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Teammates become rivals at ‘Zwift worlds’

NeXT eSport-Enshored qualified nine riders representing six nations for the 2022 UCI esports world cycling championships.

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American Brian Duffy, Jr will be racing the UCI esports world championship this Saturday along with eight other riders on the NeXT eSport-Enshored team he co-founded. Here is how they got there, and what they are expecting for the second-ever ‘Zwift worlds.’ 

“The lead is up to 30 seconds!” Tension was building within the NeXT eSport-Enshored Discord channel as a breakaway of four athletes turned a five-second gap into 30 seconds during the UCI Esport Cycling World Championship North American Qualifier. We had seven NeXT riders in the race, most of whom had a legitimate shot of qualifying to represent their national team at the world championships. But for that to happen, the team would have to make the finish a bunch sprint.

The world championship open qualifier events, of which there were five separated by region, offered the top five finishers in each a spot on their country’s national team. Beyond those who automatically qualified through these events, countries were also allocated a certain number of slots that they could use to select athletes at their discretion. But given that those selections were in the hands of the federation committees, the priority for our team was to secure our world championship berth in the open qualifiers.

Related: What you need to know about the UCI cycling esports world championships

To make matters more interesting for the U.S. riders, the qualifying event took place on Thanksgiving weekend. Given that body weight is an important input to performance in the game, and given that the race must be conducted on pre-approved equipment (trainers, power meters, etc), many of us had to make eating and traveling concessions to ensure we were primed for a strong race. There were no second helpings of turkey for us.

80 riders, three big teams

The North American qualifier race had an interesting dynamic. With about 80 riders competing, most were racing as individuals, except for three teams with large representation: NeXT-Enshored, Saris-NoPinz, and Restart Racing.

Once the qualification race was underway, the breakaway had strong riders from Saris and Restart. These teams knew each other well through their racing in the Zwift Premier Division and were aware that our NeXT team fielded strong sprinters. Their incentives were to cooperate with one another to further push their lead.

Cycling is an incredibly powerful team sport; when teammates are unified and working in service of each other, they can be impossible to stop. The algorithm on Zwift is now so sophisticated that some outdoor pack dynamics occur on the virtual roads of Watopia, too. Knowing that others wouldn’t chase, NeXT had to take control early. The selflessness of riding as a team, not as individuals, altered the trajectory of the race.

Our teammate Scott Catanzaro, one of the strongest time trialists in the game, went to the front. He destroyed his legs for more than 15 minutes to keep the peloton within reach of the break. In doing so, he knew he was sacrificing his own chances at making the U.S. team. But his effort was just enough to bring the chase within striking distance of the break as we approached a short but challenging climb. When the peloton hit the slopes of the Forward KOM, riders that had sat back in the chase sprang to life, erasing what was left of the escape group’s lead.

We knew the attacks weren’t going to stop there, though. Saris initiated another threatening solo breakaway late in the race, a bold and calculated move by a well-rested rider. After establishing a meaningful gap, our team knew the playbook to follow. NeXT’s Greg Grosicki fell on his sword to ensure that the race would come back together just as we approached the flamme rouge.

With Scott and Greg relinquishing their own chances of qualifying for worlds, the other riders felt the pressure not to let these efforts go to waste. And wow — we delivered! Just as Greg closed the gap on the break, Zach Nehr launched a gutsy solo counterattack about 1km from the line. The attack shifted the pressure onto the other teams. The tactic worked beautifully: Zach held on to take the win, and I, Thom Thrall, and J Bruhn were able to ride the wave of the other teams — who were chasing Zach — in order to slingshot around them in the final stretch. The tactics paid off and we swept the top four placings.

Team representation: From NeXT vs the world, to NeXT riders at worlds

In addition to the three Americans (Zach, J, myself) and one Canadian (Thom), our team would also qualify five other riders to the world championships: James Barnes (second at the African qualifier), with Mark Bruce (Great Britain), Niki Hug (Switzerland), Richie Barry (Ireland), and Patrick Walle (USA) — all of whom earned discretionary selections by their respective federations.

How did we get to the point where the team was able to qualify nine athletes to the UCI’s Zwift worlds? Although the pandemic created many challenges across the world, it also led to many opportunities. One of which came at the intersection of technology and athletics. Cycling esports boomed right after the world went into lockdown, and many of the riders on NeXT discovered the discipline as a new way to channel their athletic talents, and to satisfy their desire for competition.

At the outset of the pandemic, NeXT eSport didn’t exist, there was no Zwift premier racing league, there were no rigorous verification protocols, and there certainly was no UCI world esports championship.

Things quickly changed in the months that followed.

I discovered Zwift racing in March of 2020, after having spent about 15 years as a triathlete. When I started, I didn’t know how to sprint, and it took me several months to build the anaerobic power and to understand the race tactics. But I was immediately captivated by the thrill that the game provided – not only did you need to be able to generate lots of power, but you also needed to master the craft of the gameplay.

Related: RGT vs Zwift – A fluid mechanics professor (and Cat. 1 racer) compares the two

By the end of 2020, I had become one of the top-ranked racers on Zwift, but more importantly, I co-founded NeXT eSport with a few other riders who I met through the platform. The community we have since built, despite never having met face-to-face, is unlike anything else I’ve experienced in sports. Although racing as an individual is motivating in its own right, helping build, grow, and lead a team to be on the top of a sport has been the most rewarding. Not only have we accomplished so much on the “road” (two consecutive Zwift Premier Division championships), but we’ve bonded together as an extremely tight-knit group who support each other’s growth and development. It’s that chemistry, paired with talent, which can make a team so dangerous in the races.

The sport has come a long way in the last couple of years, and none of the nine athletes on our team ever imagined that they would be lining up to represent their country at a UCI-sanctioned world championship event. But here we are, just a few days from the second world championship, and the riders could not be more excited to give everything they have on the virtual streets of Central Park.

Preparation for the event has involved acclimating to the event-supplied Wahoo Kickr v5 trainers, testing out the NYC KOM on the 100 percent trainer difficulty setting (a new requirement in 2022), completing all UCI and national federation protocols, meeting their new teammates to discuss tactics, and getting themselves as fit as possible. Fortunately, the NeXT team just won its second consecutive ZRL Premier Division championship season, so the fitness was already at a high.

The unique element of this world championship race, though, is that national pride supersedes the club team. I know each of our riders is ready from a fitness standpoint, but are we all ready to now be rivals for 50 hilly kilometers? For a team that is used to giving our all for each other, this will be a new and interesting dynamic. NeXT, Saris, and Restart all have athletes and directors on Team USA. Rivals have become teammates, and teammates have become rivals. For just this one day, we’ll coordinate with our rivals and plot against our teammates. It’ll make for a fun, intense, and high-pressure battle.

A UCI world championship has truly elevated esports, and this race means so much to this small, but rapidly growing niche. When we “line up” on Saturday, we know that we’re doing so because of the efforts and sacrifices of so many others: our teammates that gave up their own chances for us, our families that gave us the flexibility on Thanksgiving weekend (and the many other mornings, nights, and weekends that we “play”), and the entire ecycling community, who has promoted the sport’s growth and challenged our team to become better every day.