Zwift Empowered Paige Onweller To The Pros

Read the full report published by Cycling Weekly and the full-length interview here!

The 33-year-old Physician’s Assistant from Michigan Gravel Racer Paige Onweller is hanging up her stethoscope for professional cycling after starting her racing career on Zwift.

Pro gravel racer Paige Onweller covered with mud after a race

On October 22, 2022, Paige Onweller won the 104.2-mile Big Sugar Gravel Pro Women’s title, the final race in the LifeTime Grand Prix six-race series. The rising star’s first professional victory over the series winner Haley Smith and runner-up Sofia Gomez Villafane moved her to ninth in the final overall standings and ensured a $7,000 payout.

 

She had rarely ridden a bike before 2020 when she began “just for fun” and “a different way to get cardio that complimented my running goals without the additional weight bearing as I injured myself a lot.”

Paige was intimidated riding on the road and with others, and that’s where her story takes a most unpredictable turn. She saw cycling as an effective supplement to her training, and “It made more sense for me to do Zwift since it seemed interactive and fun, and it also seemed a very low risk.”

The new road and gravel pro cut her cycling teeth on simulated roads of the Zwift virtual cycling platform. “I think my story shows that it is a great way to build confidence on the bike that you can take IRL, even if that is gaining enough confidence to try that group ride you’ve always heard about.”

 

Add Paige Onweller’s name to the growing list of cyclists, like multiple Vuelta de Espana stage winner Jay Vine and Michael Vink, the most recent addition to UAE discovered on MyWhoosh, who’ve used virtual cycling as a springboard to the pros. Not bad for a newbie (Paige’s words, not mine). Ride on, Paige!

Pro gravel racer Paige Onweller in work attire
Read the Cycling Weekly article here and check out the full-length interview below.
Please share a bit about yourself. Where do you live, and what do you do? What do you like to do for fun? Family life, that sort of stuff.

My name is Paige Onweller, and I am 33 years old. I currently reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I have been an urgent care and emergency medicine PA for eight years and a coach for about eight years (previously for runners, but now cyclists). 

 

I like to cook and bake for fun and particularly enjoy making healthy alternatives to delectable desserts (i.e., black bean brownies, etc.). Aside from biking and time in the kitchen, I love anything outdoors!

Can you tell us about your athletic background? What were your most notable achievements as an endurance athlete before you began cycling?

Growing up, I was pretty athletic, and my parents made us do sports in high school to stay out of trouble. I was a swimmer and runner and then went to Ferris State University for a cross-country and track scholarship. I excelled in the middle distance events, but after college, I focused on the 10-mile to ½ marathon distances. 

 

I started to dabble in ultra-marathons during COVID, and my most notable achievement was doing R3 (Rim to Rim to Rim) in the Grand Canyon at the end of 2020. My 10-mile PR was 60:30, and I broke 1:20 in the half marathon. 

 

I was never going to be a professional runner, but I could compete at a high regional level. I could have excelled in the ultra-running arena, but I didn’t get to explore that much before transitioning to cycling.

Why and when did you first begin virtual cycling on Zwift? Had you ever tried cycling before then? What inspired you to choose virtual cycling over other endurance sports options?

I started riding bikes in the summer of 2020 just for fun. It was really scary, to be honest, and I was intimidated by many factors. I didn’t ride with others but enjoyed a different way to get cardio that complimented my running goals without the additional weight bearing as I had been injured a lot. 

 

So after a few months of cycling, I decided I wanted to continue riding in the winter to help my running goals and to avoid injuries. I never considered racing a bike. It was only cross-training for me. 

 

But I set up a Zwift station in my house so I’d have access to working out with my busy schedule, and then I joined a Zwift racing league with some local people that had invited me to participate. It made more sense for me to do Zwift since it seemed interactive, fun, and very low risk. I could make it what I wanted—easy rides, group rides, races, etc. 

Pro gravel racer Paige Onweller standing on race winning podium
Photo: Pure Gravel

I figured it would help keep me motivated to train in the winter. The first race was HORRIBLE. I got dropped so hard and remembered thinking, “What the heck?!?!” 

 

But I kept racing each week, and after about a season of figuring out how to Zwift race (yes, there are tactics), I realized how strong I could be. The rest was history.

Is there anything unique or that stands out about your transition to virtual cycling?

