How a doctor named Tanja Erath turned a virtual reality game into a pro cycling career
Imagine you've dabbled in elite-level athletics throughout college and grad school. It keeps you fit and fuels your competitive side. But you've got big dreams -- medicine, surgery, saving lives -- dreams you've spent your entire adult life chasing. Then one day you have a chance to find out whether you've got the stuff to make it as a pro athlete. Would you drop everything to take that shot?
For 29-year-old Tanja Erath, it was a no-brainer. Although Erath, who grew up in Massenbach, Germany, had been laser-focused on a career in medicine since high school, she had been doing triathlons for just as long -- racking up numerous elite podiums and a trip to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship along the way.
In 2016, she switched to bike racing when running became impossible due to a bout of piriformis syndrome, a painful condition caused by compression of the sciatic nerve. Immediately, she began seeing results, landing on podiums at the famously fast Red Hook Criterium series and other fixed-gear races.
That's when a friend told her about a competition that awarded the winner a contract with the Women's WorldTour cycling team Canyon/SRAM. It was called Zwift Academy, and all she would have to do was hook her bike up to a stationary trainer in her bedroom, sign up for an app and complete some workouts. Yeah, it was a no-brainer.
From virtual to reality
Zwift is an online, indoor training platform for cyclists and runners. To ride, users connect via a stationary trainer, set up an avatar and pedal in a virtual environment in real time with other riders from all over the world. Participants can choose from a library of training plans, jump into a scheduled group ride, line up for a race or just ride.
The experience is similar to a multiplayer video game (think Minecraft or Fortnite), complete with leaderboards, escalating achievement levels and virtual prizes. Since its launch in 2015, Zwift has had more than half a million users; Zwift Academy, now in its third year, is on its way to becoming a viable path for talent identification at the highest level of the sport.
The way Erath saw it, the contest would be a chance to see how far she could go.
"In sports, I never really found my limits," she explained.
She had wanted to be a doctor since she was 15 after taking a first-aid class, so straight from high school she entered a three-year nursing program, followed by six years of medical school at Ruhr University Bochum.
When the Zwift Academy kicked off in August 2017, she was studying for her last round of finals and contemplating whether to specialize in anesthesia or urology. Suddenly, she had a new set of priorities: To participate in the academy, Erath would need a stationary trainer -- stat.
"I couldn't afford one," she said. "So, I asked a friend for his old one."
It wasn't even the right kind -- Zwift works best with a "smart" trainer, which transmits power data to the app and controls resistance via Bluetooth or ANT+ technology -- and Erath had to control the resistance manually.
Undaunted, she stormed through all 16 events (10 structured workouts, four group rides and two races) of the initial round of the eight-week academy, recording power levels impressive enough to beat more than 2,100 participants for one of 10 semifinal spots.
The timing of the semifinal round couldn't have been worse -- she had to juggle final exams with seven more grueling workouts. So, when she learned she was one of three to get to the finals, she was stunned.
"It was a lot of pressure, and I didn't think I'd make it because I wasn't perfect at all," she said.
The finals were to take place at a Canyon/SRAM team camp in Koblenz, Germany, in December, so Erath would have to leave the comfort of her bedroom and virtual environment to prove herself in real-life riding situations alongside pro racers that she had only ever thought of as idols.
"You meet all these girls you admire, and suddenly you spend time with them," she said. "It's surreal."
Despite the high stakes, Erath exceeded expectations.
"She just crushed," said Kate Veronneau, brand manager at Zwift. "The team saw somebody that would be an immediate contributor."
At camp's end, the finalists stood anxiously in front of a gaggle of media, photographers and team staff waiting for the winner to be announced. Erath clasped her hands together, her shoulders tense, eyes wide with uncertainty. The seconds ticked slowly by. Then she heard her name, let a sharp breath escape and broke into a huge smile.
"When I started the academy, I dreamed about a pro contract," she said later in a video interview, still incredulous. "But I never thought I'd win it."
Stumbling on the world stage
For someone who had prioritized a medical career for so long, the abrupt transition from lab coat to full-time Lycra was jarring. One day, Erath was choosing her specialty, and the next thing she knew, she was moving to Spain to train 24/7.
