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Zwift Academy Winner Ella Harris

How she was able to beat thousands for a spot on Canyon/Sram.

Riding indoors used to be a laborious task intended for people who were short on time or could not brave the elements on those colder days. Zwift has created not only new alternative where people can virtually compete but has created an entirely new aspect of cycling culture. With the advent of smart trainers, better technology, and the ability to measure all sorts of metrics, "Zwifters" are not only getting fitter but much more competitive. People who are dedicated Zwift devotees are now transitioning to real world racing and the Zwift Academy was born. It's a way to see the various talent compete for a spot for on a pro team. 

 

Ella Harris has emerged from a pool of thousands to not only show what she can do on the trainer but after a few days riding with the Canyon/Sram squad has won a contract to compete at the top of the sport. Ella writes the narrative as we find out how this rider from New Zealand had one of the most unorthodox paths to the pro ranks. 

Although I loved sports and was very active as a kid, I didn’t really participate in any specific sport practices or competitions until I joined my Dad as a member of a local harriers club at aged 8. My parents influenced my sporting decisions from a very early age, with both of them competing at various multisport, running and triathlon events when I was young. My mother encouraged me to go out running with her in the evenings while she was training for events, and eventually it became my first true sporting passion as I really loved it. I started cycling at 10 years old with my parents on the weekends after I was interested in competing at a regional school triathlon champs. From there, I continued to cycle, run and swim regularly, partaking in junior training groups with my local triathlon and running clubs and also joining a swim squad. I competed in triathlon as well as running to a junior national level, but didn’t start cycle racing until I joined the cycling club at my first high school, St Margaret’s College in Christchurch. Every Wednesday at high schools in Christchurch, school finishes slightly earlier to allow for inter-school sports, so I would attend a fantastic schools cycling programme each week where you’d be placed in a grade based on ability (determined by a time trial) for road races throughout the season. I remember to this day that in my very first time trial one Wednesday, I placed a solid 26th which placed me in C grade for the female schools competition. It was the next week that I did my first ever road race; it may have been completely flat and only 8km, but I was extremely nervous and had no idea what I was doing. I did these races each week and also participated in the South Island Schools Championships as well as a couple other schools cycling events. My main focuses at this stage were still running and triathlon, and it wasn’t until I moved cities to Dunedin that I joined a cycling club and eventually ended up stopping both triathlon and running completely. I decided to concentrate on cycling nearly 5 years ago, and haven’t really looked back!

 

The environment in Christchurch where I first lived was considerably more competitive than it was in Dunedin, having a much larger population and significantly more people participating in the sports that I was interested in. In Dunedin, there were only a handful (at most) of girls my age that competed in triathlon or running, and even fewer for cycling, so it would only be when I travelled further afield that I could properly compete against others my age. In Christchurch however, there would be close to 100 kids in each age category at both a triathlon and cross country regional schools champs, and I remember having many ‘rivals’ at both club and school events. There were over 100 girls taking part in the schools racing that I did on a Wednesday, and even events such as the school cross country or swimming sports were quite hyped up. There was certainly no shortage of events or opposition when I was younger in Christchurch, and I think it really helped to develop my competitive nature and some of the traits that are apparent when I race to this day.

 

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I first jumped on Zwift in July 2017 when I had just purchased a basic direct drive trainer and was getting a little sick of training outdoors during Winter. Initially, I only used Zwift when the weather was really bad but in late November 2017, I had a nasty crash which resulted in quite a comprehensive elbow break and surgery to boot. I spent 5 weeks solely on Zwift before I was able to ride on the road again, and despite only riding at the same intensity without any intervals, I was able to take to the start line of two UCI races in Australia just under 2 months later. When I started on Zwift again for the academy, that was the first time I’d actually been back on it since my training post accident so I’m definitely not as committed to it as some people are! Throughout the academy, I realised just how useful the workout mode on Zwift is as I hadn’t previously completed any of the set workouts before, and I think my overall fitness and acceleration improved as a result. I performed really well at all the races I did at the same time that I was working my way through the academy sessions.

 

The process of being selected as the Zwift Academy winner and as a member of Canyon//SRAM was incredibly stressful and very nerve wracking. From the very start of 16 initial workouts, through the further 7 semi final sessions and to the finals held in Spain, it was extremely challenging both mentally and physically. The sessions themselves are very tough and tested me right to my limits, with copious maximum power tests in addition to workouts that leave you dripping with sweat and draped over the handlebars. For me though, it was the competition side of things in addition to this that made the process really difficult. Being compared to so many other women from around the world, many of which are all vying for the same end goal, and seeing their posts on social media as well as impressive power outputs made it all very real and resulted in some of the most stressful and anxious times I’ve ever had.

