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Towards the end of the Zwift Academy finals week, Luca Vergallito was feeling confident that he would win.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I was performing well the whole week,” he says via Zoom from his home in Italy. “So I knew that I was the favourite to win the finals.
“But you never know,” he qualifies. “Also because we didn’t know what type of rider the judges were looking for so maybe [a] more explosive rider like Lucas or Jasper. So I was confident but at the same time I was anxious and nervous.”
But his self-confidence was not the only reason he looked somewhat nonplussed in front of the cameras as the winners were announced. His expression, he explains, was due to the fact that he was rooting for his friend Chiara Doni for the women’s competition, but she didn’t get the contract.
“So when they announced the winner obviously I was super happy and excited for me. But at the same time I was sad because I hoped Chiara could win the women’s competition.”
He explains that the two live near each other in Italy and made the joint decision to enter the Academy.
“We did also some training sessions together connected via video call,” he says. “So it has been a nice journey for us. And also to share the Academy experience it was helpful because we had also like a person to talk to in Italian and to share emotion and what we were thinking and it was cool.
“We know each other. We are friends, we ride together. I know how much effort she put into training and working. And I think she’s really good. And she deserves a place in a pro team.”
Did he ever think that both of them would make it to the final together?
“Well, I know that my numbers are good and the first part of the selection is almost purely based on numbers. So you have just to complete the training on Zwift. So I knew that I could do well in those types of training.”
Numbers are something that Vergallito perhaps has a better idea of than some of his peers. After years of pursuing the sport, racing at junior and U23 level he decided to pursue a degree in sports science. “At the end, my results weren’t good enough and I thought I didn’t have what you need to become a professional cyclist.”
In fact, he had turned his attention to seriously pursuing a career as a coach for a professional team before the Zwift Academy came around, but he never completely gave up on his dream of becoming a pro.
“I continued to improve. In the previous year, I had some contact with the pro teams but nothing serious happened.”
Then, with Zwift Academy, the 25-year-old saw “an opportunity to show that I’m good. That I can be a pro cyclist. So I decided to try.”
He was confident of his ability to reach the finals, but after that “I wasn’t so confident to win the pro contract obviously because I don’t know the other guys.
“You never know. Probably after a couple of days of challenges, I understood that I was strongest. And my shape is good. And the challenges were going well. So yeah, after a couple of days I started to understand that I could be the winner.”
Vergatillo, like the women’s winner, Alex Morrice, struggled initially with the filming process for the GCN reality series.
“The first two days were really hard,” he recalls. “Because there were a lot of filming interviews. Also English, it’s not my first language. So it’s also harder mentally to do an interview.
“So it was hard and not like for riding but just because of the interviews. But then day after day, it was easier because we did a lot of work in the first one or two days. Then the challenges started. And it was easier and easier. But yeah, the first two were really hard. Also, because I’m not used to doing this.”
Most of the challenges suited Vergatillo’s strengths as a climber who has a strong power-to-weight ratio, with the exception of the race which was better suited to a sprinter, but he is pragmatic about that.
“I don’t have the sprint of a pure sprinter but obviously the judges know that you can’t have everything in a rider,” he says. “So you just have to prove the judges that you’re good in what is your speciality and that you can be okay or good in the rest, and also to behave good from a tactical point of view.”
Just a few weeks after winning, Vergatillo was thrown straight into life as a professional cyclist as he attended his new team’s December training camp. Was it a daunting prospect to be around the rest of the riders and staff?
“I was quite scared. Well, not scared but stressed about it. Because you are different than the others because you come from a different pathway. And I was stressed to be known as the Zwift guy but it wasn’t so.”
Some of his new teammates made jokes about his route into the sport, “but they are doing it in a funny way”, and by the end of the camp, “I actually felt part of the team. So it wasn’t normal like the other pros from Alpecin-Deceuninck, but I am part of this team, I am a pro so it was good.”
While there, Vergatillo also spoke to the team staff about what his first pro season might look like.
“They want me to develop in the team because I have no real experience in real racing. So I will do probably second category races because they want to give me time to develop and see how I behave in a peloton riding with the other riders.”
The team, he says, don’t want to put too much pressure on their new recruit to perform.
“They know that I have physical ability, that I have numbers and only they want me to prove that I can be good without the numbers also in real racing. So I know where I will start the season and then if they see that I am good enough to do more prestigious races they will evaluate.”
What are his own ambitions for 2023? “Well, I would like to prove that I can be good as a professional athlete, so get some results, do some big racing and yeah I want to prove to myself and the team and everybody that I can be good also in real racing.
“And maybe have a chance to reach the WorldTour team in the future.”
Results-wise, he says: “I don’t have a specific goal, also because I don’t have a real programme yet. But I would like to perform well in the races I’m going to do and I would like to develop.
“Right now it’s like an experiment. You never know.”