Image courtesy of Zwift

More than 2100 women signed up to this year’s Zwift Academy, an online programme of virtual social rides, races and structured cycling workouts designed to source new talent for the professional peloton. On offer: the dream prize of a professional cycling contract with pro women’s team CANYON//SRAM. 2100 women soon became three as the global cycling talent was whittled down via performance data, races and testing. And today, 28-year-old Medicine graduate and former triathlete Tanja Erath was awarded the coveted crown of Zwift Academy Winner 2017.

I caught up with Tanja over a call from her home in Dortmund, Germany to talk about her Zwift Academy win, her triathlon background, and what the future holds for her as a professional cyclist riding for CANYON//SRAM.


Image courtesy of Zwift – Tanja with finalists Bri Torkelson and Siri Hildonen

Congratulations on winning the 2017 Zwift Academy! How are you feeling?
Incredible. In the last three months I started to really think about being pro, and how it could feel to become pro – and suddenly it’s going to happen! It’s kind of crazy. Right now, I’m starting feeling a little bit nervous because I just want to do well next year. So, yeah: excited, nervous and a little bit scared [laughs]. Most of the time though, I’m really, really happy. I’m smiling a lot right now!

What made you decide to sign up for this year’s Zwift Academy?
A friend of mine told me about Zwift Academy last year, but it was already too late to get a place. I used to do triathlon and cycling has always been my strongest discipline, so I decided to give it a shot in 2017.  I was quite good in triathlon so I’d never thought about switching to cycling, but then I had a leg injury and couldn’t run anymore, so I focused on riding and got into the fixed gear cycling scene. I raced mostly Red Hooks and some other European fixed gear crits this year. So that’s kind of my cycling experience so far, and some road races.

You’ve only been racing for a year, but you’ve had a pretty successful first season in crit…
Yeah, I think so. I did about 15 or 16 fixed gear races this season and I won eight of them, and got two Top Antagonist awards in Red Hook Crits. I took 5th place in the Red Hook Crit GC, so I think that was quite good. And a podium spot in Barcelona – that was the highlight of it.


Photo Credit: Nils Laenger

And you competed in the German Road Race Championship this year?
Yes, that was this year. As I used to be a triathlete, I thought about just taking part in the time trial but decided to do both.

Did it give you a taste of what it would be like riding as a professional cyclist?
I think so. Usually I don’t do races that long – I think that was 120km – but yeah, I guess it’s similar to other UCI races. There were a lot of fast girls there who also race UCI, like the CANYON//SRAM girls, the Cervelo girls and the Wiggle High5 team.

That race showed me how important the team is. I was there alone and it was quite a hot day, and I only had two [drinks] bottles with me. Everyone else had support on the side-line catching their bottles after the third round or something. I didn’t have that. After that race I could understand how important the team is – and the team tactics. I lost touch with the lead group on the climb and because every big team had somebody in the lead group, the group that I was in didn’t want to work anymore. So nothing happened! It made me really understand how tactical road racing is.

What was the final Zwift and CANYON//SRAM training camp like?
It was really different to what you’d normally call a ‘training camp’ because we did a lot of bonding, a lot of appointments with sponsors, interviews, and presentations about the products, and we visited Canyon and the factory and their showroom, so we got to know a little bit about that. We did ride, but we were riding mountain bikes most of the time – we only did one road ride.


Image courtesy of Zwift

Did you enjoy the mountain bike – had you ridden one before?
I’ve never owned one, so it was kind of new to me. Sometimes when I visit my parents I use my mum’s mountain bike, but that’s three times a year maybe, so not that often. And suddenly you’re on a mountain bike ride with Pauline [Ferrand-Prevot], so that was a little bit scary at first. But it worked out well and I was happy that I didn’t crash or fall or anything like that [laughs]. It was nice. I felt comfortable after the first 20 minutes.

Did you meet any of your future CANYON//SRAM teammates?
Yes, I met all of them and got to know them. It’s fun to get to know all the people that you admire and watch racing, and follow on Instagram [laughs]. Suddenly you’re there, sitting next to Hannah Barnes, having lunch, talking about normal stuff like with your girlfriends at home, so yeah, that was quite cool. The first two days you’re a little bit insecure coming into an existing group, but I really enjoyed getting to know these women. I’m really looking forward to having them as my teammates and to race with them because they’re all very ambitious, very strong women.

How did you find the Zwift Academy process? Were you nervous ahead of your rides?
I was nervous because it’s such a big opportunity and you want to do well for every ride. You can see how nervous you are when you’re just turning Zwift on and you have your heart rate monitor on – my heart rate might usually be 50, but then I switch Zwift on and it was like, 70 or 80, because I was nervous before a ride! I started to stalk a lot on Strava to see what the other girls do and how they perform. But you can’t really watch what 2000 women are doing, so it was just a surprise when they finally announced the semi-finalists.

Did you have any idea of how well you were doing before then?
No, you do not have any ranking [during the Zwift Academy process], you just continue doing what you do, completing the workouts and when you’re done, wait for an announcement.


Image courtesy of Zwift

During the Zwift Academy you worked fulltime in your final year in Medicine and took your final year medical exams. Was it a challenge juggling everything?
The first round of Zwift Academy started on the 1st September and I worked fulltime until the 22nd September. I then took my holiday [days] to study for my final exam, and I completed the first round of Zwift Academy. When the semi-finals took place (from November 1 until the November 14), I had my final exams.