 

It was really difficult, and to be completely honest I don’t think I quite handled it as well as I could have. I found myself getting a little too absorbed in what others in the academy were doing on social media and will freely admit to stalking the power numbers to see where I was sitting. It does give you confidence, but I found that just really nailing a session or power test and knowing that I gave it my absolute all really helped to keep the stress and pressure levels under control. I knew that if I was going as deep as I could and was putting out decent numbers then I couldn’t ask more of myself and would be able to accept the end result (of whether I was chosen to progress). No matter what the others were doing, it settled me knowing that I was doing all I could! In saying that though, the stress and pressure levels were still very high for me even when I did try to focus on everything that I could control. I’m normally a fairly relaxed and laid back person, but the stakes were so high that getting nervous and anxious was probably inevitable.

 

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"Knowing that I gave it my absolute all really helped to keep the stress and pressure levels under control."

When it comes to the experiences gained on Canyon/Sram and on Zwift it’s been really exciting. Just thinking about the new opportunities and experiences that have opened up by winning the Zwift Academy. Canyon//SRAM are one of the best women’s teams in the world and have an amazing set up in terms of the riders, staff and sponsors involved. I’ll be able to learn so much and develop enormously as a cyclist just through being surrounded by such accomplished athletes, and also through the races across Europe that I’ll attend with the team. Europe is seen as the pinnacle of cycling, so to finally be able to race in such a competitive and tough scene will no doubt progress my riding significantly. It’s quite difficult to fund and find opportunities to race abroad when you live in New Zealand, so my Zwift success has completely opened new doors that wouldn’t have even been possibilities previously. There are a couple of women’s cycling teams in New Zealand which do an excellent job of development through the local racing scene, but it’s just not possible to move on to bigger and better teams without racing abroad or having contacts with people in the loop overseas, which is where it becomes difficult and overwhelming. Trying to gain a professional contract in cycling is a very hard and challenging process with significant investments in time and money needed to reach high level racing, along with the pressure of attempting to gain decent results for exposure and to be noticed. To have a clear plan for 2019 without the stresses of trying to organise and fund everything myself is simply incredible, and is an opportunity that many would dream of being awarded (I did too a few months back!). This pathway enables me to ride and race with the world’s best and be supported and backed by a fantastic team with the best possible conditions to fulfil my potential and improve as as rider; I couldn’t exactly ask for much more than that!

 

When it comes to the team aspect, I attended the Canyon//SRAM pre-season camp in Malaga, Spain, but this also doubled as the Zwift Academy finals where I was competing for a contract with the team against two other riders. Because of this, it was difficult to properly get to know everyone as the riders themselves didn’t want to show any favoritism and had to be quite partial. I’ve certainly had an insight into many of their personalities just through being around them during day to day activities, and there is a lot of fun had while still working towards some fairly serious ambitions and targets. There seems to be a really nice balance between laughs and jokes as well as getting the hard yards done, so I’m looking forward to getting fully integrated into the environment and team culture.

 

In terms of getting to the pro peloton in the traditional route, It’s hard to know. I’d really like to think that I would have, but the reality is that the challenges presented by traveling overseas and getting results in order to be noticed are rather significant. It’s difficult having the resources to get to Europe as well as the necessary connections to gain entry into races in addition to ideal training and living conditions. Of course I would have given it a really good crack, however having the finances to make it feasible for a part-time working student does pose a problem. Racing in Europe has always been a major ambition of mine, so I certainly would have made it over there to compete, but it’s just whether or not I would have achieved enough results to be noticed to further progress into a team. Canyon//SRAM isn’t exactly one of the lower ranked team either, so obviously it would be a dream to ride for such an outfit, but there are only so many spots available in the top ranked teams! I’m really fortunate to have been recognised by Zwift as having a bit of potential through my power output, so it’s really exciting to be able to have the opportunity to then gain the race experience to hopefully match that. If the Zwift Academy opportunity hadn’t presented itself, my plan for 2019 was to get across to race in the Australian Summer, compete in American UCI tours such as Tour of the Gila and Joe Martin as well as do a stint in Europe. Whether that would have open any doors remains unknown, but I certainly would have given myself the best chance to make it work. I’m not one for having regrets or letting opportunities slip by, so any chance for exposure to teams is a positive whether it ultimately led to bigger and better things or not. If you’re not currently racing or at or against the highest level in your sport, then there are always targets to strive for so getting into the pro ranks would have always been an ambition for me, it’s just happened so quickly in a way that I wouldn’t have quite predicted.

