Imagine a four-day job interview, where you’re repeatedly asked to visit the very depths of your physical and mental limit. At the end is the possibility of a prize that could change your life forever. There are over 20 interviewers watching you 24/7, and you’re sharing a room with the competition.
Welcome to the finale of the 2019 Zwift Academy, where riders are competing for a pro contract with Canyon-SRAM women’s UCI team or the NTT Pro Cycling U23 development team for men.
An initial pool of more than 68,000 riders was narrowed down to 10 men and 10 women for the semi-finals, with coaches poring over their data to pick the best prospects from a string of testing indoor races and workouts. And now I'm present at the women's final, where the group has been whittled down to just three, arriving today at the team training camp in Malaga, Spain, to experience a taste of what could soon be their daily reality.
Unfortunately, the podium is only big enough for one.
Looking the part
The three finalists are not without pedigree. Catherine Colyn was South African U23 national road race champion in 2018; New Zealand's Samara Sheppard is a 29-year-old multiple national mountain bike champion; and 22-year-old Jessica Pratt was under-19 Australian national champion and finished ninth at the under-19 World Championships road race in 2015.
Upon arrival, the three receive their unmistakable Canyon-SRAM kit, alongside an Aeroad or an Ultimate to test out in the coming days.
They certainly look the part, and the professionalism of the set up is lost on none of them.
“Mountain biking is very different, it’s an individual sport,” Sheppard tells Cycling Weekly. “It’s inspiring to see the team, their set up, and how they work as a unit to do what needs to be done to generate performance.”
They may be battling for just one place, but Colyn isn’t about to make enemies.
“We can give each other tips, help each other. It’s what’s in your body which is make or break – you yourself still turn the pedals, so it’s not going to give them an upper hand on you if you offer advice.
“If we can’t help each other out, how are we going to help our team mates?” she muses.
Of course, at this point it’s early days, but sharing a room at the team camp hotel means she and Pratt are already close.
Hours after their first team ride, the “Zwifties” are called to the training room, one-by-one. Three orange Z’s hang proud on the wall, a territorial marker of where this all began.
Each rider must complete a ramp test, in front of their potential teammates, performance and sports director.
The numbers on the screen don’t lie, and any nervous jump in heart rate is there for all to see.
For the uninitiated, a ramp test involves a gradual increase in resistance – from an easy pace until failure, via 20 watt increases each minute. Standing on the pedals is banned, and the test is over when the rider is simply not able to continue while seated. FTP is taken as 75% of the final minute of pedalling, though in reality it’ll range from 71 to 77% depending upon physiology.
Sheppard is up first. A 29-year-old with a successful knobbly-tyred career to her name, she’s poker faced. In fact, the effort seems almost effortless right to the point that she grinds to a halt.
It’s her first FTP test in seven years.
“I guess I ride a bit more organically. I’m lucky to have good friends to ride with and chase – I know what I need to do to make myself faster. I don’t follow a super structured plan,” she tells me after the test.
Colyn is second. Her reaction as the resistance builds up is markedly different. Head thrashing, she fights the bike, watts dipping below the goal and then surging as she puts in one more push, then another, then another. A black bag is quickly produced when she’s done, and there’s a respectful pause before applause begins.
Afterwards, she still wishes she’d done more.
“When you’re a cyclist, pain is part of the job description. You always think ‘I could have done this or that better’ and over analyse it. I’m pretty tough on myself, but I honestly think I gave it pretty much everything, I’m still shaking,” she says, and she raises a hand for me to observe.
Pratt is the last to climb on. Nerves might be present, but her eyes are bright and almost as wide as her smile. Of course, in the last minutes, that’s replaced by a grimace, but for long into the test she continues to chat and entertain the crowd. The team riders exchange looks which say “could you hold this power and still shoot the breeze?”
Afterwards, she’s already looking to the next challenge.
“I hope tomorrow’s ride is something long and epic; I want the chance to show myself,” she comments.
- Sheppard – 210 watts – 4.3w/kg
- Colyn – 208 watts – 4.0w/kg
- Pratt – 227 watts – 4.5w/kg
Climbing to the top
The team is seeking a climber, so it’s logical that there’s time set aside to send the three Zwift riders up an incline to see who will be Queen of the Mountain. The riders will have two chances, while their potential teammates set off early to watch the fireworks that ensue.
As soon as the metaphorical flag drops, Sheppard is off – and she’s not bluffing. The lithe rider holds off the equally lithe competition on both occasions, with Pratt not far behind.
The result is exactly as coach Kevin Poulton expected.
“Samara is strongest over an endurance effort, but Jess can perform better over repeated efforts,” he says.
Both riders know themselves – after the ride, Sheppard notes “today’s challenges suited my strengths,” while Pratt has already told me: “I generally class myself as a bit of an all rounder. I’m not a climber. But I can usually keep up with the climbers, and then be the rider with the strongest kick at the end.”
- Climb one: Duration = 5min 29sec, Avg power = 283, 5.7wkg
- Climb two: Duration = 3min 13sec, Avg power = 308, 6.2wkg
- Climb 1: Duration = 5min 57sec, Avg power = 270, 5.3wkg
- Climb 2: Duration = 3min 22sec, Avg power = 290, 5.7wkg
- Climb 1: Duration = 8min 10sec Avg power = 245, 4.8wkg (chain drop)
- Climb 2: Duration = 4min 05sec, Avg power = 250, 4.9wkg
Sprint to win
Any road racer knows that a high FTP is only a small part of the equation, and Pratt’s promised kick is put to the test the following day.
