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The Power of Zwift Academy: A Game-Changer in Professional Cycling Talent Identification

By Kasia Niewiadoma

If you’ve been following the Zwift Academy Final series, you know it’s been filled with highs and lows, thrills and spills, triumph and disappointment. Last week, with the release of the final episode, the winners have been announced. Congratulations to Maddie Le Roux (South Africa), winner of 2023, who is now set to join Canyon–SRAM (my team) Generation! Personally, I am so grateful that Zwift Academy exists, and today, I’d like to tell you why.

As a professional cyclist, I’ve witnessed the challenges aspiring riders face, particularly those from countries where cycling isn’t as popular. For years, geographical limitations and a lack of access to competitive opportunities have hindered the path to success. However, the emergence of programs like Zwift Academy has greatly impacted talent identification in the sport, offering a lifeline to riders around the globe, including those from “non-cycling popular” countries like mine.

I’d say it represents an essential shift in how talent is discovered and nurtured in professional cycling. Through this innovative virtual platform, riders can compete against the best in the world from the comfort of their own homes, transcending geographical barriers and showcasing their abilities on a global stage. For me, seeing athletes from diverse backgrounds rise to prominence through Zwift Academy is not just inspiring but also a testament to the transformative power of technology in our sport.

Changing talent identification in professional cycling

In regions with limited cycling infrastructure and opportunities, aspiring cyclists often face challenges finding teams and racing at higher levels. Being able to Zwift from any location and compete against top talent eliminates the need to navigate through traditional steps that can sometimes be influenced by luck. This allows athletes to showcase their pure strength and power on a level playing field. Moreover, it enables them to catch the attention of professional teams based on their performance rather than their geographical location. Ultimately, Zwift Academy serves as a springboard for riders from non-cycling-centric countries to demonstrate their abilities and pursue their dreams in professional cycling.

Integration into the team

The program aims to make the transition to professional cycling as seamless as possible for the winner. I have seen first-hand that the winner of Zwift Academy receives the same level of support as any other pro tour rider on our racing team. They receive equipment for both home and competition use, including all necessary cycling gear. Additionally, they benefit from training camps supported by coaches, sports directors, and physios. Moreover, they earn a coveted spot in one of the most prestigious races on our calendar.

Once integrated into the team, the rider is surrounded by a professional panel of team members who share their knowledge and experience, facilitating further development. We prioritise creating a friendly environment that encourages newcomers to be themselves and relax, fostering an atmosphere where making mistakes is accepted and seen as part of the learning process. Recognising that winners may have different cycling paths requiring extra support and time, we ensure they receive the necessary assistance to thrive.

Life-changing opportunities for amateur cyclists

I’ve had the privilege of witnessing seven Zwift Academies, but one in particular stands out to me: the 2018 edition when Tanja Erath emerged as the winner. Tanja’s journey was particularly remarkable as she transitioned from working long shifts as a doctor to embarking on a Zwift adventure. It was inspiring to observe her progress and witness her sheer enjoyment of cycling and racing, characterised by her fun-loving attitude and unwavering determination. For Tanja, transitioning from a 24-hour shift at the hospital to waking up in sunny Spain to ride her bike and receive a massage afterwards was genuinely life-changing.

I think Tanja’s journey serves as a refreshing and motivating reminder of the privilege we hold in pursuing our passion as a career. It’s humbling to see individuals like Tanja who dream of being in our position and work tirelessly with dedication and sacrifice to make it a reality. Her story reinforces the importance of cherishing and embracing every moment we have to pursue our passions wholeheartedly.

Impact on team dynamics and diversity

When it comes to team integration, welcoming a Zwift Academy winner feels no different than adding any new teammate to our roster. However, when it comes to racing, it varies. Some finalists possess more experience than others. Success in cycling isn’t solely about raw power; it’s about mastering bike handling, positioning in the peloton, showcasing a fighting spirit during key race moments, riding cohesively as a team, and maintaining composure amidst the chaos of the peloton. While winners may face a learning curve in understanding these nuances, they make rapid progress and learn from their mistakes.

Regarding the role of Zwift Academy in promoting inclusivity and diversity within professional cycling, I believe it’s commendable. Much like other pro teams, Zwift Academy cultivates a nurturing environment for young, talented riders with significant potential but limited support in their home countries. Initiatives like Canyon–SRAM’s Development Team, established in 2022, underscore the importance of diversity and inclusion in nurturing emerging talent. Through these efforts, the program fosters a more inclusive and diverse landscape within professional cycling.

Envisioning the future of Zwift Academy and advice for aspiring cyclists

Looking ahead, I see Zwift Academy continuing to evolve and shape the future of cycling. I envision Zwift Academy forming its own UCI team and participating in prestigious races like the Tour de France, further solidifying its role in shaping the future of cycling for both amateur riders and professional teams like Canyon–SRAM.

Visualisation and hard work are key for aspiring cyclists considering participation in Zwift Academy. Visualise your goals and the environment you aspire to be in, then work diligently and precisely to turn those dreams into reality.