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Two weeks ago, Team Movistar announced that they would be creating the first-ever esport racing team by a WorldTour-licensed organization. We’ve seen WorldTour riders competing in the ‘Virtual Tour de France,’ we’ve seen world champions like Mathieu van der Poel racing on Zwift, and we’ve seen the first-ever UCI cycling eSports World Championships take place just a few weeks ago. But never before have we seen such a big commitment from a WorldTour team, to fully support a men’s and women’s esport racing team with Movistar team bikes, team kit, access to Movistar coaches, physiologists, and training camps, and top-of-the-line indoor racing equipment.
Along with some teammates, I went for it, and made it to the next round of competition.
Branded the Movistar Team Challenge, the talent ID competition run by Movistar Team will ultimately narrow down a field of thousands of applicants to just five men and five women to join the new Movistar E-Team. Held exclusively on Zwift, a series of races will determine which riders make it to the final round of testing presented by Global Cycling Network (GCN), which will also include interviews, broadcasts, and other challenges “designed to draw out their personalities.”
When I first heard about the Movistar Team Challenge, I was a bit disappointed. While it initially sounded like a cool and ground-breaking event, I read in the first paragraph of the press release that the invitees would include riders currently racing in Zwift Racing League’s (ZRL) Premier League Division. As you may remember from my past articles, I currently ride for NeXT eSport on Zwift, which competes in one of the top community leagues in the WTRL Zwift Racing League – Americas E Division 1 (i.e., not the top-tier Premier League).
But as I scrolled, I saw the words “Community Qualifier Races” – two open races on Zwift from which the top 5 finishers would be invited to the first round of the Movistar Team Challenge. The races would take place over two laps of the Ocean Lava Cliffside Loop, an interesting course that would make for about 50 minutes of racing in total. My NeXT eSport teammate, Brian Duffy, Jr., summarized it best by saying it was a unique course that “required diverse skillsets. It mixed in two challenging and differentiated climbs, a few rolling sections that lent themselves to breakaways, and a tricky sprint finish where timing is critical.”
With one race at 2:00 p.m. EST and the other at 7:00 p.m. EST, I had a tough decision to make: do I compete in both races? Risk burning my matches in the first race, and sacrificing my chances at the second? Or is it a numbers game – the economist in me says that my chances of making it into the top 5 are nearly doubled if I try twice.
And then a work meeting came up at 1:30 p.m., so I had no other choice than to put all my eggs in one evening’s basket.
With only a few days to prepare, I decided to treat the Movistar Team Challenge community qualifier race as if it were any other race on Zwift. Every rider is different, but for me, the best ‘openers’ seem to be a hard effort or short race the day before my goal event. In this case, we had a ZRL race on Tuesday evening, which blew out the cobwebs just in time for Wednesday’s Movistar Team Challenge.
Heading into Wednesday, I was feeling good. My NeXT eSport teammates, on the other hand, were not feeling quite as confident. Brian Duffy, Jr., an all-around beast and the #2-ranked rider on ZwiftPower, was racing on tired legs. Chris Uberti was in a completely different camp, having skipped Tuesday’s ZRL race, he was fresh coming into Wednesday, and decided to jump into the race as if it were any other on Zwift.
Uberti was first up for NeXT eSport, and he knew he was in for a treat. “With some 2,000 starters, it was a way harder start than your average Zwift race. I got into the pen relatively late, so was a few hundred places down to start, but was able to make most of the way to the front by getting a good sprint going before the start,” Uberti said after the race.
Uberti – opening 9km kilometers of Movistar Team Challenge community qualifier #1:
Average Power: 347w (5.1w/kg)
The start of the second community qualifier race which included myself, Duffy Jr., and our teammate Scott Catanzaro, was like nothing else I’d ever experienced on Zwift. Full-gas from the start – that wasn’t surprising – but instead of settling down after the first few kilometers, the gas pedal was glued to the floor for the opening 15 minutes. With a massive peloton vying for a spot on the Movistar E-Racing Team, the pace was ridiculous from the get-go and didn’t let up until the first descent some 13km into the race.
Quick flashback to Christmas Eve 2020, and we can see precisely how much harder the Movistar Qualifiers were than a typical elite-level Zwift race. In December of last year, 2019 Zwift USA national champion Holden Comeau took to the start of the OH MY CRIT! – double race series, one of the biggest weekly races on Zwift, to race one lap around the Ocean Lava Cliffside Loop. With over 100 Category A riders on the start line, including many of the top-ranked riders on Zwift, the race was set to be a tough one.
Comeau is as close to a “Zwift pro” as it gets, and is a master at saving energy – in the first 9km of the OH MY CRIT! Race, he averaged just over 4w/kg, saving his energy for the first and only climb of the race, the steep switchback climb to the Epic KOM Bypass. Contrast that to Chris Uberti, who averaged over 5w/kg during the same 9km stretch.
Comeau – opening 9km kilometers of OH MY CRIT:
Average Power: 319w (4.1w/kg)
After the opening nine kilometers, the peloton approached the main climb of the day, an 800m switchback section with an average of 7 percent, and steep kicks well into double-digit gradients. There’s nowhere to hide on the false flat section immediately following these switchbacks; and even then, the course turns onto the undulating Epic KOM Bypass for another 2.6km, before finally relenting on the descent down the bottom section of the Epic KOM Forward.
For most Zwifters, this steep section of switchbacks will take anywhere from three to five minutes. But during the Movistar Qualifier races, the peloton hit the lower slopes of the climb at over 8w/kg, and flew up the climb in well under two minutes.