The team’s Performance Director, Lars Teutenberg, and newly recruited Sports Director, Rolf Aldag, have prescribed the riders a session including two standing starts, three downhill lead-outs, and one uphill sprint.
Pratt wins in five of six efforts, with Colyn scooping up the prize in the final effort with an excited air-punch and a whoop.
Having been disappointed after the previous day’s efforts, she’d told me: “I suppose this is a bit like a tour, you always have a bad day – it’s how you come back from it that matters.” That final victory clearly injects her with a much needed boost of morale – which is a useful asset with a further Zwift race lying in wait that evening.
- Sheppard – Max 5s: 575w @ 11.7 w/kg
- Colyn – Max 5s: 708w @ 17.7 w/kg
- Pratt – Max 5s: 738w @ 14.9 w/kg
The Zwift finalists race is always going to carry odd dynamics; like GC contenders at the Tour, the three competitors in front of us care more about the time gaps between each other than they do who crosses the virtual finish line first.
The Canyon-SRAM riders crowd the space around the “Zwifties”, and they get a few cheerleaders each.
It’s a short race. As the finish line draws closer, it’s Sheppard who is out of the saddle, attacking to put virtual space between her and her rivals. Pratt can’t match her pace, and Colyn is further down the road. In the end, it’s Sheppard who is rewarded, leaning over the bars to recover as the others pedal on to the finish – but the level of support in the room for second-placed Pratt is noticeable.
- Sheppard – Duration: 20min 29sec @ 4.7 w/kg, Max 5sec: 430w @ 8.8 w/kg
- Pratt – Duration: 20min 46sec @ 4.5 w/kg, Max 5sec 367w @ 7.4 w/kg
- Colyn – Duration: 21min 38sec @ 4.2 w/kg, Max 5 sec 338w @ 6.6 w/kg
The final climb to the summit
It’s the last day of camp for the Zwift finalists, and today, one rider will receive a life-changing pro contract while the other two will return to the life they left behind.
The final stage laid out for their performance is a tough one – a six-hour ride, accumulating over 3,500 metres of climbing and finishing with a two-hour ascent to Sierra Nevada.
The transfer hotel is nestled in a ski resort. It’s cold, and at 2,300 metres, altitude is likely to influence the riders’ performance.
It’s not the day for South African Colyn. Used to warmer climates, she arrives at the summit trailing her competition, shivering and looking downcast.
Pratt and Sheppard appear to have called a truce.
“I felt like I had a good day on the bike,” says Pratt. “I felt really good. I finished the climb with Samara, we were bonding over Mavis Peanut butter – and what we’re going eat when we get home!
“I’m nervous about the big decision tonight… but ultimately there’s not much I can do now. Whatever happens, happens, it’s up to the girls. It’s been an amazing experience either way.”
It’s not all about numbers and physical ability. The eventual winner will need to blend into the team, and that fact is at front and centre of many discussions over the four-day interview process. It’s not just physical prowess under scrutiny – it’s personality, too.
Earlier in the week, each rider was brought in to be interviewed by four of their potential team mates: Tiffany Cromwell, Kasia Niewiadoma, Alice Barnes and Alexis Ryan.
After the grilling, team captain Cromwell comments: “It was a chance to get to know them, to see if we can work out who is being genuine, and who is playing the game.
“The winner needs to fit in with the team. We spend so much time on the road, we need someone who can read a rider’s mood – for example if someone doesn’t want to talk, they don’t want to talk, don’t keep talking at them.
“This whole process is super intimidating for the new riders – the team is already so settled. We’re looking for someone who can integrate.”
Canyon-SRAM is a close-knit group – unusually, all 15 riders remain for 2020. On the final evening, they make a democratic decision, with every member from riders to staff casting one vote. Only if it’s split equally will manager Ronny Lauke make a final call, but he values the riders' opinion on their new teammate immensely.
“By this point in the process, we know all three riders are immensely strong. We now need to focus on the soft skills. We have 15 riders who have been though many situations together, and strengthened their relationship. To recruit a team mate this late in the year, it is important they fit in,” he tells me.
Not the end of the road
You may already know what happened. At a quiet and respectful final meeting, the winner is announced as Australia’s Jessica Pratt, who will now begin a new adventure as a pro with Canyon-SRAM.
Earlier, Amstel Gold Race winner Niewiadoma gave some insight into why she voted the way she did. "When I saw Jess, and I saw her energy and how she talks with people, as well as how she rides, I just thought 'I really like her'," she said. “There's no explanation, or reasons why, I just felt she could be a good match. The girls are all super nice, and very strong. But listening to my gut, I would just say Jess would make the best team mate."
When her name was announced, the effervescent Aussie was uncharacteristically lost for words. When speech returned, she told me: “Back in 2017, people were encouraging me to apply for teams. But I was 19, I chose to finish my nursing degree. This whole time I’ve been wondering if I made the right decision. This feels like a second chance.
“To pursue a career in cycling is my dream. And I’m proud to prove to people you can put an education behind you and then come back to the sport.”
It would be wrong to consider this the end of the road for either, though. With a calendar of mountain bike races and a university degree in communications ahead of her, Sheppard remained every bit the cool, calm and collected rider she’d been from day one, even in disappointment.
For Colyn, the news is hard to hear. Getting this close, but not quite crossing the finish line was always going to be hard. But it’s far from the end of the road: ahead lie the South African nationals, another chance to be champion – and another chance to win.
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