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Louise Houbak, Cecilia Hansen, and Vicki Whitelaw of Team Heino raced with the confident coordination of WorldTour stars during Sunday’s Yorkshire Grand Prix, the opening round of the 2020 Zwift Classics series.
Houbak churned a massive gear on the front of the diminished women’s peloton up the first climb in the virtual cycling course. Within sight of the summit, Hansen bolted from her slipstream to take the QOM points.
The coordinated attacks continued throughout the 26.7-kilometer race, which awarded points to each team at intermediate sprints and QOM banners. By the race’s end, Heino had a whopping 134 points — 80 points ahead of second place.
The dominant riding overshadowed a somewhat improbable truth about Houbak, Whitelaw, and Hansen.
The three have never actually met each other in person.
“It’s only been a digital relationship,” Houbak, 44, told VeloNews. “We have talked about it and we hope to someday meet each other. Now with coronavirus that is going to be much harder.”
Whitelaw, a mother of two, is a retired pro in Australia, while Hansen, a metallurgist, lives in a small town in rural Sweden. Houbak, a mother of two and a counselor at the Danish Ministry of Education, lives in the outskirts of Copenhagen.
Despite their geographic differences, the three chat daily on WhatsApp and meet up a few times a month on a video chat to talk about their children, careers, training, and the upcoming races.
“That is the strength of our relationship — you know the other things in their lives besides Zwift,” Houbak told VeloNews. “We are teammates and we are also friends.”
The three are all accomplished cyclists; Whitelaw won stages of the Giro d’Italia Feminine and the overall at the Tour l’Ardeche during her pro career. Both Houbak and Hansen are talented amateur racers on the road, yet their results from pro/am Zwift racing surpass those from regular road events. Hansen recently wrapped up the overall title at the Tour of Watopia, a race comprised of five stages featuring riders and teams with UCI road racing experience.
Houbak is the two-time Danish national champion on Zwift.
“They are very clever racers and are really smart at putting themselves in the right positions to win,” Houbak said of her teammates. “They are powerful women who can push really good watts for a long time.”
According to statistics on Zwiftpower.com, Houbak’s best 20-minute watts-per-kilo is 4.7; Hansen’s is 4.5; Whitelaw’s is 4.8.
Houbak, 44, is a retired swimmer who discovered cycling in her early 40’s and scored impressive results in her first races. She says she never became accustomed to the bumping and jostling in the road peloton, and thus gravitated to individual time trials.
“I’m sure that Cecilia and myself would have the power to be good road racers,” Houbak said. “I’m just too scared to be in the peloton.”
She was turned on to Zwift in 2017 by her training partner Lars Husballe as a way to sneak in training before work.
Hansen, 38, discovered cycling in her late 20’s and also enjoyed a rapid rise. But a bad crash in a road race soured her to pack riding, and like Houbak, she also gravitated to time trials and eventually to Zwift.
“I don’t feel comfortable racing in the peloton close to other people,” Hansen said. “I started riding Zwift to get me through the winters and now I ride it pretty much every day.”
The three met in 2018, after they were invited to join a British amateur Zwift squad called Team Innovation. They became fast friends, and their riding styles complemented each other. Hansen is a strong sprinter who also excels on punchy climbs. Whitelaw is stronger on long climbs and also has a fast sprint, while Houbak is a time trialist who can split a group with her hard tempo.
In December 2019, Husballe, himself a veteran Zwift racer and also the manager of three Heino Cycles bicycle shops, decided to launch his own elite program. He knew Houbak from the local rides and invited the Hansen and Whitelaw to join the squad, along with British rider Vicky Nealon.
Husballe chose the four due to their ample experience in Zwift racing, and not due to their results in real-life events.
“They are veterans and they are very experienced so they know how to figure everything out,” Husballe said. “You can be as strong as you want, if you don’t know the route and you don’t know what to do in Zwift then you won’t win.”
Strength and experience have helped the women of Team Heino grab stellar results on the 2020 Zwift racing circuit — preparation has also helped. Husballe rides each course several days before the race and records his ride. Then, the team links up on a video call to watch the video and create a strategy for the event.
“We can easily spend three or four hours studying each route,” Husballe said. “In pro/am races it’s really hard to have a breakaway because the speed is simply so high. So you just need to do anything other than target the QOM and sprints.”
Husballe then acts as a sport director during the race. The team communicates over the voice app Discord, and Husballe provides verbal cues about upcoming terrain and sprint points. Husballe’s cues help, but the Heino ladies are more than capable of winning without his direction. In fact, during Sunday’s race, Hansen’s headset malfunctioned, so she simply raced on feel.
“I knew exactly what to do with team tactics,” Hansen said. “It’s just experience.”
Whether or not Team Heino’s dominance will continue throughout the Zwift Classics series is yet to be seen. The next race, held Monday April 13, is on the Bologna course, which caters to climbers. And with the UCI Women’s WorldTour schedule on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a safe bet that more WorldTour riders will show up to race.
Yet these top riders may struggle to adapt to the nuances of Zwift racing, such as the fast starts, punishing pace, and the ebb-and-flow of the surges. And that’s where Team Heino will still hold its advantage.
“Pro riders are strong like nobody else, but they don’t understand the dynamics yet,” Husballe said. “Once they do that, then we will have some problems.”