Catanzaro – first lap up the Switchback Climb:
Average Power: 573w (7.4w/kg)
Duffy, Jr. and Catanzaro were instrumental at the front of the race, pushing nearly 600w up the entire climb and shredding the majority of the peloton. I hung back around 20 – 30th wheel, a risky place to be with gaps opening up everywhere, but with my heart rate at 180bpm, my position wasn’t much of a choice.
A few riders clawed back onto the front group before we began the long descent over the bridge and down into the underwater tunnel, our first real chance to recover since the start of the race.
We had two sights at the finish of this race, the second one being the one that counted. I had studied the final 2km of the route, as well as the final sprint in the community qualifier Race #1 just a few hours before. After a sharp rise up and out of the tunnel, the road flattened out for a few moments, before gradually rising until about 600m to go. Then, the road turns 90 degrees to the right, followed by a quick left, and a long sweeping right which straightens out with about 300m to go.
The trickiest part about this set of corners was not its technicality – there is not steering required in Zwift, at least for these races – but rather its slight downward slope that gets riders rocketing up to over 65kph before they’re even opened up their sprint.
I’d messed up this finish many times before because it’s easy to get swarmed in the turns, and you can sometimes lose your avatar in the crowd. But after studying the course and final sprint of the first qualifier race, I hoped I had learned from my mistakes, and I would nail the finish this time.
But before this, we had another full lap around the Volcano, up to the Italian Villas, and then powering up the steep switchback climb. Thankfully, we took it easy through the Volcano, and only a few riders attacked next to the Villas. The majority of us were saving our best effort for the final climb — and we needed it.
I really thought we went full gas up the climb on lap 1. On lap 2, we went faster. A full five seconds faster up the climb, at an average of over 7.5w/kg, just to stay in the front group. Duffy, Jr. and Catanzaro threw down all the watts, and by the time we made it to the Epic KOM bypass, there were just 25 riders left.
Catanzaro – second lap up the Switchback climb:
Average Power: 579w (7.5w/kg)
Inside 4km to go, attacks started to fly as riders tried to surprise us by hitting out well before the final sprint. They sprinted, got a gap, and then got caught 30 seconds later. My teammates and I hung in the wheels as much as we could, and with 1.5km to go, it was grupo compacto and the sprint was on. We accelerated up and out of the tunnel, and attacks began to fly inside 800m to go. Riders jostled for position as countermoves began to go, and with a few hundred meters left, it was utter chaos. The hardest part about nailing this sprint at the end of the Ocean Lava Cliffside Loop is how hard you need to go from 1.5km to go until the final sprint. We can see on the graph of my power data that in order to hold my position in the top 10 or 15 riders, I was pushing ~500w for over a minute before I even thought about launching my sprint.
Nehr – final 1.5km and sprint:
Average Power: 533w (7.4w/kg)
Peak 20sec Power: 891w (12.4w/kg)
Average Speed: 66.4kph (41.3mph)
Max speed: 69.1kph (43mph)
With an ‘aero power-up’ in my pocket, I decided to let it fly earlier than I had planned. Opening up my sprint with still 350m to go, I got the jump on the group, and gave it everything I had for the next 20 seconds. I was only caught by one rider, my teammate Duffy, Jr., who overtook me with five meters to go — and without the help of a power-up.
Behind Duffy, Jr. and I, our teammate Catanzaro came across the line in 8th place. It was a valiant effort, but not quite enough… Then, a few days later, Scott received an email informing him that he was invited to the next round of the Movistar Team Challenge. Three riders who finished ahead of Scott had been disqualified after ZADA and ZwiftPower had analyzed their race results, power data, and or performance verification, putting Scott into the fifth and final qualification slot of the second qualifier race.
Up next is round 1 of the Movistar Team Challenge – two scratch races on February 10th and February 12th will help narrow down the field of competitors from nearly 300 to just 50. In each race, the top 50 riders will be awarded points based on their finishing position: 50pts for 1st, and 1pt for 50th. The men’s and women’s fields will consist of the community qualifiers such as myself and my NeXT eSport teammates, plus invited Zwifters from ZRL’s Premier League season 2.
Of course, the races won’t be easy – race #1 of round 1 will be five laps of the Watopia Hilly Route. Anyone who watched the UCI Zwift World Championships will know that climb well, the Watopia Forward KOM. The finish of the world championships now becomes the crux of the course during race #1 of the Movistar Team Challenge. A downhill run-in to the finish could make for a chaotic field sprint, or perhaps a strong-armed breakaway will leave the rest of the field in the dust over the top of the final climb.
Race #2 is one for the climbers – a total of 39km of racing includes 767m (2,516ft) of climbing, including two times up the Titans Grove Reverse KOM, and once up the Epic KOM Forward with the addition of the ultra-steep Radio Tower climb. The mountain goats should have their day during Race #2; but with 16km (9.9mi) of descending and rollers before the finish, a motivated group of chasers could catch the climbers before the finish and have their own opportunity to sprint for the win.
The Movistar Team Challenge promises to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable events that we’ve ever seen on Zwift. Over 3,000 riders from around the world competed in the community qualifier races, and fewer than 10 were able to move on. Now, these world-beating amateurs will take on the Premier League’s best in an all-out, two-day battle for a spot in the semi-finals of the Movistar Team Challenge.
The teams at ZwiftPower and ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis) help ensure fair competition for all and verification for riders competing in the Movistar Team Challenge.
Livestream of the Movistar Team Challenge Community Qualifiers: