I nearly slipped off the edge of my couch as Lauren Stephens (USA) rounded the final corner with 200 meters to go in the inaugural UCI cycling esports world championships.
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (South Africa) held off Sarah Gigante (Australia) to take the win, and Stephens crossed the line just moments later – we couldn’t tell if she had finished third or not. It was too close to call, and there are no bike throws in esports racing.
The visual feed said yes, but the official timing said no. At the end of the day, Team USA put four riders in the top-10 in the women’s “Zwift worlds,” the strongest of any nation overall, and I was proud to be a part of it from behind the scenes.
Getting on the digital team
Less than two weeks out from the first-ever Zwift worlds, I was brought on to Team USA as an assistant director sportif, working alongside Patrick Walle and Mat Stephens to put together a race plan for Team USA, scout out the course and potential rivals, and help execute on race day from the position of a virtual team car. I’ve experienced a few real-life DS moments in my young cycling career – sitting in the passenger seat of a team car, communicating over team radio, and doing extensive course recon – but never in the virtual world.
Like in so many other arenas of life in 2020, virtual riding became a major thing this year. And with COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, many professional cyclists this summer joined millions of amateurs on the virtual riding platform of Zwift.
When the Zwift worlds were announced, it created a fascinating prospect for every nation participating, and posed the same question that we analyzed as team directors: Who has a better shot at winning: a real-life professional, or an indoor specialist?
Analyzing the course and power demands
While the 50km course wasn’t overly difficult, we expected the final climb up the KOM Forward to produce of the hardest race finishes we had ever seen. Walle, Stephens, and I took a deep dive into the power numbers and timing of the final climb – and of the entire course – to determine what kind of effort would be needed to win, and which Team USA riders had the best chance to pull it off.
The KOM Forward is roughly a 90-second climb at an average of 5.5 percent. Its steepest pitch is at the bottom, hitting over 10 percent for just a moment, and it flattens off for 50m in the middle portion of the ascent, and again with about 180m to go. We looked at ZwiftPower – a community site that keeps track of race results, segment times, and more – and found that the fastest times set by men were around 1 minute and 20 seconds, and about 1 minute and 40 seconds from the fastest women. We used that to see the power demands for those paces and figured on race fatigue-reducing the effort by 5-10 percent.
We figured we needed male riders who could hold 8-9w/kg for the 90 seconds and female riders who could push 7-8w/kg — at the end of an hour-long Zwift race.
Organizing our team
Team USA’s roster was loaded with some of the best real-life pros and esports racers, including sprinters, breakaway specialists, climbers, and all-rounders. We knew we would have options to attack.
In the weeks before the race, we connected with each of the riders individually, as well as on a group Zoom call alongside Jeff Pierce, USA Cycling’s director of athletics. Based on the course and finishing climb, we knew that our protected riders would need exceptional one- and two-minute power, as well as a strong sprint.
After many discussions, individually and amongst the groups, we gave each rider a role. The “long-range” riders would cover early moves, chase down breakaways, and help put their teammates in position for the final climb. “Mid-range” riders would look to cover attacks on the climbs in the second half of the race and be ready to go full gas for nearly two minutes from the bottom of the final climb, effectively leading out our sprinters. And “short-range” riders would be our sprinters, and their goal was to save as much energy as possible until the final climb. Ideally, they would follow the wheels of our mid-range riders on the final climb and then kick with 200m to go.
Scouting our rivals
Next, we looked at our rivals. The strength of each nation was important to note, but not as important as individual riders’ power profiles. Some names on the start list were also present on ZwiftPower as some of the fastest riders ever up the Forward KOM. These names were highlighted as race favorites. In the men’s race, this included Anders Foldager (Denmark), Ollie Jones (New Zealand), and Lionel Vujasin (Belgium) who went on to finish second, fourth, and sixth, respectively.
We also looked at the Race Rankings on ZwiftPower, as well as anyone who had been racing in the recent Zwift Premier League. These riders would be ‘ones to watch’ thanks to their strong recent form and extensive experience on Zwift.
With her world-class power profile and dominant win on stage 5 of the Virtual Tour de France in July, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio was the out-and-out favorite in the women’s race, and she delivered. Unfortunately for us, the winner of the men’s race, German rider Jason Osborne (Germany), wasn’t even on our radar. The Olympic rower had raced just once on Zwift in the past 12 months, and completely surprised all of us when he rode away from the best indoor racers in the world with 300 meters to go.
Formulating and following the race-day plan
One hour before the flag dropped, we had our Team USA riders in the starting pen, and Walle connected with them via the Discord chatting app. Stephens and I were connected with Walle on another Discord channel – the DS chat – and we were all watching the race on multiple devices, so we could see different views. I only had three devices at my disposal; but I’m pretty sure Walle had at least five. We love the chaos of technology and esports racing.
Before the start, Walle gave the riders a few final instructions and made sure everyone was all set with their trainer, Wi-Fi connection, and race nutrition. As soon as the flag dropped, Walle was calling out the shots, giving the riders brief updates on the race situation, upcoming climbs, or riders to watch. Our Team USA riders all did a fantastic job when it came to positioning and execution up and over the first few climbs. We had nearly every single one of our riders in the front group, and coming into the final few kilometers, we had our domestiques covering moves and allowing their teammates to sit in before the final climb.
In the women’s race, we had Christie Tracy attack with 1.5km to go to put pressure on Moolman Pasio. The move forced Moolman Pasio to hit the front and take up the chase well before the final climb, with Stephens, Godbe, and the rest of the front group just behind her. Still, the South African champion was just too strong. No one could come around her, not even Sarah Gigante who has already been crushing the competition in real-life racing in Australia.
The men’s race was a similar story, as things really kicked off with 20km to go. Team Canada threw down multiple team attacks, going off the front with two and three riders at a time including Jordan Cheyne and Lionel Sanders. Walle, Stephens, and I called out the attacks, naming the riders and severity of the threat.
Walle was on the team Discord channel, telling riders like Jadon Jaeger and Lawson Craddock to take up the chase and pull things back together. Our riders executed perfectly, and with 1km to go, the men’s field hit the climb with Tyler Williams, Ryan Larson, and Holden Comeau at the front. Unfortunately, the race-winning legs weren’t quite there, but Larson put in a huge effort to finish ninth.
In both the women’s and men’s races, we executed our plan to the best of our abilities and left it all out on the virtual road. As an assistant director — and as a rider, coach, and fan — that’s all that I could ask for, and I’m incredibly proud of Team USA’s showing at the inaugural Zwift world championships.