Leah Thorvilson: I remember feeling like an outsider and an underdog

Leah Thorvilson was the first Zwift Academy graduate, signing with Canyon//SRAM in 2017

Leah Thorvilson was the first Zwift Academy graduate, signing with Canyon//SRAM in 2017 (Image credit: Canyon//SRAM)

Leah Thorvilson will ride again for Canyon-SRAM next season after securing herself a one-year extension with the team. Thorvilson has been racing with the German-registered squad for the past season after winning the Zwift Academy at the end of 2016.

A former runner with little experience in peloton racing, Thorvilson was thrown in at the deep end when she made her debut at the Belgian Classics in February.

"I remember my first night in Belgium, having a breakdown and thinking, 'am I going to be able to do this?', and feeling so out of place and feeling like the outsider and underdog," Thorvilson tells Cyclingnews.

"None of that was from poor treatment from teammates or anything, but everybody else knows each other and everyone else knows the ropes. I just felt like a stranger in a strange land, and then there are so many questions that for them seem like second nature or silly. It was hard for me to feel at ease."

Thorvilson was speaking to Cyclingnews the evening before she rode the Taiwan KOM challenge, her final event of the year before a second brief off-season. Former professional Emma Pooley went on to win the event, while Thorvilson finished one hour and 27 seconds back on the Briton. Thorvilson had planned for the Taiwan KOM to be the start of her build-up to the 2018 season but she only managed a week away from her bike in her initial off-season stint and feels that she needs another short break to avoid mental fatigue in the forthcoming season.

"Even when I was running, I didn't like time off that much. I think it is even more difficult for me now," Thorvilson explained. "You're trying to find things that don't include riding the bike. I'll go and meet a friend for coffee, it's social and fairly inexpensive, but then I would rather ride my bike to the coffee shop than drive. Then you're like 'dang it now I'm on the bike'. It's just a bit strange to navigate. I wish I could just relax and enjoy it more, but it's just different. I don't think I've ever had a time where I had a break from my sport where I didn't have a job to go to.

"For sure, I need to take a week or two, but it won't be more than two if I can manage to take that. It will be kind of an abbreviated off-season."

One more year

Securing an extension to her Canyon-SRAM contract came as something of a surprise to Thorvilson. She had agreed to speak with team manager Ronny Lauke several months before they got the opportunity to hash out the details of a new deal.

It left her with plenty of time for questions about her future to roll around inside her head. She had pondered searching out a contract with an American team, but the deal did eventually come. Given the challenges of her debut season, Thorvilson's ambitions are generally modest, but a win in a lower-ranked race is on her wish list.

"I need to work on my self-confidence because I think that a lot of it is trying to get inside your head, like trying to navigate the peloton," she said. "I want to help my teammates and be consistent, but I haven't figured out anything specific in terms of numbers.

"I know I'll probably do some smaller Belgian races - not the Classics - to prepare for the season and I'd like to win something in that range. Looking at the team's races, sure I can look at a list of races and think this or that would be good for me but my goal is to do something for a teammate."

Feeling like a pro

Navigating a proper off-season hasn't been the only challenge for Thorvilson this year. Her whole life has changed after she gave up her job to become a full-time professional, but there are times when she's not sure if she really feels like a pro, particularly when she compares herself to her teammates.

"The only reason I hesitate to say no is that I've lived the life of it," she told Cyclingnews when asked if she felt like a professional rider. "But then I look at everybody else on the team and they're the cream of the crop of a professional top. There in the top handful of teams. When I meet someone and they ask what I do, I say I'm a professional cyclist and then I think 'that's just weird'."

Thorvilson's power output played a large part in her selection, along with her personality and drive. There was still a lot to get to grips with, namely race craft and riding in a peloton. While it might have been second nature to her teammates, which included former road race and time trial world champions Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Lisa Brennauer, respectively, for Thorvilson it was akin to learning to walk at 38.

It was not an easy process and, at times, she felt as if she had gotten nowhere at all. There were some knockbacks but, with the benefit of hindsight, she can see that she has come on since her debut and wouldn't think twice about doing it all over again.

"I didn't realise that I had a page, but someone sent me a link to it at the end of the year and it had every UCI race that I did," Thorvilson said. "I looked down to the beginning of the year and there was DNF after DNF. I finished my second race but I think in the first six that was the only one. So to look later on and to be finishing consistently, it's a big deal to me.

"I've gained a lot of self-confidence on the bike and I'm able to race better and that makes it more fun. There were moments that were really tough but what jobs don't have really crappy moments? At this stage, I'd rather be working through those challenges than solving an issue at the office job that I had. 10 times out of 10 I would make the same decision if I had to." 

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Born in Ireland to a cycling family and later moved to the Isle of Man, so there was no surprise when I got into the sport. Studied sports journalism at university before going on to do a Masters in sports broadcast. After university I spent three months interning at Eurosport, where I covered the Tour de France. In 2012 I started at Procycling Magazine, before becoming the deputy editor of Procycling Week. I then joined Cyclingnews, in December 2013.