Culture

Q&A with Zwift’s #1 ranked rider, Holden Comeau

Weighting down the trainer, running a portable AC unit, chatting with teammates during races, and other tips and tricks.

Holden Comeau is 42, a father of two, and the co-founder of an analytics company. He is also the number-one ranked Zwift rider in the world, riding for the number-one ranked Zwift team.

The former collegiate swimmer and ex-pro triathlete has held Guinness world records for indoor riding. After winning the U.S. Zwift national championship last year, beating out hundreds of other riders, he is gunning for the first UCI world championship title later this year.

Holden has not raced his bike outside in 10 years, but he’s ridden 16,000 virtual miles in Zwift, and has amassed a number of tips and tricks along the way. He shares some of them here, along with his thoughts on the recent influx of pros and other riders because of the coronavirus pandemic.

VeloNews: You are the top-ranked rider on Zwift. How are these rankings determined?
Holden Comeau: Rider and team rankings are defined through the website ZwiftPower.com, a third-party service provider. Having a ZwiftPower account is a requirement for sanctioned pro/am races and championships. And generally speaking, although you can race Zwift without a ZwiftPower account, it’s standard practice to have an account. The rankings are always in flux and you earn points – or rather reduce your ranking because lower is better – by beating people ranked ahead of you. The strength of the field is also a factor in determining point allocations.

What do you think when you see a Zwifter go by sustaining 12w/kg, with a cadence of 40rpm?
I think that they’re new to the game and haven’t figured out how to set up their equipment properly. But Zwift is constantly improving the platform to make the experience more consistent and enjoyable for everyone, no matter what the experience level. And in races, there are controls in place to ensure that riders who might be intentionally cheating can be identified and mitigated. Performance transparency is the norm and the data are public. We try to support and encourage each other to participate in community efforts to be open and accountable for performances. It’s not perfect. But it’s also not an omerta.

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Saris Trainer
Comeau anchors his trainer and front wheel with weights, to keep them from moving when riding. Photo: Holden Comeau

What’s your indoor setup like? 
I only have one bike at the moment and it doesn’t have any brakes on it! I’m very particular about my equipment and I’m only now starting to focus on finding the best bike for indoor use. Up until recently, I’ve been focused on solving the most important gear for racing, which is the trainer. I’ve spent considerable time and energy making sure that my trainer can withstand the demands of racing. But earlier this year, my team was able to connect with the product engineering team at Saris to help refine their H3 direct drive trainer. I wouldn’t trust any other trainer right now in a race. I’m taking the same methodical approach to finding the right bike. I’ve had two frames so far. I think I’ll go through a lot more of them until I find the right one.

What about keeping cool? What’s your strategy for not overheating?
Fans won’t cut it. You need industrial blowers. Two of them. I also have a portable AC unit and a dehumidifier. I wear cycling glasses with clear lenses sometimes in the summer when the fans are going full blast because my eyes dry out otherwise. But I’ve experienced the effects of chronic over-heating before. Performance suffers on a day-to-day basis, and eventually you need to take a break and start over.

You were a collegiate swimmer, and then a professional triathlete for a while. Did you ever race bikes outdoors?
I spent my formative years swimming mid-distance and sprint freestyle. That’s how I learned to race. I was an NCAA All-American for Penn State. My specialty events lasted 20-90 seconds. So, I feel like I trained for the Zwift sprint effort for 20 years as a swimmer! Triathlon was my introduction to the bike. And notably, it was my introduction to the trainer. I never fell in love with riding my bike outside as many people do. Riding was always a means to an end for me, in triathlon. But, I was always drawn to the efficiency of workouts on the trainer and spent most of my ride time indoors. That said, I was closely connected to the Philly cycling scene. And when I did go outside, I trained mostly with strong cyclists. I’d do the weekly local world champs rides and practice crits; super-hard, race-effort rides.

I raced my bike [outside] three times. Two crits and a road race, on back-to-back weekends. I just wanted to see what it was like. That was 10 years ago.