"I had to get used to being selfish," she said. "Professional sport is all about being selfish: your performance, how you recover, how you train, how you eat, how you sleep. It's all about you."
And it's the opposite of why she went into medicine, a field in which "you really help people," she said.
And then there was the actual racing. Pro-level power numbers mean nothing if you can't hack mixing it up in at high speeds on narrow roads, shoulder to shoulder with the world's fastest bike racers.
"I wasn't super experienced," Erath said. "I mean, I've ridden since I was 11, but not in a 100-woman peloton with high-level athletes. I was worried I might crash somebody."
In February 2018, when she lined up for Stage 1 of her first professional race, the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana in Spain, Erath was determined not to let self-doubt sabotage her.
"I really wanted to show that I was capable," she said.
The stage unfolded better than she expected. She won the first intermediate sprint and took second in the next one. She felt spectacular, so spectacular that she began to think she might even win the overall sprinter's category for the day. But as soon as the thought entered her mind, she bumped handlebars with another rider and tumbled hard onto the pavement.
Just like that, her race was over.
Although her teammate Hannah Barnes would go on to win the stage and the overall four-day race, for Erath, it was a profound disappointment.
"I let my teammates down," Erath wrote afterward on her blog for the website voxwomen.com. "I really wanted to show that I am strong on my bike, not just on a trainer. I felt like I failed."
But there was no time to wallow: Roughly 40 chances for redemption at races all over the world awaited. And after every one, her teammates and managers delivered a relentless stream of feedback --a level of criticism that might have been agonizing to someone less motivated.
It wasn't always easy to stay positive. At times, Erath said, "I felt worthless and stupid." Still, she wowed the team with her ability to learn from mistakes.
"The team was tough on her because they saw so much potential," Veronneau said.
And as the season progressed, Erath began to deliver.
In pro road bike racing, most competitors never get a chance at individual glory. They perform as domestiques (supporters) for main contenders. Measures of success look more like how hard you push the pace to exhaust the other teams and how well you position your contender to win.
After the inauspicious start in Spain, Erath rallied to help her teammates take stage and overall wins at some of the most prestigious races on the professional calendar.
"Whenever Tanja was given a job to do during a race, she was able to fulfill it," said Canyon-SRAM team director Ronny Lauke.
As she began to enjoy some success, Erath's confidence grew -- and so did the opportunities. She was invited by the German National Cycling Federation to race for her country at the Lotto Belgium Tour in September. Later that month, she got a rare taste of personal glory, winning the sprinter's classification three times at the Tour de l'Ardeche in France.
"It was such a cool feeling," she said.
And in November, she took silver in the scratch race and placed sixth in the individual pursuit at the German National Track Championships.
At the end of the season, Canyon-SRAM offered her a contract for another year, topping off what had turned into a stellar season for a newbie racer. Erath insists she still has a lot to learn.
"I hope I see an improvement from last year and that the racing feels more natural," she said. She's also not fully adjusted to the lifestyle. "I'm still not sure that I have processed everything that has happened!"
Living as a pro cyclist has meant big changes -- not that she's complaining. She traded overnight hospital shifts for 9 a.m. wake-up calls. On a typical training day, she'll grab breakfast, then head out for a three- to four-hour ride in the hills surrounding her new home base in Girona, Spain, followed by a core or strength session in the evening. And when her 2019 season kicks off in February, she'll race pretty much every week.
Aside from setting up residency in a new country, probably the biggest adjustment to life as a pro, though, has been the travel, she explained.
"I mean, I flew like five times in my life before last year," she said. "And then I had like 49 flights. In May, I flew two times to California. I flew to China for a one-day race."
But she has found stability in the surprising similarities between practicing medicine and being a bike racer. Both have their share of unpredictability, each requires a high level of focus and concentration and, finally, there's the teamwork.
"Whether it's in the ER or in surgery or in a bike race, it's all about working together," Erath said.
As for her future, all signs point to more success on cycling's world stage. "I still want to work as a doctor," she said. "I'm really good at that job."
Meanwhile, she's enjoying the moment. "It's my last chance to do this," she said. "I want to appreciate what I'm able to do right now."