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Insider perspective: 2022 UCI esports world cycling championships

A behind-the-camera look at what it’s like to compete at the ‘Zwift worlds.’

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A few days after Thanksgiving, I punched my ticket to the 2022 UCI eSports World Cycling Championships on Zwift. I had just won the UCI worlds Pan-American qualifier with a late-race attack, crossing the line less than a tenth of a second in front of the field. But with my top-5 finish I was headed to worlds.

Though I wasn’t actually heading anywhere, because I was would be racing the UCI esports world championship from my apartment, just like any other Zwift race. The lead-up to the race was more intensive than I anticipated, with media interviews, lighting checks, performance verification, and a host of other protocols that I didn’t even know existed.

ZADA Testing

In order to make it to the start line, each rider selected for the UCI eSports world championships needed to complete various tests and checks to verify their performances and equipment. One of these – and the most tortuous of them all – was the ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis; not Zwift Anti-Doping Agency) test.

The ZADA test is quite simple: Zwift sends you the protocol in a downloadable workout file, you do the workout, stream the entire ride, and that’s it. But this workout is not like any other. Instead, it is a series of power tests, done back-to-back-to-back, with little rest in between.

In order, the intervals are maximum 1-minute, 4-minute, 7-minute, 12-minute efforts, plus two 15-second sprints. The rest period corresponds to the upcoming interval length, so after the 1-minute effort you get four minutes of rest, after the 4-minute effort you get seven minutes of rest, and so on.

Simply put: this sucked. The short rest periods meant that I wasn’t be setting any power PRs, and so the entire test is painful and (potentially) demoralizing.

Not every rider had to undergo the ZADA test – those with IRL data from the past six months could have their performance verified without doing the ZADA test. But many riders – myself included – live in cold climates and didn’t do a series of maximum power testing in October of last year, so we bit the bullet and did the ZADA test.

Crucially, these pre-worlds ZADA tests had to be completed on the Zwift-supplied trainer, a Wahoo KICKR v5. Riders had to complete the test and race worlds on this trainer, no exceptions.

Whereabouts and the testing pool

With the power testing done, there were still a number of items on the to-do list before race day. One of them was getting registered in the UCI’s whereabouts testing pool. This meant that each rider had to provide a daily one-hour time block when doping controls — administered by USADA — could show up at their door, from the day of worlds through the following weekend.

For those of us who have never been professionals or been registered in this pool before, it’s quite an odd feeling knowing that a random tester could knock on your door and ask for a sample. And hearing from last year’s riders who raced in the Zwift worlds, the testers don’t always adhere to your requested one-hour block and could either show up at 6 a.m. or even 8 p.m.

Media requirements

Another big part of the worlds prep – and one that I hadn’t anticipated – was the amount of media attention surrounding the event. I wrote interviews, filmed interviews, and recorded more media content than I’ve done in my entire life. My hope was that one day it would all pay off, and Zwift would actually feature my face somewhere on the Internet.

On race day, while I was busy pedaling away, one of my interviews was featured on the live broadcast during worlds.

Camera angles and lighting were factors I had not considered prior to Zwift worlds. (Photo: Zach Nehr)

As in many other art forms and businesses, there’s so much more that happens behind the scenes than the audience is usually aware of. For that shot of me riding in my apartment, I had to hop on a Zoom call with Zwift as they walked me through how to set up my camera and how to improve the lighting. With my trainer set-up backed into a corner, it was a bit of a hassle, but eventually, I got the angles right, and you can see the blinds of my window being blown around by my industrial-size fan during the shot.

That Zoom call took place the day before the race, as the final preparations were being made for the 2022 Zwift worlds.

Pre-race rituals and requirements

I was a bundle of nervous energy on race day, made worse by the fact that the men’s race didn’t kick off until 1:45 p.m. CST.

For most of the morning, I tried to relax and watch some bike racing, first Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and then the Faun-Ardèche Classic dominated by Brandon McNulty.

Next was one of the most tedious parts of virtual bike racing, and that is the pre-race weigh-in. For Zwift Premier Division racing and the UCI esports world championships, riders had to submit their weigh-in video no earlier than two hours prior to the race start. This makes it very hard to cut weight, or weigh-in empty and dehydrated (to get a lower body weight and higher watts/kg value) before fueling up for the race.