I’m not sure there is anything unique per se. I think it’s rare for someone to get into Zwift with minimal biking history, but I think my story shows that it is a great way to build confidence on the bike that you can take IRL, even if that is just gaining enough confidence to try that group ride you’ve always heard about, etc.

Pro gravel racer Paige Onweller indoor cycling
What was your initial impression of Zwift, and how did it compare to what you thought it was?

My initial impression was that it felt like a video game, haha! I just remember thinking it seemed fun and interactive. I also liked that there was such a large community of riders.

 

I remember getting on one morning at like 5 am before a PA shift, joining a group ride with a couple of hundred people, and was like, “Woah, I guess a lot of people ride bikes on Zwift?!”  

I also remember thinking the competition portion when I started racing on Zwift was really fun. Previously when I rode outside, it was honestly just very stressful, and I didn’t always feel safe. Zwift removed those fears so I could focus on competing and enjoying the bike.

How did the experience evolve for you physically and mentally? What aspects of your Zwift learning curve stand out the most to you?

Zwift helped remove the barriers that IRL riding created regarding safety and navigating outdoor skills, which are terrifying for a new rider (clipping in, riding with other people, off-road riding, etc.). Once I started Zwift racing and realized how strong I was, then I began to question if I could produce the same results IRL.

 

Zwift empowered me. It gave me the confidence to try and accept the risks outdoors in hopes that I could match my level of racing. I always told myself that if it didn’t work out, my future would be solely in esports.

Pro gravel racer Paige Onweller raising arm while cycling
Did the social aspect of Zwift contribute to your progression? What about your team and the dynamic there?

For sure! Zwift can be a very social activity, especially if you are on a team. I had a fun team and great riders to meet up with. Kristen Kulchinsky and Josh Lipka, for example, were very welcoming, and we would do video chats during course recon rides, and they answered many of my questions.

 

I liked that we had a DS, and it felt more like a team working together vs. individuals racing. It gave me some more accountability and purpose.

What was your first Zwift setup? How has it changed since then?

My first Zwift setup was a CycleOps direct drive smart trainer, to which I mounted my old-school aluminum 3x bike. Nothing fancy, but it got the job done. 

 

When I rode for Twenty24 last year, Wahoo was a sponsor, so I had a Kickr at that time with my road Felt bike (electronic shifting, top of the line, etc.) as well as a Wahoo desk and large TV screen to better see my competitors when racing at that level. I had an additional table for the required zoom cameras for racing. 

 

Currently, my Zwift room is back to my CycleOps trainer, but I also have rollers and a fluid trainer depending on my daily needs. I will admit my Zwift days are pretty limited lately as I can travel and escape some of the winter weather here in Michigan.

Paige Onweller riding bike indoors with friends
What was the trajectory of your growth on Zwift (please try to give details, including general dates, in addition to your feelings at the time) from the first day you tried it until you began competing at the elite level?

So I should also mention that previous to 2020, I did have a couple of months where I was injured and tried Zwifting. It was the December 2017 timeframe. I rode on Zwift for 2-3 months, and it was fun to try and complete different routes, but I had no aspirations or goals to be a cyclist. It was just a distraction until I could run again. 

 

Then fast forward to 2020 when I tried riding outside that summer, more for fun, and then that winter tried Zwift racing for the first time. The Zwift Racing Series was a big game-changer for me. It gave opportunities to improve throughout the season, and the live coverage the series provided was awesome. My family would watch from across the country and cheer; it seemed accessible and engaging to riders and supporters. 

 

As I started racing in the community league, I began to win some races, and Josh Lipka, the DS for Twenty24, recruited me. He honestly is probably responsible for my trajectory as he saw potential in my raw wattage. He also was friendly and supportive and answered a lot of my questions. 

 

From there, I went through all the validation stuff with ZADA, which was horrendous. The weigh-ins, the height videos, the technological difficulties for dual recording, etc. It was honestly a headache, and I wanted to quit many times. Many tears were shed in that process, mainly because it was cumbersome. 

 

I respect the need for all of that, but it just became a time-consuming process to ensure all your equipment was functioning properly, and things were validated. Nonetheless, we did it, and the team often bonded when we would have frustrating moments.

Why did you improve so quickly? Did you follow a training plan or have a coach? How did you learn the game of Zwift racing, like tactics, strategy, utilizing the draft, gamification, etc.? What was the most significant factor in your progression to an elite eracer?

The tactics within Zwift were easier to learn with a DS and a team. I learned a lot from my community team as well. People saw my potential, and I often had people reaching out, giving me tips, sending videos, etc. 

