After thousands of miles ridden on both virtual and real roads, Leah Thorvilson proved to be Zwift Academy’s best student. Tonight she won a contest that started half a year ago with nearly 1,200 entrants. Her reward? In 2017, Thorvilson, who is a director of development for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, will race as a hired pro on the elite and star-studded, CANYON//SRAM Racing team.
“Is this mine?” the newly crowned Thorvilson asked inside Majorca’s Iberostar Cristina Hotel, with her new CANYON//SRAM squad gathered around her and a team-issue bike by her side. “I take it home tomorrow?”
Sure enough, the 37-year-old Thorvilson is returning to Little Rock, and with an identical bike. She’s uncertain how long she’ll be back. While CANYON//SRAM begins its 2017 season at the Santos Women’s Tour in South Australia in mid-January, Thorvilson ventures to guess that she won’t catch up with the team until February or beyond.
She knows that she has plenty of homework. Thorvilson displayed impressive power during the training camp’s climbs. She also made strides in her pack-riding skills, and left with a lot of respect for Europe’s long and serpentine mountain roads. During descents like the Coll d’Orient, Thorvilson focused hard on mimicking her highly experienced teammates. She carefully listened to their many tips on how to further hone her bike handling.
“I promise to make huge efforts,” Thorvilson told the other CANYON//SRAM riders at her awards celebration. “I know what needs improving.”
Thorvilson does bring the team sparkling credentials as an endurance athlete. She’s been a superb runner since her own college days at Arkansas-Little Rock. On the track, she won conference titles in the 1,500 meters and steeplechase, and another for the indoors 800. She ran cross-country, too.
But Thorvilson found her real event after college. In 2004, she ran her first marathon—in a relatively fast 3:03. Over 40 marathons and multiple victories later, she competed in Houston’s 2012 Olympic Marathon.
“I love to train, and I truly enjoy the long run. It shuts off my spinning mind,” she said.
“Unfortunately,” she added, “I enjoyed it perhaps a little too much.”
Thorvilson’s passion and dedication kept her running through knee issues and a severely torn left hamstring. But in spring 2015, with her injuries forcing her to back off the sport, Thorvilson fixated on completing a century ride.
“I signed up before I owned a bike,” she said.
In her one dedicated year of riding a bicycle, Thorvilson’s big engine and love of exercise have obviously taken her tremendously far. While making her way through the workouts of Zwift Academy, she often rose to train at 4 AM. Between real roads and those on Zwift, she frequently logged 20 hours of pedaling weekly. In particular, Thorvilson looks forward to the Zwift Back to Work and Team ODZ Coffee rides.
“I enjoy that last lap of the Coffee Ride,” she said. “All out.”
Nonetheless, in Majorca Thorvilson believed that fellow Academy finalists Yvonne van Hattum and Jessie Donavan had her beat for the contest’s ultimate prize. The three Zwift Academy finalists bonded like a trio that had parachuted onto an unknown landscape, and arguably the Zwift riders had. The CANYON//SRAM athletes all know each other well, and have long experienced the ups and downs of competitive cycling. Thorvilson, who swears that she, Donavan, and van Hattum will remain close, said that being a newbie could be hard and lonely.
“Sometimes I wondered, were they judging what I was eating?” said Thorvilson. “Watching my every maneuver on the bike?”
But CANYON//SRAM directeur sportif Ronny Lauke told Thorvilson that all three women brought a fresh and valuable perspective to the team of veteran racers. He told them that pro athletes can forget the parts of their jobs that many recreational and working athletes—folks like Thorvilson, Donavan, and van Hattum—envy: For starters, that list includes free gear, regular massages, and staff to take care of your bikes and meals.
Lauke thinks that Thorvilson, who will potentially leave her job in order to experience one intriguing, adventurous, and unknown year as a professional bike racer, will serve as a constant and positive reminder to CANYON//SRAM. Thorvilson will be the example of what regular folks would gladly give up to ride in a pro athlete’s shoes.
“Ronny appreciated my positive attitude and drive, and that I took nothing for granted,” said Thorvilson. “He was thrilled that I always showed up with a smile on my face, eager to pursue whatever was planned for the day.”