opportunity to try out for the squad.

'Zwift Academy is a modern twist on talent identification. We’ve created a new path for people to show what they can do, and along the way we cultivated an online community of supportive, like-minded female cyclists from all over the world,' explained Zwift Academy’s Kate Verroneau.

Open to female riders over the age of 18 with access to a Zwift account, more than 1,200 applicants from 51 countries enrolled. Over the following six months the group would log 692,558 virtual miles during more than 45,900 hours of riding.

Qualification for the programme involved undertaking 27 structured workouts in order to be eligible to advance to the semi-finals. Rider’s performances were analysed using TrainingPeaks’ in-depth metric analysis before being whittled down.

Elliot Lipski of UK coaching company TrainSharp collaborated with the project, helping interpret each of the athlete’s data. Seeking to get an idea of the rider’s average power output, along with power-to-weight ratio, he also sought to understand their potential for adaptation.

'Obviously, the gold-standard in talent identification is laboratory testing, but since we couldn’t put 1,200 applicants in a lab, we devised a series of criteria that the initial applicants had to meet to make it through each stage.

'As the numbers dwindled, we were able to spend more time on each rider, analysing files and sending them questionnaires for feedback,' he explained.

Eventually 12 semi-finalists were invited to attend real world rides and further performance testing. Of these three were chosen to join the team at their training camp on Mallorca.

Following the camp Leah Thorvilson, a former elite runner from Little Rock, Arkansa was offered a place on the squad. Thorvilson had come to cycling almost by accident following an injury that prevented her from running.

'A coach of mine had taken me out on a ride years ago as a way to crosstrain because of my injuries. He got me in clip-on pedals and I fell over a retaining wall and thought, "cycling is not for me."

'After my second surgery in early 2016 I could only ride indoors, so I bought a trainer and some of my friends told me about Zwift Academy,' she explained.

Having left her job as a development director for the University of Arkansas, this February Thorvilson competed in her first UCI race, the OmLoop van het Hageland in Belgium.

Riding in support of British rider Hannah Barnes, in common with the majority of riders, she failed to finish the race. However, she was excited about her future prospects at the team.

'I want to be able to contribute something, that’s my main goal. I don’t need to be a hero or anything, but I want for this to end with the team believing that they made a good decision and I want to work hard enough to feel like I really earned this life-changing opportunity.'

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