 

They invested in my progression, which helped since I had no idea what I was doing! But the most important thing at that time was to practice and study. I would check the course by riding it, taking notes, riding again, studying youtube videos on the course, etc. I would spend hours researching the course before I would race it. That was what made the most significant difference.

Pro gravel racer Paige Onweller lining up for a time trial
What did you find when you got to the top tier of Zwift racing? What was your elite esports experience like, including the major races you competed in, your results, and your impressions of the competition?

The top tier of Zwift racing was fun and supportive. The other riders were friendly and generally wanted others to succeed. It reminded me of the running community. The IRL pro racing scene is much different.

 

It’s more cutthroat and not as approachable as tactics play into things a bit more in person. The highest level I raced was the Premier Division, and I feel I could have qualified for UCI Esports Worlds. I didn’t get the opportunity, with my work schedule and everything else going on, balancing multiple jobs and training.

 

Additionally, the qualifiers were at the same time as my planned off-season, so it didn’t work out from healthy timing. Our seasons are long, and we can’t be racing at this level year-round.

What was your most notable esports achievement? What was your cycling or general athletic goal at the time? Why weren’t you content being an “esports pro?”

The highest level was racing in the PD and finishing near the top 10 in most of the races. I often got frustrated with esports and wasn’t content with that alone since so many factors influenced your ability to win.

 

For example, it was always a balance of having a tech glitch or drop-out, and with that much on the line, I felt the esports arena still needed some work concerning equipment and technology.

 

I was also curious if I could replicate the results IRL, and some of the women I was racing against in the premier league were legit IRL cyclists, so I started to question if I could do that too. I always knew that esports would be there if IRL racing didn’t work out.

How and when did the thought of beginning a real-life cycling career enter your mind? Was it always the goal from the moment you began riding indoors? What lured you outdoors?

I’m naturally competitive, and Zwift racing immediately made me question if I could race outdoors. I guess you could say that I got the itch, and once I learned about power and power-to-weight ratios, seeing my numbers made me realize I was really strong.

 

It was still terrifying to think about riding outdoors, but I also saw the massive gender disparity that sport has and felt a sense of obligation to at least try outdoor racing. I also LOVE being outdoors, and the thought of riding my bike for hours on end was appealing to me in terms of having fun and just general enjoyment.

Paige Onweller riding a tT bike
Please tell us about your transition to real-life racing. When was your first race, and what was the circumstance? What was the thing you remember most about that day?

My first ever bike race was in March 2021, with a tiny, local race. I wouldn’t even classify it as a mass start since they did small waves with COVID. Then after that, I did two time trials, one local one and then USAC Pro Road Nationals in 2021.

 

After that, it was a disappointing experience for many reasons, so I decided to give gravel a try. Previously, I was focused on time trails since I had no pack riding skills or technical skills, so it seemed the safest and easiest path.

 

But after nationals, I wanted to prove myself, so I signed up for the largest mass start bike race that still had open registration, Gravel Worlds. So August 2021 was my first mass start bike race, and I told myself if I didn’t die and had fun, I would keep trying this gravel thing.

 

I ended up placing 5th overall female there, and despite not having any clue how to ride in a pack, I survived and learned a lot that day. This race allowed me to see that I had potential if I could figure a few things out. After that, I placed 2nd at Barry Roubaix in Oct 2021 to round out my first partial outdoor season.

What struck you as the biggest difference between Zwift and real-life racing then? What would you say now?

IRL racing is way different, mainly because I am racing off-road, mostly gravel and MTB, so the conditions change the surface of our tires. You get flat tires, and the technical side of things is critical.

 

You have to dedicate much mental energy to not crashing, cornering effectively in a group, etc. Those are the most significant differences. Those differences remain the same now as well.

Paige Onweller racing in Barry-Roubaix
Photo: Rob Meendering
How did Zwift prepare you for real-life racing? How were you unprepared?

Zwift prepared me by allowing me to overcome barriers such as fear and then empowered me to see that I was strong. It prepared me for IRL racing by showing me what it felt like to race a bike indoors. I was unprepared because I lacked any and all technical riding skills.

Many top-level Zwift eracers are unapologetic when sharing that they don’t race outdoors because they are uncomfortable riding in a pack or lack the necessary bike handling skills. What was your first experience, and how did it motivate or deter you? What would you say to them?