So it was a little bit challenging, especially as I got a cold right before my exam and had to do the last 6 workouts in 5 days. You were meant to have 14 days to do 7 workouts, but I did 6 in 5 days because of the timing problem. It seemed to work out well [laughs].

When did you fit in your Zwift Academy workouts?
When I was working I did the Zwift Academy workouts in the evening. When I was studying for the exam, I could choose when to do them. During the semi-final, I did most of them in the evening. But the outdoor rides – you needed the light so I had to do those in the day.

The semi-finals included four indoor rides and three outdoor rides because they (Zwift) wanted to see if you can not only push hard on your indoor trainer, but also outside on your bike.

Were the Zwift workouts a mix of short and long rides?
The indoor rides were about 1.5 hours, and the other outdoor rides were between 2.5 and 3.5 hours. Yeah, it was pretty intense, especially because there was a lot of all-out testing – one minute all-out, some 5-minute all-outs, 15-minute all-outs, 2×12-minute all-outs. That was the really challenging part of the 6 workouts in 5 days, because it’s not like a normal workout when it’s an all-out session!


Photo Credit: Nils Laenger

How many hours of training have you been doing each week?
I’d say around about 10 hours. In the busy weeks I only had about 6 hours, and in the times where I was able to do a bit more, sometimes I did 14/15 hours a week.

Can you relax a little now that you know your Zwift Academy experience has been a success?
Tonight is the first night I’ll sleep well for three months as it was all about being nervous about the exam, being nervous about Zwift Academy, being nervous about joining the camp! And in the camp, I was nervous but I shared a room with one of the other finalists, Bri [Torkelson], and we got on very well. We were talking until the middle of the night because there was so much to talk about, so I didn’t get that much sleep in the camp!

Let’s talk about your background. You were a successful triathlete for 15 years, right?
I did middle distance triathlons as an age-grouper and I competed in the German [triathlon] National League, which is mostly sprint racing, and some other distance competitions up until 2016. I hate running. I know it’s a part of triathlon, but I never enjoyed it. I really like swimming though, and I love cycling. I just like the sport [of cycling] as a whole. Looking back, I’m not that disappointed that I quit triathlon even though I used to think that it would kill me to stop. Right now, I don’t even miss the swimming that much. I’m just happy riding my bike [laughs].

How long had you been using Zwift before you signed up to Zwift Academy?
Not long, because I never had rollers or an indoor trainer – I just borrowed one for Zwift Academy from a friend. I joined Zwift nearly the same time. I tried a bit of Zwifting before – maybe like 3 times – so I knew I’d know how to handle it, and then I started with Zwift Academy.

My first Zwift race was a real high point. I chose a ‘ladies only’ race and the girls really pushed me to my limits. It was great. I loved the dynamic of racing. I didn´t expect to be able to go all out on an indoor bike.


Image courtesy of Zwift

How are you feeling about joining the CANYON//SRAM team – excited? Nervous?
Yeah, I think the pressure is more from myself because I want to show that I can really support the team and give them back something, and do my part in having a successful season.

Did last year’s Zwift Academy winner, Leah Thorvilson, have any advice for you?
Yeah, she had a lot of advice. She was very helpful before we came to the camp, explaining what we could expect, what was going to happen. It’s just great to have somebody who has been through the same Zwift Academy experience. Like yesterday, when it was announced that I had won, it felt strange and I couldn’t explain how I was feeling, but I saw Leah and she knows how I’m feeling right now because she’s been through it herself. It’s really helpful that she’s there because the team already know about the Zwift Academy process – the first time around I guess it was much harder for her. I think I’ve had it a lot easier.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to improving next season with CANYON//SRAM?
Yeah. I’ve only got one year of racing experience, so although I’m okay in the peloton I have a lack of technique and team strategies because I’ve always been on my own. I was the only girl in my team, so I didn’t have to do any lead-outs for my teammates or handle attacks for somebody, I just had to position myself well. So I’m really looking forward to getting to know more about how you work as a team.


Image courtesy of Zwift

When you join CANYON//SRAM will you have to relocate from Germany?
I will move to Girona, I reckon, with my roomie, Leah [laughs]. I’m not sure when exactly, but in January/February maybe. I think we have a training camp in February in Girona. I don’t really know when my season starts, but the sporting director will talk to my coach and plan my season.

It’s exciting. It really is.

TANJA’S QUICK STATS
Age: 28
Nationality: German
Bike: CANYON Endurance CF
Racing experience: 1 year fixed gear crit. 15 years as an age group triathlete
First road race: 2013
Favourite Zwift ride/workout: I love races and group rides
Sporting highlight: My first Red Hook Crit podium in Barcelona 2017 and the Rockstargames Top Antagonist Award in Brooklyn and London
Average hours training a week: Around 10 hours
Longest ride so far: 180 km


Image courtesy of Zwift

You can follow Tanja’s journey into professional cycling by following her on www.instagram.com/taennele and via the CANYON//SRAM racing team at www.instagram.com/WMNcycling and www.twitter.com/WMNcycling.  For information about Zwift, visit www.zwift.com.

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