Canberra cyclist and former mountain-bike rider Jay Vine was the winner of the men's Zwift Academy for 2020, securing a prized spot on the Alpecin-Fenix roster for 2021, a professional contract in a year without much racing for Australian domestically-based cyclists.
Vine has been doggedly pursuing his dream of riding in the biggest races in the world, focusing full-time on his goal on 'turning pro'. He had a swift rise through the ranks with Nero Continental after some promising rides in 2019 turned into a climbing performance at the Herald Sun Tour that put his name up there with some of the best climbers in Australia, names like Jai Hindley.
That performance had many watching for his next races, and a chance to show potential overseas suitors what they could be getting, but the widespread coronavirus shutdown of racing affected Asian and Australian racing particularly harshly. It looked like Vine wasn't going to have a shot at turning pro in 2021.
"Absolutely. I've had those doubts all year," said Vine in an interview with SBS Cycling Central. "But it never stopped me from trying. I certainly wasn't going to wait a year then start again from scratch in 2021. The Zwift Academy - back in March when this all blew up - wasn't even on the cards because until this point it had been Under 23 only."
Fast-forward to December in an isolated room with just a trainer, a videographer and a Zwift set-up, Vine completed his goal of a first professional contract, beating out the other talented hopefuls from around the world for the final prize. Even his wife, Bre, had to isolate from Jay during the process, and with Jay waiting 10 minutes between the announcement and delay of the broadcast going live, he described how she had anticipated the breaking news.
"I called Bre as soon as it was announced and she was already halfway over on her bike with a bottle of champagne," he said. "She had more faith in me than I did in myself."
That moment preceded an avalanche of kudos and well-wishing, with Vine's phone and social media accounts clogged with people across the cycling world tuned into the 25-year-old's battle for the Zwift Academy win.
"I had Richie Porte the day before wish me good luck," said Vine. "I had a bit of a fan-girl moment then as you can probably imagine. The amount of support that I've had from all levels of cycling and outside cycling has been overwhelming.
"My phone literally vibrated for two minutes after the 8 o'clock announcement. The next two days has been constantly receiving messages. As soon as I finish replying and saying thank you on one platform, the other one has blown up again."
The excitement hasn't yet worn off for Vine, enthusiastic and determined at the worst of times, he's currently in a mode of applying the same analytical preparation and gung-ho application that has served him so well in reaching this point to that of adapting to riding as a professional. The Vines have applied for Spanish visas for a planned Girona base in Europe, with the focus already shifting to the 2021 European season.
"It still feels a bit weird calling myself a pro, I might save that until January 1," said Vine. "But I understand now why pros look at National champs as a quote-unquote B-grade race. They look at it and go 'that's January, and I've the Tour or I've got Flanders, three, four, six months down the track. I can't be putting all my eggs into January'.
"Three days ago, I was fully focused on going for the national champs time trial title. That was my peak for this early bit of 2021, but now it's secondary. The team could want me for the team camp in January, which would mean I'm not in Australia for nationals in February. It's amazing how much things change."
The prize of a spot of Alpecin-Fenix, is a significant step-up from previous years where the winner of the Zwift Academy was awarded a spot on the NTT development squad, a Continental-level team, with no promise of rising to the World Tour and none of the previous men's winners have done so to date. In Vine's case the prize is a very real one, Alepcin-Fenix are one of the best teams on the ProTour, and regularly attend the biggest races in the world, with star rider Mathieu van der Poel a big drawcard.
"I am going to be on Mathieu van der Poel's team... just saying that sounds ridiculous," said Vine. "The team - I don't think they'd mind me saying this - are one of the top three classics teams in the world right now. I don't think many would argue that they're not in that top three.
"And not just with Mathieu van der Poel, they're essentially a WorldTour team with... I don't what their budget is, but I'm assuming that it's not the same as a Deceuninck-QuickStep or Jumbo-Visma. Then every race start Mathieu van der Poel is at, you're lining up with one of the favourites for that event. It's going to be a really cool experience."
Vine is a cycling fan as well as a rider, 2020 pandemic-related closures meant lots of evenings watching the best races from yesteryear and those have formed one big bucket-list event that Vine really wants to line up at.
"I really want to race Lombardia at the end of the year," said Vine. "That classic has just screamed at me since I started watching bike racing. It was 2014 Tour de France when Nibali won, and then the 2014 Lombardia. Those were the two races I watched that year and it's only grown from there, that fascination with that race."
"Personally for me, it will be about learning how to ride in Europe. That sounds dumb, but it's different. Twice the peloton, half the road and double the distance. The level will be beyond what I can comprehend.
"I'm going to be paid to do a job, expected to do the job to get a team result and failure to do so costs money. It's going to be incredible to have that responsibility, it's not one that I've had before."
The experience is going to be far removed from the experience that has brought Vine to this point, riding with Nero Continental in recent years. Even in Australia, Nero entered many races as an underdog with the team approaching things differently from many on the Australian scene.
"Nero essentially plucked me from the Bowral Classic," said Vine. "I applied for the team in late December 2018 and after seeing me ride the Bowral Classic they decided to take me on.
Since then, it has been an upward trend for both Vine and the team, with their maiden National Road Series stage and tour win coming up in Cairns at the Tour of the Tropics, through to impressive showings in big races like the Herald Sun Tour where Vine finished fifth overall.
"I'd say I've done a lot for team Nero but they've done so much for me as well," said Vine. "From putting a camera in my face and getting me comfortable with that situation all the way through to teaching me how to ride a bike. We've done so much together.
"Looking back at the clips from the New Zealand Cycle Classic, going from 'our job for Day 1 is to finish and not get caught out in crosswinds' to on the last day 'let's get Jay up to second-place'. We didn't, but we learned how to defend third place and then we went on to get our first NRS win in Tour of the Tropics with Sam (Hill) and myself.
"We've come so far and learned so much and I couldn't think of a better group of guys to do it with. If this year hadn't gone the way it did I think we'd have had something really, really special. In the NRS, but also in the UCI racing in Asia. I have no hesitation saying it would have been a very big year for team Nero."
It turned out to be a big year for all involved regardless, elevating a rider to the professional ranks is a key goal for many domestic teams and with Nero's first rider 'going pro' they'll be looking for bigger and better things as Vine eyes his switch to Europe.