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Q&A Lauren Stephens: ‘Zwift gave me a chance to not be afraid to fail’

Texan star talks about her transition from Zwift newbie to E-racing champion, her Tour de l'Ardèche victory, and how online competition revitalized her racing outlook.

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Lauren Stephens enjoyed a stellar season in 2020, whether racing in her living room or on the roads of Europe.

The 33-year old salvaged her spring in lockdown by learning the art and craft of Zwift to win the Virtual Tour de France with her Team Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank teammates, and when she hit the road again in the summer, took a long-sought-after GC victory at the Tour de l’Ardèche.

We spoke to the Texan racer about her bumper year on both the road and the trainer.

We spoke to Stephens about one of the best seasons of her career to date. Photo: Con Chronis/Getty Images

VeloNews: You rode to fourth place at The Mid South in March, just 24 hours after arriving back to North America from Europe when lockdowns first hit. Talk us through the race and those first weeks when you came back home.

Lauren Stephens: I flew in on Friday night and Saturday morning was the race of itself. I knew it was probably going to be the last chance to race outside for quite a while, and I really buried myself in that race. I think that gave me the ability to relax at the beginning of the pandemic, and not stress that there wasn’t going to be racing for a while, so I really took that first month just relaxing. But then once we realized it was going to be a long while [before racing restarted], I started dabbling in Zwift.

VN: You were a total newcomer to Zwift this spring. How did you go from being a total newbie, to catching the Zwift bug, to becoming such a successful E-racer?

LS: Living in Texas, we’re lucky that we can ride outside year-round, so Zwift has never been a tool that I needed. But then, when racing quit, I thought that was my only opportunity to race and to be competitive. My job is to race bikes so this was an opportunity to still get to race while I was at home. I don’t think I realized how much I was going to enjoy it and how much of a tool it was going to be for my training.

VN: You and the team really committed to the early Zwift races like Tour of the Gila and the Redlands Classic. How did you progress from those early races through to winning the Zwift Tour de France?

LS: I spent lots of time riding Zwift, and watching YouTube videos of other people racing. That’s what we use YouTube for these days – to learn how to do things. Right now I’m using it to work on my mountain bike skills, and then I was using it for my Zwift skills. You can watch others to learn how to get better at things that you’re doing.

VN: What were the main things you picked up by watching others that you could apply to your racing?

LS: I think it was learning how to conserve energy, and not just ride full gas the whole time. Because I think when you first ride, you feel like you’re just chasing tails – you’re just trying to stay in the group and try not to get dropped, and not knowing how people are able to still sprint at the end. I tried to learn how to play the game and realize that it is a game, and to disconnect it from road racing.

VN: You won the overall at the Virtual Tour de France, talk us through how you planned and achieved that?

LS: We sat down and figured out you could only have four riders per race, and each rider can only do four of the six races. So we figured out which races each rider can score points in. We didn’t just say ‘OK you’re free on that weekend, cool you race that weekend.’ We were like, ‘OK, Sarah Gigante can score points at this stage and this stage no matter what, so we’re going to make sure she’s in those races.’ We didn’t look at it from the perspective of ‘can we win a stage,’ we looked at it from how can we get the most riders in the points, every stage.

VN: How did your Zwift fitness translate onto the road when you started racing outside again?

LS: Our first race was Strade Bianche. I hadn’t been doing any outdoor riding, so the climbing was quite difficult and halfway through that race, I started to cramp. I thought I’d put in the hours and thought I would have been fine, but 50km into the race, I was cramping, which has never happened to me before. So after Strade Bianche, I started building on that fitness I had gotten from Zwift and put in a big endurance block. From there, Ardeche was my next focus and we can see that pairing the intensity I got from Zwift with a big endurance block gave me what I needed to carry through the rest of the season.

Stephens won the Tour de l’Ardeche this September. Photo: Tibco-SVB

VN: What were the keys to your Ardèche victory?

LS: I’ve been trying to win Ardèche for the last three or four years. We did a team training camp in Nice for two weeks just before Ardeche, and that time with the team doing hard, long rides, going on five-hour adventures with my teammates, gave me what I needed to win that race. Anytime I was at a point in the race where I was suffering and I didn’t think I could do it, I knew that I had trained hard with my teammates. They believed in me and they knew I could do it. And I felt if I didn’t give it everything I could that I was failing them. That bond that we built by training together, that’s why I won Ardèche.

VN: Is this the best season of your career? What do you attribute that to?

LS: Zwift was definitely a huge part because it gave me a chance to not be afraid to fail. You’re in your own living room, and if you fail, you’re just going to go to the couch and watch some television after. I decided that I can be a sprinter, I could be a time trialist, I could do it all. And that’s the kind of rider I came into the professional side of riding as but had lost over the years. And for some reason Zwift just brought that side of me back in, I was more of a fighter. I think I had settled into being this pretty good rider and thinking, ‘I’m going to be successful and I’m going to get some results here and there.’ But this year I came out fighting, and I wanted to make going to Europe worth it.

This interview is also available to listen to on the VeloNews podcast.