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These team sports — which have individual elements to them — did those experiences help with riding solo, at home?
That’s a meaningful question. Swimming is very isolated. Your perception of the environment and your senses within it are abstracted. You can’t see well. You hear loud, white noise. I do think that I seek out an environment like that now when I race on Zwift. I have noise-canceling earbuds and blast music. Usually classical music or hip hop. And I fixate – with intensity – on the screen and the race. I lose track of time when I race. It is completely absorbing. The fact that I’m alone doesn’t really factor into the equation. I’m an athlete being the same athlete I’ve always been.

Comeau competes for team Indoor Specialist. Photo: Holden Comeau

You’re riding for team Indoor Specialist. How does being on a team work? Can you explain the basics of team riding in Zwift? Do you communicate with your teammates while racing? Are there team strategies for specific courses or events?
I think Indoor Specialist were early pioneers in using team tactics successfully in races. I certainly wouldn’t have won the national championship race had we not been working together in a beneficial way. We’re a very close group and we use a chat app to communicate during races. And we chat almost constantly throughout the day, too! On a day-to-day basis, we are always are trying to win. But we usually don’t have structured strategies, and we’ll often take risks and try new tactics on the fly. Intuitively, I think we all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses really well. So when we’re in a practice race, we don’t usually need to communicate with each other about tactics. We’re all just on the same page. In important races, like Zwift pro/am events, our plans are much more flushed-out beforehand, and we use voice chat during the race to communicate. We’ll also typically have one or two other riders in the voice chat acting as directors sportif who aren’t racing, providing some help. 

Have the WorldTour-level men and women figured out yet how to race in the game environment?
There certainly has been an influx of pro riders and it’s thrilling. I’m under no illusions that I’ll be able to maintain my competitive position against these guys for too much longer! But they do have some work to do to learn the game-craft, and truly exploit their athletic talents. I’m more than three years into it, and I race four or five times a week, and I’m still learning new skills. I hope the learning curve doesn’t turn these guys off from racing. Our team has connected with a few pro teams to help them learn the game. We definitely want them here competing. But there is a bit of a mismatch: when a 42-year-old dad like myself out-kicks a 21-year-old pro, it’s easy to think that the Zwift racers might be mis-calibrating their equipment to get an advantage. Or, entering a bodyweight for themselves that is too low. But we’re not. We take this very seriously, and have a lot of integrity as a community. I think that’s exactly what cycling needs. Those guys are just getting beat because they’ve yet to learn how to play the game. 

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Holden Comeau sprints
An old barn provides a good Zwifting space for Comeau.

Is there anything special that you need to do with your computer or trainer setup to race on Zwift that’s different from what an average Zwifter with a smart trainer might need?
I’m 6’1” and I weigh around 170lbs. Relatively speaking, I’m a little bigger than most of the guys I compete against. I’m a sprinter and can average 1,500-1,600 watts when I kick. You’d be surprised at how much an effort like that can move a trainer and a bike around the room! So, I like to anchor everything in place with heavy weights so nothing moves. I put them on the trainer’s legs and on the front wheel, too. I also have multiple power sources, as does everyone on my team, and most elite racers do, too. We run one power source into the game, and the other power source is recorded on a separate device. Then, afterward, we use ZwiftPower to compare the two sources and make it public so our competitors can see it. It’s just a simple way to help verify that everything is working as it should.

All results are provisional until podium winners and randomly selected riders go through validation with an independent performance review board called ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis). These pro/am races are really helping to put the pieces together and are driving the sport forward. So the Indoor Specialist squad takes them very seriously, and we focus our attention on performing well in these races.

Do you have any advice for those who want to start racing on Zwift?
Weigh yourself in your kit and enter that weight in the game. If you’re not accurate with your weight from the start, you’ll regret it later on. Commit yourself fully to the start of the race — it’s really hard for a few minutes, right from the start and then it calms down. You’re not going to make the selection every time when you start. You’ll get dropped within the first two minutes, sometimes. But keep coming back, and keep committing and eventually you’ll have mastered your first Zwift skill. Go from there. 

