Interview: Zwift Academy graduate and pro cyclist Ella Harris

Pro cyclist Ella Harris training using Zwift.

Zwift, the global online fitness platform for cyclists, has launched a revamped Zwift Academy Road cycling program, designed to help every cyclist find their strength and go further in a four-week crash course. 

I did a review of the virtual training platform last year, paired up with a smart resistance Tacx trainer, and found it to be a solid workout during the gloomy winter months.

Zwift’s Academy Road programme first launched in 2016 and the four-week crash-course cycling programme is designed to help cyclists of all levels increase their strength and skills, with an added talent identification aspect. Top contenders around the world get the opportunity to face off, with two pro-cycling contracts with the UCI Women’s World Tour Team Canyon/Sram Racing and UCI Pro Team Alpecin-Deceuninck up for grabs.

Registration for Zwift Academy opened on August 15, with events beginning on September 12, and ending on October 9, 2022. New Zealand cyclist Ella Harris gained a professional cycling contract from taking part in the event, garnering a spot with Canyon/Sram. She has been with the team since 2019.

Ella took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her life as a professional cyclist and offers some top advice for those taking part in the Zwift Academy.

Hi, Ella. Thanks so much for taking the time to virtually chat to me about the Zwift Academy. It seems appropriate to be talking about a virtual training tool over email! OK, you won your pro contract with Women’s Worldpro team Canyon-Sram after taking part in the Zwift Academy, do you still pinch yourself about that? How surreal was it that you secured a pro contract through Zwift Academy? Did you think taking part would lead you to gain a spot on a pro cycling team?

Ella: Thanks for getting in touch to chat! To be completely honest, it’s one of those things that isn’t quite as prominent in my mind as it was a couple of years ago! I do think that it is very important to keep reminding myself about how I got to this position though, because doing so definitely gives me a sense of gratitude and motivation on days when I’m not quite so enthusiastic about riding my bike.

When I reflect upon all the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had, and the life that I’ve been able to lead because of the Zwift Academy, it still seems very much unbelievable and almost a fairytale story. I don’t really like to imagine how my life would have been if I hadn’t won the Zwift Academy, because the past four years have been simply fantastic despite the challenges. When I entered the Zwift Academy, I did so with the aim of competing for the professional contract, but I never thought I would actually win it because it seemed like such a pipeline dream and a longshot.

To actually win the academy was insane, because it was something that I had worked towards for months and a professional contract was something that I thought I’d be working towards for years, so to suddenly have all my professional ambitions suddenly fulfilled was amazing. 

How have you found life as a professional cyclist for such a high-profile women’s team? How is your season looking this year?

It’s been a truly wonderful four years on Canyon//SRAM and I’ve learnt a lot about myself, all things top-level cycling and also had my eyes opened to a whole world outside of little NZ! I’ve been able to meet many cool people, see some amazing places, live quite an enjoyable lifestyle and experience my chosen sport at its highest level.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing as I’ve been plagued by serious injury more than most which has often hampered my performance level, but the positives have mostly still out-weighed the negatives.

Despite this, I feel as if I’ve found my feet in the World Tour peloton and now have a solid foundation of race experience and knowledge, which has been satisfying to continually build with every race alongside teammates who always inspire me to be better. 

While it’s hard to compare a virtual training platform to riding and racing your bike on a real road, what are the key differences between the two? How has Zwift made you a better cyclist?

This is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question – I would say that the only real similarities are the pedaling and physical exertion!

Riding on Zwift places different pressures on the body compared to outdoors, which I think makes it generally harder for every intensity. Compared to the road, sufficient ventilation can be difficult to achieve, certain muscles can endure a greater load due to a lack of change in position, and mentally riding inside can be a little more tedious! I think the biggest benefit of riding in Zwift that I’ve found is that it provides an excellent way of performing very specific intervals or efforts without the worry of interruptions or finding a suitable location, two difficulties that can often arise outdoors.

On Zwift, all the variables can be controlled and all that one needs to worry about is digging deep and hitting the numbers. Because of this, I’ve been able to execute some really tough and tricky sessions on Zwift that my coach has masterfully created, which I simply couldn’t have replicated quite as beneficially outside. 

You’ve ridden a Commonwealth games and major women’s events around the world and your first ever pro win was at the Women’s Herald Sun tour. How did that feel to achieve that win?

Yes, thanks to the Zwift Academy granting me access into a professional team, I’ve been able to get some solid results and be recognised by the New Zealand cycling federation for selection into some really cool events such as the World Championships and recently the Commonwealth Games.

I was also riding for the NZ National team at the Women’s Herald Sun tour, and it was certainly incredible to get that win at the time. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to double up on that one yet so I’ve almost put it to the back of my mind and now want to achieve something greater in Europe, so that I have a new accolade that people can rattle off. 

Do you have a particular type of race discipline that you favour most: time trials? climbs? sprints? Or are you a bit of an all-rounder?