Some riders try to cut weight for these weigh-ins, while others eat and drink normally and let it be. Either way, it’s a nervous process for all. In each video, the rider needs to show themselves and the time of day, and then follow a structured protocol to measure their weight, then a control weight, then both together, in addition to showing the scale being used.

For worlds, we also had to video a height verification to confirm our avatar’s height (which also affects in-game performance). For these videos, we had to stand up against a wall, show our tape measure, then mark our height on the wall, measure our height, and show everything to the camera. This one isn’t as nerve-wracking as the weigh-in video because it probably hasn’t changed, but it’s a tedious process nonetheless.

With all that out of the way, I could finally focus on the race. I filled up my water bottles – which were covered in blank Post-it notes to cover up the non-Zwift sponsors – threw on my Team USA kit, and started warming up.

Ready to race!

Everything (almost) went according to script: Team USA executed our race plan to perfection, with Spencer Seggebruch going up the road in what was nearly the race-winning break.

We saved our strongest finishers for the end, but they just missed out on the Top 10. Simply put, we just weren’t strong enough.

I finished 28th. I set a power PR and hit my highest heart rate since November, so I couldn’t have done more.

A few seconds after the finish, I was catching my breath when I sat up and looked at the screen. I scrolled the results, saw Jay Vine (Australia) won, and I started pedaling easily. As I looked around my apartment, the Team USA Discord chat went silent, as we all realized that it was over.

Post-race analysis

The past few months had been leading up to this moment. Reconning the course, developing a race plan, and all the training and racing.

Getting through the holidays and the power tests, recording interviews, and videos, all getting ready for the big day. We had started, we had finished, and now it was over. Just like that.

The weird thing about virtual racing is that you don’t go anywhere. I “went” to worlds without going anywhere. It hit me as I looked around the room after the race – I was still in my apartment. And when the race was over, when the excitement, the nervous energy, and the anticipation had all faded away, I was back in real-life, riding a trainer in the corner of my apartment in Wisconsin. Like I had never left.

I couldn’t close out this article without examining my power. I saw at the UCI esports world cycling championships blew me away. When I looked at the course back in November 2021, I learned everything I could about the final climb – the NYC KOM – including the record times, typical pack dynamics, and expected power output.

After all of my calculations, I guessed that I would need to put out 8w/kg for three minutes on the final climb if I wanted to finish in the top 5. That kind of effort would put me in the front group, surely, as long as I drafted and used my power-ups to good effect. Maybe I could even win…

I was way off.

On the final climb, I did 7.6w/kg for three minutes and 20 seconds and finished in 28th place, 17 seconds behind the winner. On top of that, I looked at riders who did 8-8.2w/kg for three minutes and finished outside the top 10. My American teammates, Brian Duffy, Jr, and Ryan Larson, were two of them. When I looked at the power on the podium, I could hardly believe my eyes.

Prior to the 2022 UCI esports world cycling championships, I did course recon and checked out the fastest times for the final climb of the race. (Photo: Zach Nehr)

8.8w/kg for three minutes – that’s what Vine did to win the Zwift worlds. Never in my calculations did I even consider someone doing more than 8.5w/kg for three minutes – that’s Alaphilippe territory.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, it’s how Vine rode the final climb that put my jaw on the floor. With all due respect: Vine wasted as much energy as possible on the final climb but still won. He was pulling on the front of the peloton with 1km to go. Then he attacked on the steepest section of the climb – 11w/kg for 43 seconds. He was counter-attacked by the previous UCI esports world champion Jason Osborne, and still was able to chase him down.

After less than 10 seconds of “rest” at ~320w, Vine kicked it up to 500w, then 600w, then 800w, catching Osborne with fewer than 100m to go and crossing the line for the win.

If I had started next to Vine with 700m to go on this climb and rode his draft the whole way up, he still would have dropped me. There is not a stronger man on Zwift.

Jay Vine – final climb of the 2022 UCI esports world championships
Time: 3:10
Average Power: 606w (8.7w/kg)
Peak 2-min Power: 626w (9w/kg)


Power Analysis data courtesy of Strava and Strava Sauce extension.

Riders
Jay Vine
Zach Nehr