On October 22, 2022, Paige Onweller won the 104.2-mile Big Sugar Gravel Pro Women's title, the final race in the LifeTime Grand Prix six-race series. The rising star's first professional victory over the series winner Haley Smith and runner-up Sofia Gomez Villafane moved her to ninth in the final overall standings and ensured a $7,000 payout.
The Michigan native's breakthrough win is one of a list of impressive 2022 results, including the win at Barry Roubaix, second at (the unofficial) Gravel Worlds, fourth at LeadBoat, and top-10 placings at Leadville and Chequamegon. Onweller's ascension up the off-road ranks, at first glance, may look like that of any other rising superstar until you consider this.
2021 Gravel Worlds Was Paige Onweller’s First Mass Start Race
"2021 was my first partial racing season with a 5th place finish at Gravel Worlds as my first mass start race," says the 33-year-old Onweller, who currently continues to work full-time as a physician's assistant in a hospital ER. And this.
Onweller excitedly shared the breaking news: "I will be doing an off-road privateer program for gravel and MTB and then a partial road calendar! I am happy to report that I have enough support to ride full-time now, so I actually just put in my notice for my Physician's Assitant job and will be racing (professionally) next year!"
That’s all she would say, but that's not all.
The announcement comes from an unlikely place despite Onweller's past career as a collegiate cross-country and track athlete and her long-distance running COVID hobby.
"I started to dabble in ultra-marathons during COVID, and my most notable achievement was doing R3 (Rim to Rim to Rim) in the Grand Canyon at the end of 2020," she shares.
Onweller's 10-mile running PR is 60:30, and she broke 1:20 in the half marathon.
Onweller Began Biking in 2020 Just For Fun
Onweller had rarely ridden a bike before 2020 when she began "just for fun" and as "a different way to get cardio that complimented my running goals without the additional weight bearing as I injured myself a lot."
But Onweller was intimidated riding on the road and with others, and that's where her story takes a most unpredictable turn: she turned to the virtual riding platform of Zwift.
"Previously, when I rode outside, it was honestly just very stressful, and I didn’t always feel safe. Zwift removed those fears so I could focus on competing and enjoying the bike," she says.
"I think my story shows that [Zwift] is a great way to build confidence on the bike that you can take IRL, even if that is gaining enough confidence to try that group ride you’ve always heard about."
First Race Experience Was on Zwift For Paige Onweller
Onweller quickly excelled in the Zwift Racing League community ranks, and her performances caught the attention of Team Twenty24's Josh Lipka, who she credits as being responsible for her esports trajectory, discovering the potential in her raw wattage.
She joined the team to compete at Zwift's highest level in the Premier Division.
"The Premier Division was a big game changer for me," she shares, "it gave opportunities to improve throughout the season, and the live coverage the series provided was incredible. My family would watch from across the country and cheer, and it was accessible and engaging to both riders and supporters."
Zwift Racing Tore Down Barriers to Real-Life Racing For Onweller
The top tier of Zwift racing became a venue for Onweller to improve her cycling ability, learn strategy and tactics and grow as a racer.
"Cycling tactics were easier to learn on Zwift with a [Directeur Sportif] and a team," she says. "I learned a lot from the community because I think people saw my potential and reached out, giving me tips, sending videos, they were invested in my progression."
Gradually Onweller began to question the limitations of competing in elite esports. Cycling was still new to her, but once she realized how strong she was, the question of whether she could produce the same results IRL entered her mind.
"Zwift empowered me," Paige proudly admits. "It gave me the confidence to actually try and accept the risks outdoors in hopes that I could match my level of racing."
Cycling Esports Empowered, Also Frustrated Paige Onweller
Esports also came with its own set of inherent obstacles that were difficult for Onweller to accept, and she soon grew disheartened and dissatisfied with the experience.
"I went through all the validation stuff with [Zwift Anti-Doping Agency], which was horrendous. The weigh-ins, the height videos, the technological difficulties for dual recording, etc. It was honestly a headache, and I wanted to quit many times," she recalls.
"Many tears were shed in that process, mainly because it was cumbersome. I respect the need for that, but it just became time-consuming to ensure all your equipment was functioning correctly, and you accurately validated things."
But her meteoric progression up the esports rankings and several top-ten placings in the Premier Division piqued her competitive curiosity.
"I was unable to stop wondering if I could replicate the results in real life (IRL), and some of the women I was racing against in the Premier Division were legit IRL cyclists, so I started to question if I could do that too," she says.
"It was still terrifying to think about riding outdoors but I also saw the massive gender disparity that sport has and felt a sense of obligation to at least try outdoor racing."
Her USA Pro Nationals TT Disappointment
And so she tried out her strength in the real world.
"My first ever bike race was March 2021 with a tiny, local race that wouldn't even classify it as a mass start since they did really small waves with COVID."
Then she jumped into the deep end after receiving a coach's exemption to compete in the USA Pro Road Nationals Time Trial.
Onweller focused on time trials as the safest and easiest path because she lacked experience negotiating a group and lacked technical riding skills.
There, she discovered that she had a lot to learn, but it didn't deter her. After a disappointing Nationals, she signed up for her next race with renewed inspiration.
“I really wanted to prove myself so I signed up for the largest mass start bike race that still had open registration, which was Gravel Worlds. So August 2021 was my first mass start bike race and I told myself if I didn’t die and had fun then I would keep trying this thing called gravel," she says.
"I ended placing 5th overall female there, and despite not having any clue how to ride in a pack I survived and learned a lot that day. This race allowed me to see that I had potential if I could figure a few things out.”
Fear Turns to Drive
Onweller practiced cornering for hours, watched YouTube videos on pack riding and became a dedicated student of the sport. Learning those skills takes experience and repetitions, which takes time and patience and Onweller put in the hours. It was a frustrating process and time moved slowly for the hyper-motivated racer fueled by a fire to overcome.
“It’s scary. Anyone that says otherwise is probably lying. I think everything hinges on what you do with that fear. The fear can drive you back to what you are comfortable with or the fear can motivate you to be better and want to improve. The fear in my case was motivating. The way I saw it was that I was strong and doing fairly well without those skills, so I asked myself what I could accomplish if I gained those skills.”
Onweller Joins a List of Cyclists Propelled to the Pros By Virtual Cycling
The rest is Onweller's short, eventful and decorated cycling history.
"My ultimate goal is to continue having fun on bikes and race at the highest possible level for the longest time. More importantly, I want to empower other females to ride bikes and encourage new riders just starting. I would love to race Zwift in the future and feel I could have qualified for Esports Worlds, I’m not sure what that future looks like, but for now, it holds a special place."
Add Paige Onweller's name to the growing list of cyclists, like multiple Vuelta de Espana stage winner Jay Vine and Michael Vink, the most recent addition to UAE discovered on MyWhoosh, who've used virtual cycling as a springboard to the pros. Not bad for a newbie (Paige’s words, not mine).
Ride on, Paige!
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