I like to think that I’m quite a versatile and all-round type of rider, but I’m yet to find the type of race that really suits me the best. I consider myself to be an all-terrain vehicle because I can go well in the flats and get over most climbs, and am quite stubborn so I can hang in when the going gets tough.

My favourite type of race is one with either long climbs and twisty descents in the likes of Spain, or a very attiritional and tough race in the Belgium/ Dutch hills where the strongest riders come to the fore. Abysmal weather is an additional bonus! The only thing I definitely can’t do is sprint – I have zero fast twitch muscle fibres in my body.

The Zwift Academy starts this month, running until early October: What are your top tips for cyclists wanting to take part?

Firstly, it’s very important to have a good Zwift set-up so you’re able to get the best out of yourself and not be hindered. You need very good ventilation through fans or extremely cold outdoor temperatures floating through the windows, so that your performance isn’t affected by overheating and your body can maintain an optimal core temperature.

Music is a definite must for me when it comes to providing extra motivation and a distraction from the pain, so be sure to organise an uplifting playlist on Spotify.

Secondly, the sessions are designed to be tough and push your limits, so it’s critical to prepare well through having adequate rest beforehand and not trying to cram them all in back to back. And thirdly, on that note, have a good breakfast or pre-workout meal! You can’t do your best without a decent portion of carbs onboard. You only get out what you’re able or wanting to put in, so be sure to prepare for the sessions well and mentally be ready to get out of your physical comfort zone – the satisfaction through completing the session will be more than worth it.

Lastly, any advice for anyone keen to follow in your footsteps and become a professional cyclist?

The biggest thing that I’ve come to realise is that you shouldn’t take things too seriously too soon, because cycling is an incredibly demanding sport and profession.

I personally believe that young riders especially should temper their enthusiasm and resist the desire to perhaps get a power meter or train out of their skin with an intensive coaching programme, because there’ll be plenty of time to do that in due course!

To me, the best approach is to enjoy time on the bike, participate in local events/ groups and challenge yourself through relaxed fun such as Strava KOMs or fast bunch rides, which will already bring about gradual progress and improvements without the extra pressure of numbers and strict intensive efforts to adhere to.

I see far more value in finishing school and enjoying an appropriate life balance, rather than placing far too much emphasis on sport which could affect motivation and prospects further down the line. The time will come when it seems right to invest in better equipment, focus more heavily on structured training and also begin to monitor other variables such as nutrition and sleep, but the more relaxed style should be maximised before this It can be a long journey to even reach the radar of a more notable team or cycling opportunity, so pace your mental and physical efforts to limit the potential burnout. 

The Last of Us: Part 1 review: A discussion

Joel, from The Last of Us Part 1, capturing using the game’s photo mode.

PlayStation released the original The Last of Us, from developer Naughty Dog (Uncharted, Crash Bandicoot), in 2013, telling the story of Joel and Ellie, two unlikely people thrust together in a post-apocalyptic America, stricken with a pandemic caused by a mutating fungus that turns its victims into shambling, zombies.

The game was critically acclaimed, becoming one of the best-selling video games of all time, selling over 1.3 million units in its first week and 17 million by April 2018. It garnered numerous awards and in 2014, a remastered version was released for the PlayStation 4, followed by The Last of Us 2 in 2020. I sat down with game writing colleague Dylan Burns for a virtual chat about our time with the newly remade The Last of Us Part 1, which is out on PlayStation 5, on 2 September.

Dylan: I’ve played through The Last of Us many times. It must be five or six. I have the trophy for Survivor+ on both the PS3 and PS4 version. It’s safe to say that I’ve had a lot of The Last of Us in my life. Consequently, I found it difficult to find much enthusiasm for this remake. I thus entered my time with Part 1 feeling cynical. Why does this need to exist? Are we just going to remake games every handful of years from now on? And while I can’t say that I will actually finish Part 1 (I have played the opening few hours to get a sense of the changes), I have come around to an appreciation of the effort that has gone into this remake. I can confidently say that this is an essential purchase for anyone who owns a PS5 and has not yet played The Last of Us. Such players may be few and far between, but Naughty Dog’s market research must have shown they exist. Whether or not it’s worth triple-dipping for existing fans is a tougher nut to crack. 

The thing is, my memories of what The Last of Us is, and how it looked to me as I played it, are so ingrained that it does not matter whether it ran at 60fps or with real time reflections or updated character models and animation. The core gameplay is solid regardless of the foliage density. All that said, I could not help but be impressed at the sense of intimacy that comes from the higher framerate, improved lighting and reflections, and even the more subtle aspects such as tweaked camera shakes and changed angles during story scenes. There is no doubt that this is a labour of love and for that a lot can be forgiven. What this remake does is pull it into line with The Last of Us 2, creating a title that feels like it was released for this year, and allowing players to experience both Part 1 and 2 in a seamless way. What are your thoughts, Gerard? Were you a cynic like me, or did this come as something you have been looking forward to?

