Tanja Erath had a whirlwind experience in her first season in the professional peloton after winning the Zwift Academy Women last December to earn a contract with Canyon-SRAM in 2018. A practicing doctor when she won the contract, Erath moved from her home in Germany to a cycling hotbed in Girona and quickly proved her strength within the team at world-class races, which has all led to a contract renewal for 2019.
"I signed with Canyon-SRAM for 2019 because it gives me the opportunity to live my dream of racing bikes," Erath said in a recent team announcement. "I'm with, in my opinion, the best women's cycling team in the world. I hope to start the season next year on a higher level than I will finish it this season. I'm keen to learn more, to improve my performances, to be more relaxed, especially in race situations, just to be the best rider that I can be. I'm not there yet and it's what I'm aiming for."
Erath admitted that she had to undertake a sharp learning curve to compete in a full season of top-level women's racing, and that at times there were challenges with adjusting to the new lifestyle of a professional athlete, learning the ropes of bike racing, and handling the physical demands.
"This first year was an emotional and physical up and down," Erath said. "I'm glad there were more ups than downs. A new living situation, a new career. It's hard to describe the mixture of emotions. I would go between happiness, guilt, gratitude, fear, excitement, doubts... and many more. I'm still not sure, even now, that I have processed everything that has happened so far this year."
In her first season with the UCI Women's Team, Erath competed in a full range of one-day and stage races, including the Healthy Ageing Tour, Tour de Yorkshire, Tour of California Women's Race, Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour, La Course, RideLondon, Vågardå, Lotto Belgium Tour and Tour de l'Ardeche.
"Whenever she was given a job to do during a race, Tanja was able to fulfil it to the best of her knowledge and skills, but even more impressive was her being able to work with the input she received afterwards, to do an even better job the next time. We saw this happen time after time throughout the season," team manager Ronny Lauke said of re-signing Erath to the 2019 roster.
Tanja Erath corners during Stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California Women's Race (Getty Images)
A day in the life of Dr. Erath
It was a season of change for Erath, who, after winning the Zwift Academy contract with Canyon-SRAM, left behind her newly started career as a doctor. She had already completed three years of nursing school, and became a working nurse, before then completing a six-year study of medicine to become a licensed doctor. She has yet to specify an area of practice, but she is leaning toward Urology of Anesthesia in the future.
"I already had some experience in the hospital. I knew I liked Anesthesia and Emergency Medicine," Erath told Cyclingnews in an interview after she won the Zwift Academy Women. "I finished medical school. I’m a doctor now, but I just have to decide what my specification is going to be. I have some time to decide on it."
Her six years of medical school included three years of theoretical work, followed by three years of a combination of University studies and internships, and in the final year she was at a full-time working placement in a hospital in Stuttgart, performing a range of surgeries.
"I did bowel surgery for six weeks, bone surgery for six weeks, hand surgery for four weeks, vein and artery surgery, and then internal medicine for four months: nephrology, cardiology and infections, and four months of anaesthesia, which is something I already knew that I liked when I was a nurse.
"I did some of my internship in Urology and I really liked that area, too, because it’s a combination of surgery and internal medicine of both genders."
Tanja Erath back in her days as a doctor (Tanja Erath)
Erath said that her days performing surgeries were just as full as - if not more hectic than - life as a professional cyclist. She said that her day typically started at 7am in hospital and some surgeries required up to nine hours to complete.
"My day would start with a meeting where we discuss the patients and the procedures for the day," she said. "I would see the patients and go to the operating room, or sometimes go to the operating room straight away. Sometimes, it was eight or nine hours of surgery. Normally, I would see multiple patients, but the longer surgeries require about six hours (minimum) to complete.
"Neural surgeries are the longest and you can only complete one per day," she added. "But hand surgeries, for example, are shorter and you could maybe do seven in a day."
Erath saved some of her limited spare time to train and, as a former triathlete, she would often swim from 5-7am and then run or cycle in the evenings. When she was a student, she raced between semesters at University. She comes from a supportive family. Her father, Gerd, and mother, Andrea, have been cyclists for 30 years, and her sister Stephanie, was also involved in triathlon.
The pro cyclist
Erath moved from triathlon to cycling in 2016, after an injury forced her to stop running. She spent one season - which she called a crash-course - bike racing. She competed on the track, in fixed gear events that were part of the Red Hook series, and she tried longer road races, competing in the German National Championships in 2017.
"I love fixed gear racing," Erath said. "It was my first avenue into cycling, another type of racing. The people are chill, and there's a nice atmosphere. I love criterium races, they are super cool. It’s a smooth way of cycling if you don't have brakes.
"I really improved my bike handling during the year of fixed gear racing. I can get on well even in really sketchy moments. I won't be crashed easily. I improved my handling so much and I think that helped me in some of the more technical European races, moving in the peloton and on small, narrow roads.
"I'm happy that I had the year of fixed gear racing because it was a steep learning curve. It was my first time on the track, first time on a fixed gear bike, first time on rollers - all in one year."
Erath borrowed a trainer that season and signed up to compete in the Zwift Academy Women. In the end, she beat more than 2,100 competitors, including Siri Hildonen and Bri Torkelson in the final, for a place on Canyon-SRAM's roster to compete on the UCI Women's WorldTour.
She said the moment she won felt similar to what she has seen in the finals of television music contests, though she said it wasn't as dramatic as something like American Idol. There was no confetti falling from the ceiling, but there were a lot of congratulatory hugs.
"In that moment, I really felt it," Erath said, remembering back to how she felt the moment she knew she'd won. "You normally watch these shows and the contestants who win say 'I can't believe it', and you think, 'whatever', but I exactly know how they feel now. In the end, it's just the same; it’s a casting show for a bike team.
"We were standing there and Matt Stephens from Global Cycling Network was the announcer, and there was a set up of three cameras. I felt super strange. We stood there and they told us who won. I didn’t know what to do. I was looking at the representative from Zwift, who was standing nearby. I was looking at the other finalists. Then I looked at the Zwift representative again, and I asked her if I could hug her because I felt like I needed to hug somebody. I hugged her. I hugged everyone."
Tanja Erath and Canyon-SRAM during the team time trial at Open de Suede Vargarda (Getty Images)
Fast forward to the end of her first season as a professional athlete and Erath has earned a contract renewal based on her strength, talent and teamwork during the 2018 season with Canyon-SRAM. She said the biggest difference between trying to be an athlete while working a full-time job, and having a professional contract to solely race her bike, is having the time to rest.
"I think the biggest difference is having the time to recover," Erath said. "I didn't even remember what it was like to sleep for more than six hours in a night. Recovery is the first thing that was lacking in the training that I was trying to do around my daily job.
"There is still a lot happening, though," she admitted to a busy cycling schedule. "You wake up early, go for a five-hour ride, some days there are interviews and lots of travel. It’s totally different than being a doctor, but it's still challenging in other ways.
"If you look back on something, like my life as a doctor before I won this professional contract to be a bike racer, it doesn’t seem like it was that hard. But at times during the last six years, it was very tough. In 2015, I nearly took half a year away from sports because I was burned out. But, for me, sports has always helped me to be able to study better and it has helped me to deal with my daily life."
Erath said she will eventually return to her life as a doctor, but for now, she is living her dream of being a professional athlete. And, at just 29 years old, she has plenty of time to pursue cycling before deciding between Urology and Anesthesia.