“If I win this, I’d start to race against guys I’ve only ever watched on TV. It would be a dream come true.” It’s 2020, and Jay Vine is speaking to a camera from his living room in Australia. He’s being interviewed ahead of the finals of the Zwift Academy, a competition run by the indoor training platform whereby the winner will secure a pro contract with Alpecin-Deceuninck. “It would change my life,” he continues.
Fast forward two years, and plenty has changed for Vine. His dream came true, but it surpassed perhaps even his own expectations. He’s now in his second year as a professional with Alpecin-Decenunick after having his contract extended following a stellar first season as a neo-pro, and he’s not just racing the guys he’s watched on TV, he’s beating them.
Not in lower ranked races, or when there’s a lesser quality field, today Vine took his first professional victory in a Grand Tour stage, in a Vuelta a España with perhaps the most star-studded climbing contingent in recent history. He rode away from the famous prodigal Belgian talent Remco Evenepoel on the first proper mountain stage of the race. He may have learnt his trade riding indoors, but today Vine battled all the elements of the real world, fighting through the rain, fog and mist in an epic stage to the very top of Al Pico Jano.
Cycling isn’t really supposed to work like this. Traditionally – on the men’s side of the sport especially – latecomers like Vine don’t waltz into a WorldTour peloton and start winning. The narrative has long been pushed that riders should start racing as young as possible. That you need to grow up in a peloton to get used to the feeling of being in a bunch, to be able to control and handle the bike around tricky corners and alpine descents, to read a race and know when it’s the right time to attack and pace your effort.
Image: A.S.O/Sprint Cycling Agency/Luis Angel Gomez
It’s precisely these reasons why naysayers have looked down on the world of Zwift and e-racing. Riding stationary doesn’t hone in those skills that you learn on the road, it doesn’t teach you how to wrestle for positions with someone shoulder to shoulder or how to perfectly nail the apex of a corner. It’s why some said that Zwift Academy could never be a real pathway to professional racing. Since he entered the WorldTour scene last year, Jay Vine has been changing that narrative. It started with his second place in the overall GC at the 2021 Tour of Turkey in his very first race with Alpecin-Deceuninck, and was solidified with his third place finish on stage 14 of the Vuelta a España last year.
Vine’s win today was the final step in redefining the normal pathway to success in cycling. He took victory in one of the biggest races in the entire sport, validating the trust that Alpecin-Deceuninck put in him based on the raw talent and power he produced on a turbo trainer in his living room a few years ago.
The 26-year-old’s victory has wider implications than just his personal success. The tradition in cycling that riders need to prove themselves in Europe first in order to secure professional contracts is dangerously alienating and risks significantly reducing the pool of talent entering the professional peloton.
Without Zwift Academy, a rider with the potential to win a mountain stage in a Grand Tour could still be racing domestically in Australia, unable to find enough support or funding to get himself to get over to Europe and get noticed by a WorldTour team. There are hundreds of riders outside of traditional cycling countries who likely possess the raw talent that Vine does, and his victory today is proof of how important it is to create pathways that give these riders a chance.
Less than a decade ago, if you’d have told the cycling world that a Vuelta a España stage winner would come from a background of e-racing and been talent spotted based on power numbers alone, few would have believed you. But the sport is changing, and it’s changing for the better. Jay Vine is proof that there’s more than one way to reach the pinnacle of cycling, and with it he’s proving to more and more WorldTour teams that they can look outside of the box to spot talent.
Perhaps most importantly, his win today will have made many people around the world believe that achieving your dream can be far closer than it may have once seemed.
Cover image: Getty Images/Justin Setterfield