Gerard: My relationship with The Last of Us is a little different from yours, Dylan, as I haven’t played it as many times as you have. I  played through the original on my PlayStation 3 and still have fond memories of that play through. I’ve always loved the games and worlds Naughty Dog  have created and I felt that The Last of Us was a step up  in terms of the narrative and world building and it was, frankly, quite brutal in its depiction of life in a world decimated by a viral plague. 

For some reason, I didn’t go anywhere near the remastered PS4 version nor did I play The Last of Us 2. I don’t actually know why that was, if I’m being honest: I really need to get around to it. So, I actually went into this PS5 version with no preconceived expectations on what it would be like and so far what I’ve played has impressed me. 

As I progressed through the new version and heard the unmistakable guitar soundtrack, I had faint recollections of my first play through flooding back. I don’t want to spoil it for any PlayStation gamer who hasn’t played it but the game impressed me back then and so far I’m loving what I’m seeing.

It’s as you said, Dylan, this remake has brought the original game more in line with current games, at least visually from what I’ve played so far.  I’m not far enough through yet to gauge whether the gameplay has improved significantly but visually, yeah, it’s a massive improvement. It’s little things that I’m noticing the most: Like explosions and facial animations and character models. I also noticed how much more realistic something as simple as the burning barn not far from the start of the game is: It looks like a burning building, which is a vast improvement on the original which was clearly hampered by the technology of the time.

As you said earlier, it could be a little harder to convince those who have played it several times already to fork out for it again, but from what I’ve played through at time of writing shows a lot of work has gone into this remake, especially in those little quality of quality of life aspects, as well as visual improvements, of course. Can you see yourself playing this through to the end again?

Dylan: Honestly, probably not right now. Having played the opening hours of Part 1, I’ve now got in my mind the thought of one day replaying both games on PS5, but I’m net yet removed enough from the harrowing nature of TLoU2 and its unavoidable connection with the whole COVID pandemic to feel ready to do so. I can, however, see myself being pushed over the edge to include Part 1 whenever I do have the time and headspace to do so, when before I likely would have just rolled with replaying Part 2.

There’s also the fact that there have been even more tweaks to parts of the game that I deeply enjoy, such as the photo mode. I have a collection of snaps from the original that I treasure as documentation of my time with the game, and I can see myself getting hooked all over again with the added lighting options and just higher fidelity to frame and capture.

The accessibility options are also deep and customisable, and while not something made for me specifically, I often enjoy testing them out just to see if they help or enhance my experience. The addition of spoken description for each story scene, as well as all the other visual tweaks available for all manner of players, means that a whole new audience of previously locked-out gamers will be able to experience this. I think this is what draws me away from cynicism, because they didn’t need to add such broad accessibility. It is obviously respectful to people of all abilities and for such an iconic title to spend the time and effort on embracing those with perceptual hurdles  into this world will hopefully mean that other large studios hold this stuff up as mandatory for their own titles, and then build on it.

Tess from The Last of Us Part 1, captured using photo mode.

Gerard: The more I play, the more tiny little details I’m picking up. Things like more life-like facial animations and more “human” looking humans and more nuanced lighting that impacts much more on the game world than the original ever did. It has also reminded me how brutal the combat was too, especially the stealth kills. Also, if anything, this new version of The Last of Us has made me now want to play The Last of Us 2 even more. It has also reminded me what great world builders and storytellers Naughty Dog is. Sure, this is a brutal and harrowing tale set in a brutal world but it’s realised so well.

Dylan: I still don’t think this was needed, but the quality of what is here cannot be denied. I’m just wondering about the whole ‘full price’ situation. I cannot recommend people plonk down $125 for this, but there’s little doubt that sales will roll around and if you wait a while, it will easily be worth the $36 or whatever that EB games sell it for. Even the $98 ‘discount’ at Amazon is enough to tighten the bargain drawstrings and put your fingers in your ears for a few months.

Gerard: You raise a really good point, Dylan, on whether the game is worth full price, especially for those who have already played it in some form. I did a quick check of New Zealand prices and they range from $NZ108 right up to $139 so you’d have to be an extremely dedicated PlayStation fan to pay full price for a game that you’ve already played before, perhaps several times. That said, if you’re new to PlayStation and have never played The Last of Us Part 1 before, this would be the ideal entry point for newcomers.

Dylan: I think what you mentioned before has to be highlighted, though – how it is making you feel like you want to finish it and then move on to Part 2. This has to be one of the benefits of this approach, regardless of the obvious grasp at a resurgence in popularity as the television show hits (I still think everything we’ve seen of that looks pretty awful, to be honest). And, again, I also have to give Naughty Dog credit at pushing so hard for inclusive features. If nothing else, this is the main thing to be championed here, I feel.

A big thanks to PlayStation New Zealand and Australia for the early review code.