 

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I know that Zwift themselves certainly have huge ambitions for the platform, and these have started to come into fruition with the creation of the KISS Pro racing League where professional cycling teams are racing against each other on Zwift on a regular basis. I can imagine that this is only the beginning of their integration into top level competition, so I definitely expect to see more radical concepts and ideas being brought implemented in order to create top level racing in a virtual, indoor reality. There seems to have been a good response from teams who are putting riders into these Zwift races, but it’s hard to know whether they’ll be able to get majority of teams on board and how this will work in with existing races on the road. It remains to be seen whether Zwift will be able to bring together amateur, aspiring cyclists as well as professional teams and riders together in a way will allow teams to comprehensively talent scout and recruit, as Zwift is incredibly useful for identifying physical strengths and attributes, but riding outdoors is a completely different situation all together. It’s all very well having the physical ability and power output on the indoor trainer, but having the bike handling skills and race experience is also crucial to being a successful cyclist. I feel that the Zwift racing style is also significantly different to racing outdoors in a tactics sense, so even the rider’s race awareness and tactical ability would be difficult to gauge just through Zwift. The Zwift Academy really flips talent scouting on its head, by almost reversing the standard process through finding riders with the physical attributes and then giving them the experience rather than selecting riders based on race results. Cycling is quite traditional in the sense of recruiting and gaining exposure so I see this continuing for some time to come, and some teams may be reluctant to step away from this and think outside the square when it comes to finding riders. Despite this, Zwift still has huge merits in recruiting riders for development as physical capabilities are very crucial when it comes to racing well!

 

Since moving to Spain, my schedule has changed a little to the more relaxed Spanish way of life. I really enjoy food and having quality meals, so I am currently waking up around 7-7.30am to start my day with a hearty bowl of porridge. I slowly wake myself up before getting organised to head out on the bike. It’s very cold and icy at times in Girona currently, so I aim to get out before 9am on the bike but in warmer conditions I like to aim for 8am. My training varies between 90 mins for an easy recovery spin to 5-6 hours for a long endurance ride, with an interval specific session generally being 2-3 hours in length. I’ll always try to stretch for an hour or so once I return too, and enjoy a protein shake while I do so depending on the intensity and duration of the session. After that, it’s straight into preparing a lunch before spending the afternoon catching up on university assignments and lectures if it’s during the semester. I do my study via distance learning which means nearly everything is completed online so it creates a lot of flexibility when it comes to fitting in training. I can’t say I’m the most disciplined or motivated individual, but I get a little bored when I don’t have any study to keep my mind occupied! I also love to head down to a nearby cafe and have a productive couple of hours with a coffee and a cheeky piece of baking to fuel me. I do have a very set routine of a coffee and a nice bowl of muesli as an afternoon snack, it’s definitely a daily staple. Sometimes I’ll go for a wee wander around the town as Girona is excellent for shopping and exploring. After that, it’s home for dinner and some more general life admin/ study, before winding down with a bowl of fruit and a bit of phone surfing.

 

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Thomas Maheux
Thomas Maheux

I don’t have any particular races that I’m looking forward to doing, I’m more just excited for any opportunity that I get to race with the team. Racing in Europe will be a major step up for sure, but I’m ready to throw myself in the deep end as it’s all I’ve ever wanted for my cycling. I aim to complete my training and off the bike preparations to the best of my ability, so that I’m feeling good and ready to perform in each race. I know that each time I’m competing, I will learn and experience so much that will ultimately better me as a rider, so every individual race will be rewarding and exciting in a different way. In saying that, I do have a few races that I’d love to compete in at some stage as long term goals. To line up one day at races such as the Giro Rosa, Tour of California, the spring classics and the World Championships would be incredible.

