This is a sponsored article, brought to you in association with Zwift
Look around the professional peloton today and you’ll see swathes of riders raised on the sport from a young age, before racing at a high level through their teens and eventually turning pro. More often than not that’s the case, but there are exceptions.
Exceptions like marathon runner Leah Thorvilson, forced to change sports in her mid-30s after being told she couldn’t run again. Or Tanja Erath, a triathlete who began a switch to cycling full-time just two years ago at the age of 26. Then there’s 21-year-old Ollie Jones, who converted to cycling in 2016 due to injuries suffered during his previous career in speed skating.
They do have one thing in common though — all three came through the Zwift Academy, a new way to discover pro-level talent via the multiplayer online training program. A growing number of real-life professionals — including Mark Cavendish, Adam Yates and hundreds of others — use Zwift for training, but since 2016 Zwift Academy has opened to door to the pro ranks to everyone.
August will see the start of Zwift Academy’s third season. A series of workouts, group rides and races whittles down a field of thousands to the best man and woman, both of whom are awarded a one-year pro contract with the Dimension Data for Qhubeka U23 team and CANYON//SRAM Racing respectively.
The first graduates from Zwift Academy, Thorvilson, Jones and Erath go to show how inclusive it is, with their wide age ranges proof that age is no barrier for a place at the top table.
This is in line with the Zwift philosophy - anybody can do it. From kids who have just learned to ride to 80-year-olds going by usernames like ‘Not Dead Yet’, Zwift is for everyone. The globally accessible nature of Zwift, along with its relatively low-cost entry point (you just need a bike, a trainer and a computer or tablet to get going), really does mean that Zwift Academy is open to everyone.
That contrasts with the traditional method of finding talent, a ‘right place, right time’ approach with a scout possibly taking notice, or possibly not. It’s something anybody can do from the comfort of their own home, while pure performance indicators equal progression through Zwift Academy.
From heart rate to W/kg and everything in between, tracked in an environment devoid of outside factors, training, coaching and tracking progress is simple - both for casual Zwift riders and those serious about Zwift Academy. Of course, later on, the pro team staff evaluate rider’s race-craft, ability to strategise and their personality fit but the potential opportunities for those with raw talent to be spotted are unparalleled.
At the moment over half a million people have gone for a ride on Zwift, with the userbase still growing, making it certainly the largest base of riding talent in the world. Going by the sheer numbers alone, there has to be quite some more undiscovered talents out there to go with Thorvilson, Jones and Erath.
British Cycling had, it’s safe to say, a much smaller talent pool when the World Class Performance Plan was put into action in 1997. Now, two decades later, there have been 25 Olympic golds, countless race wins around the world and riders of the calibre of Mark Cavendish, Simon Yates, Laura Kenny and Lizzie Deignan introduced to the pro peloton.
There’s also the passion for cycling already rooted in Zwift users that is not always apparent in those picked out by scouts at a young age. And it’s this that Zwift believe will be the base for the success of Zwift Academy.
Zwift has lofty ambitions but rather than being in competition with other, more traditional, talent systems such as that of British Cycling, he sees it as a complement to them. Only with the caveat that the desire and passion for the sport comes first - rather than the flat pursuit of the discovery of raw talent itself.
From the looks of things, Thorvilson, Jones and Erath are just the beginning of the Zwift Academy story. With Thorvilson re-signed for a second season at CANYON//SRAM Racing, and the other duo in the midst of their debut years it will be interesting to track their progress as professionals.
What will be even more fascinating though, is following the future of Zwift Academy itself, it’s growth and future success. It’s certainly an ambitious and venerable goal; now let’s see if Zwift Academy really can be the new British Cycling.