You held a Guinness world record for holding 160+ RPM for an hour on a spin bike? Why? Did you miss your calling as a track racer?
I did! It was about 15 years ago on a spin bike in the main hall of Grand Central Station, in New York. It was a charity event in which a team of six people rode spin bikes for 24-hours, non-stop. The goal was to record the furthest “distance” as measured by revolutions of the flywheel. On a spin bike, that means you take the resistance off, get the flywheel up to speed, and try not to come unclipped! My team set the Guinness Record for the furthest distance in 24 hours. I think we still have that one. And we each took a shot at the individual hour record and I went the furthest. Unfortunately, some other sucker broke that individual record. He can have it as far as I’m concerned. It was an uncomfortable experience, to say the least. Maybe I missed my calling. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally question why I spent so many years trying to be a triathlete. But it got it me here.

Comeau has a power meter in his smart trainer, as well as on his bike. Photo: Holden Comeau

As a Level 50 Zwifter, you must have a lot of virtual bikes at your disposal. How do you choose what to ride, and when? Or, do you just use the Tron bike all of the time?
The Tron bike is actually not permitted in sanctioned pro/am races. I’ve been doing a lot of those races lately, so I’ve stopped riding it for the most part in order to get used to riding other bikes. They each behave differently. The Tron bike most noticeably so. My current [in-game] go-to bike is the Cannondale SuperSix with Zipp 454’s. If I were to do a hill climb, I’d probably do something lighter. But I avoid the hills whenever possible! 

What does your calendar look like?
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the biggest race days, usually. We race hard each morning and the training effect is pretty phenomenal over time. Depending on the stress level of those days, I’ll sometimes do another race on Friday and usually want to find something a little easier to work my sprint. Saturday and Sunday I try to find longer races, for more volume. And then Monday I take off. So racing almost every day. They’re all short and I’m finished in under an hour. The training stress between Zwift racing and the swim training I spent so long doing are really comparable. And honestly, Zwift racing on a day to day basis is much less taxing than an hour-long swim workout. 

What races do you have coming up?
For April, we’ll be competing each week in the Zwift Classics races, which are modeled after traditional one-day races. And more broadly speaking, I’m very focused on the 2020 national championships and subsequent UCI world championships later this year. I suspect that the prospect of being the first person in history to zip up a rainbow jersey for esports cycling is going to attract some new talent to our field! And I never could have imagined that I’d be the world’s top-ranked rider headed into a world championship season. But that’s how it’s turned out, and I’d regret it if I didn’t do everything I could to prepare for that opportunity.

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What do you see as the future for esports, for indoor bike racing?
A few weeks after I won nationals last year, a community director from Zwift reached out to invite me to a promotional event they were holding in New York. It was fairly intimate, maybe 100 people, and there were five pro riders there, racing live, up on stage against other elite guys around the world. Most of them were riders I had raced before. So we met for the first time. I was just there to enjoy the party, not to race. But watching them compete on stage was exhilarating. It was a version of professional cycling I had never seen before. Zwift founder Eric Min was there, and shared his vision for the sport: Tour de France, the Olympics. It was thrilling, and then the light bulb went on for me. I’d pay for a ticket to watch my favorite pro team go head-to-head with other teams around the world and put on a live show in a stadium. There’s no question I’d do that. The experience made watching cycling on TV seem about as exciting as watching a great band play a concert on TV: the songs might be the same, but wouldn’t you rather be standing in the second row at the concert?

Looking up at Mathieu [van der Poel] and 600 watts in his legs? I’m biased, but when I think about the future of cycling…how can it go anywhere but there? It seems inevitable to me, and I hope I have the legs still for when it comes.

Zwift racing is full-gas, right from the start. Photo: Holden Comeau