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Neve Bradbury on being one of cycling’s rising stars, racing against idol Annemiek van Vleuten

The 20-year-old Australian turned pro in 2021 after winning the Zwift Academy and is quickly becoming one of the sport's most promising prospects.

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After taking a chance on the Zwift Academy two years ago, Neve Bradbury has become one of the most promising young climbers in the peloton.

The 20-year-old Australian won the fifth edition of the competition in 2020, which is run by the virtual training company and offers winners an opportunity to earn a professional contract. She made her professional debut with Canyon-SRAM at the Santos Festival of Cycling, where she finished sixth overall.

Since then, Bradbury has been kicking on with leaps and bounds and ramped up her racing program for 2022. She took some strong results, including eighth at Durango-Durango, winning the youth classification at the Tour of Scandinavia, and second in the category at the Tour de Suisse.

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However, her personal highlight this year was her grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia Donne where she took 10th overall and second in the youth classification behind kiwi racer Niamh Fisher-Black. It was a confirmation of her developing talents as a climber.

“I thought I was a climber, but I didn’t really know for sure, and I also have never ridden race for 10 days in a row,” Bradbury told VeloNews. “I was so excited to race because initially at the start of the year, I wasn’t down for the Giro. I wasn’t selected, and then maybe two or three weeks before the Giro, I found out I was selected.

“I was so excited just to be racing, and then we started, and I ended up getting some good results. That was just like, the cherry on top.”

Stepping into the bigger races this season has also given her a chance to race against some of the riders she has looked up to growing up, particularly the Giro d’Italia champion Annemiek van Vleuten. She lapped up the opportunity to be in the same field as one of her favorite riders in Italy.

“One of my, my biggest idols is Annemiek. Like she’s always been at the top of the game, winning. I can’t remember the last time she didn’t win a really hilly race,” she said. “I was just grateful to be on the start line with her now this year, it’s like actually racing with her. Not really against her, because she’s still a whole level above everyone.”

Though she was riding against her own nation, Bradbury enjoyed watching Van Vleuten storm to her second road race world title in Australia last month.

“It was so epic. I’m so happy she won it. It was quite clear that she wasn’t the strongest one, but she still wasn’t because she was the smartest one on the day,” Bradbury said.

Taking the opportunities

Bradbury graduated out of the Zwift Academy in the same year as fellow Aussie Jay Vine, who has raced with Alpecin-Deceuninck over the last two years. Vine was one of the stars of the Vuelta a España at the end of August with he took two major mountain stages, and he looked like he might take home the mountains classification until he was forced to abandon following a crash.

Going from virtual racing to real life is a tricky transition, but Bradbury says that Vine is proof that it’s possible.

“Jay’s shown that the Zwift Academy has opened the door to really strong athletes. It’s really nice to see him doing so well. He shows that you can race a bike and not just on a Zwift,” she said. “If you’re good Zwift rider then you’re most likely a good road race rider.”

Alongside Vine and Bradbury, nearly all Zwift Academy winners have come from Australia and its neighbor New Zealand. In fact, just three have come from elsewhere with Germany’s Tanja Erath, America’s Leah Thorvilson, and Slovenia’s Martin Lavrič.

Due to the nature of the competition, which allows riders to compete from their homes wherever in the world it is, it has opened the door to many athletes from outside of the more traditional cycling heartland of Europe.

With restrictions over the last three years due to the coronavirus pandemic, up-and-coming riders from Australia and New Zealand have been hit the hardest. The Academy has opened the door for riders like Bradbury to make the leap far earlier than she might have been able to do.

“I wouldn’t be pro right now [without the Zwift Academy]. Because of COVID and everything. It put a stop to everything. If I didn’t go pro last year, I probably still wouldn’t be a pro this year,” she said. “Australia, New Zealand, obviously. Like, a long way away from Europe isn’t as easy as just popping over into Europe and racing, so it just makes it a lot more accessible. Makes it more like it just gives them an opportunity to come over and race.

“Riders in Europe can just race in Europe and live at home. But if you’re racing in Europe in Australia, taking time off from work, or you know, you have to be here for at least a month and spend money it’s not so easy.”

Bradbury’s performances this season have seen her secure a two-year extension to her contract with Canyon-SRAM, through 2024. With two years under her belt now, Bradbury just wants to keep pushing her development.

“They’ve allowed me to develop quite a lot in the last year, so it makes sense that I stay. If it ain’t broken,” Bradbury said. “Last year, I was 18 and I really jumped into the deep end racing professionally after really not racing with more than 20 riders before in Australia. So, I found it hard last year, just trying to find my feet but this year I’ve managed to find them.

“I think just kind of continue with what I did this year and hopefully still develop more, be able to help the team out, get really good results, and then also take the opportunity myself if it comes.”