Investigation: What does it take to get from the Zwift Academy to the pro ranks?

Steve Shrubshall investigates what it takes to make it to the finals of the Zwift Academy and whether he has the talent to get there

FTP. What does it mean to you? To some cyclists it defines their very existence; to others it’s a seemingly random number bandied about by people with very expensive bicycles.

Whether you buy into it or not, your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) - the wattage you can theoretically hold for an hour (during which you are able to flush lactic acid build-up from your muscles as quickly as it accumulates) - might not define you as a human being, but it is an extremely good indicator of how strong a cyclist you are.

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Therefore, if you intend to take your riding to the next level, this baseline barometer of fitness is well worth establishing. Most of the time, however, it’s difficult to perform formal tests out on the open road, it’s a far easier proposition to exert yourself to the point of passing out in the comfort of your own pain cave.

That’s how the Zwift Academy has chosen to unearth a new wave of cycling talent in its annual competition — with the ultimate prize for competitors being a pro contract at Dimension Data’s development squad for the men, or Canyon-SRAM for the women.

Top 20

Last year's women's winner, Ella Harris in Canyon colours  (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Having started in early August this year, the Academy is now in its semi-final phase with 20 riders, 10 men and 10 women, having made the cut from over 60,000 participants - myself included in that number. But I’ve not made the semi-finals.

Have they missed a trick or am I past it? I learn from Elliot Lipski, head coach of the Dimension Data Development Team and the man tasked to crunch the numbers of this year’s Academy riders, that the all-important FTP is just one of several components that comprise a professional cyclist’s make-up.

"Throughout the Academy there’s a series of tests, workouts and races," says Lipski. "The workouts include 20-second, one-minute and four-minute tests. We’re looking at who’s strongest at these time points. These are the areas we’ve identified as being critical to success in cycling."

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Although a formal FTP effort isn’t part of the Academy’s sessions, Lipski is still able to garner the information he needs for a rider’s 20-minute power (and therefore an accurate percentage of lactate threshold) from the eight races that help make up the programme.

Five — the magic number

Many pro riders use Zwift as a training tool

Having established my own FTP as around 330 watts which, given my 84kg weight, equates to some four watts per kilo (4W/kg), am I cranking out the kind of power that could see me brushing a Lycra-clad shoulder with those at WorldTour level?

Sadly, it would appear not. "If you’re looking to be a pro, anything above 5W/kg is a ballpark figure - it’s a broad level of filtering," says Lipski, who continues to mention that most of the Academy participants weigh in at between 55kg and 75kg.

So with my relatively heavyset stature, perhaps raw power might edge me over the line. Would my 20-second sprinting wattage be enough to compete with the André Greipels of this world? Again, I was left floundering - my 900-watt kick leaving me in no-man’s land, some 5W/kg less powerful than the hardest hitters in the Academy semis, and the best part of 1,000 watts shy of the Gorilla himself.

Just a minute

With high 20-second power lending itself to a competitive sprint and time triallists usually in possession of a strong FTP, where does one-minute power enter into the equation?

"At Continental level you’re going to be producing one-minute max power efforts multiple times," says Lipski, "whether it’s to chase a break, to attack, to get back on to the bunch after going for a pee, or getting a bottle. Whatever it might be, you have to put in these big maximal anaerobic efforts."

So which current riders in the WorldTour have outstanding power to weight ratios? "Someone like Julian Alaphillipe, Alejandro Valverde, those sort of punchy riders that can hit 11 watts per kilo and hold that for a minute, then drop down to 7-8 watts per kilo to finish the effort for another few minutes," says Lipski, unsurprisingly tipping the Ardennes aficionados as the punchiest riders in the peloton.

How, then, did my own effort measure up against these two middleweight champions of the WorldTour? Well, it doesn’t look like I’ll be winning Flèche Wallonne any time soon with my 7W/kg one-minute power.

On track?

The Programme offers a selection of structured training sessions (Getty)

The final part of the puzzle is a four-minute power average. This is the kind of anaerobic effort that budding track pursuiters will try to nurture. Maybe my talents would be best showcased on the track? On the contrary. In fact, this was the area I was found wanting the most.

"A big area for improvement," says Lipski of my riding, "is your upper aerobic, your V02max type intervals. A way to do this is to polarise your training more. Sometimes you have to ride slower to go faster." Lipski here is referring to a considerable drop in wattage after a minute or so on my power curve, which in turn makes me good for some 5W/kg between 3-5 minutes. Those who have progressed into the semis are churning out a good 7-8.

So then, the results were in. My FTP was poor; my sprint weak, and the less said about my VO2max the better. But at least I, and now you, know what you need to aim for to get that cleat on the first rung of the pro ranks. It’s going to be a busy winter.

in the pain cave 2 x 8min Zwift semi-final workout

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.

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