It’s been seven years since the first Zwift Academy, where 39-year-old American Leah Thorvilson beat thousands of hopefuls to secure a 2017 contract (and a 2018 extension) with Canyon//SRAM Racing.
When Zwift Academy first launched, the premise was to discover raw talent using a virtual platform. Zwift is helping riders like Leah Thorvilson, the first Zwift Academy winner who came into cycling late but had a lot to offer, to bridge the accessibility gap to the top end of the sport. As part of the cutback process, five hopefuls will receive an invite to Women’s WorldTeam Canyon-SRAM training camp, where the team leaders will decide who is best suited for the following season.
Since its inaugural year, the academy has taken on a life of its own, with the Alpecin-Deceuninck men’s team partnering with Canyon-SRAM to offer a professional contract for the 2021 season. Last year, a GCN+ reality series was filmed about the week-long finals trial.
Of late, the Zwift Academy has evolved into a targeted path for riders to break into the pro peloton and as a result, the winners of recent years bear less of a resemblance to Thorvilson and her successor, Tanja Erath, and are more young, developing talent like the 2020 winners , Neve Bradbury.
For the 2022 finals, however, there is one contender who still embodies the original concept: Liz van Houweling, a mother of two living in rural Iowa.
Before becoming a mother, Liz had dabbled in road and track racing since college. After graduating, she moved around, spending time in Indianapolis and Arizona before settling in Iowa, where she met her mountain biker husband.
“When I moved to Iowa, I did more mountain biking, cyclocross and gravel,” she tells me via Zoom from the finals in Dénia, Spain. “And the street racing scene just wasn’t that good. I think that the population density was not as high as in other places. So it wasn’t very fun when you show up to a race with ten girls.”
She continued to race off-road before she “got married, had kids [and] I haven’t really ridden a bike for five years.”
“It was really tough being a mother. I just felt like I had nothing to myself. And I had no control over my body for years,” she recalls. “So I just wanted to feel good physically and mentally again, just to have some kind of escape and something that made me feel better.”
Come in, Zwift. Van Houweling’s brother-in-law bought her a voucher to try the platform for 30 days and she quickly fell in love. “I was super motivated by the numbers and the improvement,” she said. “And I kind of jumped straight into racing, even from the start.”
As a mother of two, would she have gotten back into racing without Zwift? “No way,” she said. “It’s just too much time and money and travel.”
“I did a couple of races last year and my husband just had to look after the kids and they are three and four years old and just little scares. So even with a two hour mountain bike race for him to try and keep her entertained the whole time. It’s just too much.”
Travel is also a prohibitive factor that virtual races avoid: “Where I live, the high-quality races aren’t particularly accessible. So if you want really good, deep, high-quality fields, you have to travel that far, and everything gets more expensive too. So I wouldn’t have had the motivation, the time, or the energy to really get into a massive amount of racing in real life,” she said.
However, the potential to make a career out of cycling through Zwift hadn’t crossed her mind. “I had no idea indoor racing was of such a high standard,” she said.
“When I started, my son would still fall asleep in the afternoon. So I used to Zwift races whenever he was napping. And then I got better and better. And for the first year and a half, I mainly did the mixed races with the men.”
She joined a UK-based e-racing team, ProVision, where she continued to race alongside the men. “So that’s where I learned a lot about my Zwiftcraft, as they call it, and just got better as a Zwift racer.”
Describing how she basically got fit, Van Houweling said, “I did very little structured exercise…sitting on the trainer and doing five-by-five-minute intervals just didn’t sound like fun to me.”
Racing with the men also meant she could only view the race as training and not competition. “I also just don’t like pressure in my life,” she said. “So as a female and male race, you can always say, ‘Oh, these are men.'”
“So, to be honest, I didn’t really know how good I was compared to the other women racing back then. It was easy to feel good again and to do something for myself.”
It wasn’t until January 2022 that Van Houweling started racing with other women on Zwift. “Then they announced the eSports World Championships that were going to be in February…that became something of a goal, I still haven’t really done any structured training but I’d love to do hill reps. I knew I was going to need a really strong three to five minute force for this particular class. So I definitely changed my training a bit after qualifying for the World Cup.”
Van Houweling now races for the Saris NoPinz women’s team and is currently the fourth-placed female Zwifter in the world with a much higher score than the other Academy finalists on ZwiftPower, the website that keeps track of virtual race results and leaderboards.
Despite her experience in both the real and virtual worlds, Van Houweling again mentioned how difficult it is for her to deal with pressure: “It’s definitely not my forte,” she admitted. “But I’m also realistic. I am a mother, I have a husband who has a full time job. I have two children. I know that cycling is a very small part of my life because my priority has to be my family.”
“I’m just trying to keep track of everything. And it’s not my whole life if I don’t win that pro contract and I have to be realistic about what I can do even if I do win it. So I’m trying to just approach this week in a way that I can enjoy the experience and make the most of it without putting any pressure on myself. It’s easier said than done, but that’s my goal and I know it’s not the end of the world no matter what.”
For someone who doesn’t like pressure (she also mentioned that she chose cycling in college because “it was less pressure than a collegiate sport”), the concept is competing for the contract against the other finalists Having to measure “very overwhelming” as well as the idea of being filmed. “I’m not a fan. So I definitely don’t like pressure. I don’t like attention. So my goal is to stay as far away from the camera as possible. keep your mouth shut if possible, don’t draw attention to me.”
But there’s also plenty to look forward to, not least some road driving. “I bet I haven’t ridden a real road bike outside in at least 10 years,” she said. As well as getting to know the other finalists.
There is also the appeal of being able to compare yourself to other racers in the real world: “It’s all like challenges on the bike. I feel like I’ve been racing outside all the time. And now I mostly race indoors and I’m fitter than ever, even when I was racing outdoors when I was younger.”
However, Van Houweling’s main goal is “to be an inspiration that there is no direct route to an incredible life experience in cycling. You can do it in different ways.”
“I know they say they’re looking for the next pro racer, which is true I’m sure, but there are a lot of ways they’re going about it.”