BY MOLLY HURFORD

When Leah Thorvilson, 38, found out that the online training platform Zwift was hosting a competition for women - with a slot on the Canyon/SRAM pro team as the grand prize - she simply saw the chance to improve her riding.

“I didn’t think for two seconds about what I would have to do to win,” says the former elite marathoner, who had only recently taken up cycling after a torn hamstring and series of knee surgeries ended her running career.

But in December 2016, after six months of Zwift Academy - a program that included challenges such as virtual training rides, power testing, and a 10-day camp in Mallorca, Spain, with Canyon/SRAM riders and two other Academy finalists - Thorvilson learned that she’d topped the field of nearly 1,200 riders. In January, she quit her job as director of development at the University of Arkansas Little Rock to chase the fastest women in the world - and work on developing pro-level group riding skills to match her powerful aerobic engine.

We caught up with Thorvilson after her first few European races. (While she failed to make the time cut in her debut, she rebounded to place 74th at the 101-kilometre Le Samyn des Dames.)

Here’s her advice for anyone trying to keep up with a faster group, on Zwift Island or IRL.

GROUP RIDE SURVIVAL GUIDE

PRACTICE SURGING

“In a race, the power of the peloton makes things happen quickly. Sustained power is great, but you need to be able to react to surges. I think the best way to train for that is to do rides that have lots of attacks. I incorporate those into my training so that I can get the group-riding practice along with some good intensity.”

GET INTO A PACELINE

“There’s no solo training that will prepare you for pack riding. When you’re in the group, look for someone who is riding safely and stick behind them. Pay attention not only to the rider directly in front of you but also up the road so you can anticipate what’s going to happen.”

PLAN TO GET DROPPED

“You don’t always want a slow or no-drop ride - explore your comfort zone and get out of it. Look for a group ride in your area with a pace that’s challenging but within your ability and a route you know in case you get dropped. That’s not an issue on Zwift: If you’re in a race and can’t hang on, it doesn’t really matter! You can still keep riding.”

GET HELP WITH SKILLS

“When I was struggling in Mallorca with braking, cornering and descending all at once, (triple-world-champion) Pauline Ferrand-Prevot slowed down to ride beside me and tell me when to brake. I was braking in the corner instead of before, which caused one crash and a few near misses. Her advice made a huge difference.”

RACING? KNOW THE ETIQUETTE

“At my first race, I went to the restroom before the start and headed the wrong way: I rode the course backward to the start and had to back my bike into the front line. You don’t do that! You always go into the start pen from the back - the riders up front are the fastest ones.”