If you’re on a stationary bike and you’re feeling strong, you will get a good workout. Now, you may even find yourself being offered a pro-cycling contract.
On a planet of 8 billion people, there will always be an untold number of individuals with extraterrestrial endurance sports abilities who never get discovered by pro-cycling teams. To get noticed, you have to race, and race against stiff competition around the world.
Thanks to today’s technology, many exercise bikes and smart trainers, which transform regular bikes into stationary bikes, can measure power output. Coupled with the internet and a suite of new software, this means a cardiovascular diamond in the rough can be discovered and gain entry into the pro-cycling community, or “peloton.”
Two of the most popular apps are Zwift, a video game-like simulator that pairs with a stationary bike, and Strava, which tracks riders’ times on certain sections of a real or virtual road, with a leaderboard. Both have a social network component that allows for comparison.
“In geographically remote countries [from Euro-based international cycling] (like Rwanda, South Africa, New Zealand etc.) power meters and software like Zwift/Strava allow riders to directly benchmark themselves against the world’s top talent,” said Dr. Carol Austin, the head of performance support and medical for Team Dimension Data, a high-profile pro-cycling team that races in the Tour de France. “Since 2008 our team has embraced this approach in our talent ID and development strategy, and it has served us well.”
Essentially, this is the cycling equivalent of a Justin Bieber being discovered on YouTube. So far, it has happened twice.
Exercise bike pros turned pros on the road
In 2016, a pro contract was awarded to Leah Thorvilson, a former marathoner from Minnesota, who beat out 1,200 people on Zwift. She was the first person to be signed from using just an app. Since Zwift is controlled by the rider’s power, it allows people to ride with and race each other anywhere in the world from the comfort of their own home.
The pro-cycling team Canyon-SRAM, which has partnered with Zwift, could see the results of the raw talent in competitions. Think of it like an NFL combine, only in cycling, pure physical ability is arguably more important.
“It adds a layer of exposure to the sport and what is possible to the masses,” Thorvilson told Yahoo Finance. “Unfortunately cycling isn’t as big in America as some places, but things like Zwift can help. If you’re a coach looking [for talent], you can troll on Zwift.”
In mid-November, another “Zwift Academy” competition concluded with the selection of a 21-year-old from Christchurch, New Zealand, Ollie Jones. Jones beat 5,000 people who threw their hat in the race.
A former speed skater, Jones transitioned to cycling as his main sport in June 2016. In the competition, Jones put up impressive power numbers, around 436 watts for an hour and was rewarded with a contract with Team Dimension Data, a pro-cycling team for individuals under the age of 23.
“New Zealand is about as far away from the rest of the world as you can get — no one’s looking at New Zealand,” Jones told Yahoo Finance. Typically, Jones said, he would have had to move to Europe (“or at least Australia”) to get any exposure. “I wouldn’t be here without Zwift,” he said.
It’s hard on the road
Racing road bikes may be a more brute force sport than some others, since skill, while not unimportant, is trumped by shear physiological abilities. If you can process more oxygen and put out more power than others, you will probably win. But, like the NFL combine, having the best body isn’t everything.
“If you look at my stats, five out of the first six races was DNF,” said Thorvilson, using the slang for “did not finish.” “You can’t just hop into a pro peloton and spotlessly go hammer. Power is one aspect of the whole.”
Over time, however, Thorvilson figured out how to race and was able to improve well enough to get her contract extended another year. Thorvilson, 38, said that Jones’s youth will be a big asset when it comes to adjusting to racing and the nomadic life of a professional cyclist. Unlike Thorvilson, however, Jones will be going to a development team, where cycling’s steep learning curve is dulled.
For now, at least, the cycling world will be watching Jones’s progress and keeping their eyes on Zwift to see if any other superhumans emerge.
“A lot of people are looking at me to see how it goes,” said Jones. “I personally really believe this is how it’s going to go in the future — I’m going to be the first of many to get into the peloton through Zwift.”
So how much power do you need to be pushing on a stationary bike to ride into the peloton?
According to Dr. Austin, “for entry into our Continental Team a FTP [functional threshold power] of 5W/kg at sea level would be a reasonable benchmark to aim for.” Translated into plain English, that would be 5 watts per kilogram of body weight for an hour. For this author, that’s 390W. Well, it’s something to shoot for, anyway.