 

I don’t have any personal aspirations as I’m seeing this year simply as one for experience and development. I really just want to try and have a positive impact and contribution on the team, both on and off the bike; I’ve been granted this amazing opportunity so now it's time to grasp it with both hands and get as much out of it as I can. Learning and growing as a rider throughout the year is my major ambition, if that brings individual success then that’s a huge unanticipated bonus. If I feel as if I’ve executed my job in the team plan, then that will be a definite achievement for me, and to have that work contributing to a race result for one of my team mates would be an awesome feeling. I think I’m best suited to being a domestique style of rider and that’s what I really enjoy doing, so I’ll just be aiming to fulfil any job that I’m given in a race in order to benefit the team as much as I can.

 

It’s nearly impossible to not go through patches where you’re feeling a little unmotivated and uninspired, but when I do I like to think about why I started cycling in the first place and many of the rewarding moments that I’ve had through the sport. It’s always good to have a goal to aspire towards so that training has a purpose and you’re motivated to complete each session to 100%, otherwise riding can feel a little pointless and unnecessary. Whether it’s a personal challenge of riding a certain route/ reaching a distance target or a competitive race that’s coming up, it’s very easy to be motivated when there’s something in the future that you want to aim for and complete well.

 

I tend to draw my inspiration from others who I have witnessed accomplish incredible results as I’ve been growing up and progressing through sport; mainly NZ athletes who have a high national profile after competing at events such as the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. I also look up to the likes of Georgia Williams, Paddy Bevin and George Bennett, who are all New Zealanders excelling at the world’s highest level of cycling.

 

I’m also inspired by those who have helped me out along the way, whether it be by showing me the ropes at the local bunch ride or by being a source of support. The cycling community at home are always really encouraging of me, and many of the riders have believed in me more than I have believed in myself. My parents have also backed me with anything that I’ve wanted to do and provided me with the means to do so, from getting me into sport in the first place through to my Dad never failing to fix any mechanical issue I have with a bike. They’ll do everything in their power to ensure that I have the best possible chance at succeeding, and I’m really appreciative to have parents who are interested in the sport just as much as I am. It’s everyone that has supported me that inspire me to perform and succeed as a way of being able to repay and thank them for their help at some stage along the way.

 

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I don’t feel as if I’ve had too many challenges thrown at me compared to others, but one hurdle that will always stand out for me is when I crashed in the sprint of a local club race and badly broke my elbow, subsequently requiring two surgeries. The timing of the injury meant that I had to miss out on the 2018 NZ Elite Nationals and also the Tour Down Under, and instead spent 5 weeks grinding away on Zwift in order to maintain some fitness for the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road race and the Herald Sun Tour. I made the start line of the two latter events but a series of mechanicals during the Cadel Evans road race left me unable to perform as well as I would have liked and with my 1 month old bike written off. This meant that I didn’t have a bike to ride for Sun Tour so eventually ended up on a neutral services bike 3km into a 125km race, resulting in a very uncomfortable and challenging ride. The bike issues were frustrating enough to deal with, but it was especially tough to overcome when you’re just wanting to be able to race without any problems after recovering from a crash 7 weeks prior. The whole period from the crash, to missing out on key event and then not being able to race properly was very tough but taught me a lot about myself, and definitely cemented by love of cycling in general. It made me more motivated than ever simply to get outside and ride my bike!

 

If I look back on how I progressed and where I learnt the most, I would say that the biggest influence on my cycling was the community and just getting involved in all the local races and group rides. It’s all very well going out for casual solo rides, but you can learn so much through competing in local races where the pressure is low and you’re able to try different tactics to see what works and what doesn’t. I think I learnt the most about everything from strategies and tactics to positioning just through attending the infamous local “Wednesday Worlds” style bunch ride where most of the time I was dropped rather quickly into it. It was through getting smashed week after week that I was able to identify the critical mistakes and where I was going wrong, but I also had to the next week to try and rectify those errors. By attending local cycling races and bunch rides you’re also able to interact with other riders, many of which are extremely knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to cycling, and it’s their guidance and advice that is priceless. In addition to the learning and knowledge that can be gained, it’s also really motivating to go out riding with others who will push you out on the road and also just to get out there sometimes. I’ve often had some of my most challenging rides with others who are better than me so constantly have me pushing myself in duration, terrain and tempo. A favourite ride of mine is to go out with my local bunch ride on Sundays, where every pedestrian crossing is a sprint and certain sections of the route are all-in races (with a coffee stop and post ride debrief of course).

 

Photo: Thomas Maheux
Photo: Thomas Maheux

Ella Harris has mastered the art of Zwift and is looking to transfer that success on the road with a pro contract with Canyon/Sram

@elllaharrris