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.