It’s scary. Anyone that says otherwise is probably lying. I think everything hinges on what you do with that fear. The fear can drive you back to what you are comfortable with—Zwift racing.

 

Or the fear can motivate you to be better and want to improve. The fear, in my case, was motivating. The way I saw it was that I was strong and doing fairly well without those skills, so I asked myself what I could accomplish if I gained those skills.

 

I would practice cornering for hours, watch youtube videos on pack riding, and try to be a student of the sport. You also have to be patient. Learning those skills takes experience, which takes time.

 

That, for me, was the most frustrating process. You can’t do a skills camp for three days and expect to be a totally new rider, and you need to take those lessons and practice them.

How does the level of competition compare? What is the most significant difference?

It’s hard to compare the level of competition because I am a much different rider now than I was a year ago or two years ago when I first started Zwifting. I feel the level of competition is very high at the top end of Esports, but I think the IRL racing is much more competitive from what I have experienced.

How does the social aspect of elite Zwift racing compare to what you’ve experienced while racing outdoors on the pro level? Why do you feel that way, and what do you think is the reason?

The social aspect of Zwift is stronger than in person. I think that’s because people can connect with others in the comfort of their homes, and we rely on that community to get us through many indoor training miles.

 

Outdoors, I feel more racing tactics are involved, and riders have their guards up a bit more. Honestly, I was so new this last year, so many of the long-time pro cyclists didn’t know me or maybe didn’t feel I belonged up there, so their defensiveness could have been not knowing who I was.

 

I think that will change in time, or I hope it will change. We have a lot more on the line for outdoor racing, including salaries and financial support, so the stakes are higher. Whenever money is involved, the dynamics change too.

Paige Onweller riding a gravel bike
Can you please give a brief description of your career, including dates, notable events, and race results, since you began real-life racing? What did your recent accomplishment in the Life Time Grand Prix mean to you?

2021 was my first partial racing season, with a 5th place finish at Gravel Worlds as my first mass start race. From there, in 2022, I excelled and won Barry Roubaix, 2nd at Gravel Worlds, 4th at LeadBoat, 1st place at Big Sugar most recently, and top 10 finishes at Leadville and Chequamegon. I rounded out my season 9th in the Grand Prix series for 2022. Not bad for a newbie!

 

My most recent win at Big Sugar was career-defining, and it was really special to have everything line up. Gravel and MTB are very unpredictable with the terrain, mechanicals, etc., so a win at this level of competition is rare. That win has opened many doors for me and my future cycling career.

What is your ultimate goal? Do you ever see yourself back racing on Zwift?

My ultimate goal is to continue having fun on bikes and race at the highest possible level for the longest time. More importantly, I want to empower other females to ride bikes and encourage additional new riders who are just getting started.

 

I would love to race Zwift in the future, I’m not sure what that looks like, but for now, it holds a place for training on bad weather days or for fun.

Pro gravel racer Paige Onweller smiling
What changes need to be made to esports racing to make it a destination for top-level talent like you? How can esports attract riders to remain and not lose them to real-life racing options?

It would take a lot of work to balance esports racing and a full IRL racing calendar. I had thought about doing the esports qualifiers for Worlds this fall, but it comes at an awkward time in my season as the IRL season wraps up, and if I were to go for that, it would mean I would have no off-season and be racing 12 months of the year.

 

I have realized that with cycling and all the disciples, you cannot do it all. For me, gravel racing and outdoor racing are much more dynamic, so it would be hard to convince me to race esports if it was a sponsor obligation or more for fun/training.

 

Although I hate to admit this, to get top talent involved in esports, there has to be money involved. That may include a starting/appearance fee or a cash prize system comparable to our IRL options, and I don’t think that’s happening right now.

 

You’d also need equipment support. I manage multiple race bikes per season, so working an entire Zwift setup and indoor setup is less appealing. I think the in-person studios, where you are competing virtually next to one another (while also being spectated and monitored), could be a fun way to have more engagement.

What advice would you give to an endurance athlete who, like you, may not have ridden a bike before and wanted to race at an elite level?

My advice is to stay curious about what you can accomplish. It’s not easy, and it will be frustrating a lot of the time. Use fear to fuel your improvements. Get a good coach and a mentor to help you navigate the complex dynamics of bike racing.

Thank you, Paige, and Ride On!

Your Thoughts?

Did you ever think you’d see the day when athletes are learning how to race bikes on Zwift and becoming pros? I sure didn’t! Comment below! Your fellow cyclists want to know.

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