UCI esports world championships: How the pros are preparing for the first-of-its-kind event

While some athletes have been honing their racing skills by racing on the road, others have been hitting the trainer more — and more strategically — than ever before, with their sights set on making history.

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The first-ever UCI esports world championships are less than a week away, and the start list continues to grow with recognizable names from the pro peloton and indoor specialists alike.

While some athletes have been honing their racing skills by racing on the road, others have been hitting the trainer more — and more strategically — than ever before, with their sights set on making history.

Related: VeloNews Podcast—The basics on the UCI Esports worlds; Zwift vs. data manipulation

The men’s and women’s winners will not only take home €8,000 (~$9,500) and the right to wear a digital version of the coveted rainbow jersey, they will receive a real-world jersey as well.

Tour de France and Vuelta a España breakaway star Thomas De Gendt of Lotto-Soudal was just added to the Belgian squad, alongside current world hour record holder Victor Campenaerts and seven others.

De Gendt was recognized earlier this year on Zwift when he put out so much power during a ride, that the game temporarily neutralized his effort when an algorithm erroneously found his power output to be suspect.

De Gendt went on to take fourth in the Virtual Tour de Flanders just days later.

While WorldTour pros used this past year’s compressed road season to improve fitness and practice skills like timing when to launch an attack, riders who specialize in indoor racing have taken a different approach.

Number one world ranking

Holden Comeau is an indoor racing specialist who does not race on the road. He was not initially named to Team USA for the first-ever “Zwift worlds,” however, on the same day which the United States’ team was selected in a race-off on the RGT platform, Comeau was offered a wildcard entry by Zwift.

Comeau’s Zwift racing expertise was recognized by Rally Cycling when the team asked him to act as a guest director sportif for the Virtual Tour de France. But this did not mean retirement for the seasoned indoor rider from team Saris + The Pros Closet.

The former collegiate swimmer held the world number one ranking in Zwift earlier in 2020, and achieved this top mark again for a short period, recently. He has been working out with his trade team, as well as maintaining communications with other Team USA riders.

“I went on a bit of a tear the first half of October because I wanted to get my world rank back up to number one. So I was working on my sprint and winning a lot of races. In the second half of October, I shifted focus to race in a way that was more specific to the demands of world champs. I wanted to bring my 1-minute to 5-minute power up a bit.”

Comeau surmises that the finishing climb at the coming world championships will be less than an 80-second all-out effort at the tail end of the 50km race, and he’s been doing training specific to this kind of effort, and already seeing it pay off.

“By the middle of November things really started to fall into place and I feel as though I’ve prepared really well for how the world champs race will likely play out. As far as world rankings go, as of [early December], although I had been back in the No.1 spot for a while, I’d fallen to No.2. [My team] Saris + The Pro’s Closet is No.1 in the team rank [as of the same time period].”

While he had not previously been registered in a doping control program, he was excited to be enrolled in the program administered by CADF.  Other American athletes may have already been enrolled in the USADA program.

“Charlie Issendorf and the team at Zwift arranged for my entry in the CADF whereabouts testing program. And I have to admit it was an exciting, surreal day when the tester knocked on my door for a sample! He thought I was a track cyclist when he saw a note in my file that I raced ‘indoor,’” said Comeau. “It was fun to explain that I actually raced in the basement right below where we were standing.”

Comeau has been on several rides with his Team USA teammates like Christie Tracy, and his Saris-The Pro’s Closet teammates such as Ryan Larson, who will also be representing the United States.

From “trackie” to “Zwifter”

Elinor Barker, a five-time world champion and Olympic champion on the track said some of her preparation will include checking her internet connection. The Team GB rider offered that her pre-race preparation and routine is not much different than when real-world racing.

“I think I’ll be preparing in the same way as you for most other races,” she said, noting some differences in training for the virtual event. “It’s still tactical, and there’s some technical element of it, but it is completely different because there’s no bike handling skills.”

Barker observed, “In Zwift there are things like power-ups which I suppose is the gaming hub and it’s kind of like getting the banana in Mario Kart. It is like a little [extra] power that you have [in reserve but] that you need to use it in time to get advantage of your opponents — which is nothing like you get in real life.”

Barker also noted that this is likely the only opportunity she’ll have to compete against champions on the road.

“There’s quite a variety of athletes, so I think it’s the only race in which I’ll ever race an Olympic and world champion on the road, and a multiple world champion on the track, and also multiple Paralympic champion in the same place in the same race,” she said in an interview Thursday.

While Dutchwoman Anna van der Breggen was scooping up two world road championships titles in less than a week earlier in 2020, she is no Zwift newcomer. The 2016 Olympic gold medalist has lead group rides in Zwift, and even previously offered up her playlists which keep her motivated when she’s indoors.

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, an experienced Zwift racer, recently told VeloNews she thinks she has a chance at the world championship title and is taking the preparation quite seriously.

The South African also hinted the Dutch squad might not be as sharp on Zwift as they are on the road, but that they should never be written off.

“I spoke with Anna [van der Breggen] about this earlier, she was open to racing but she did admit to me that it was super hard and that she has to get herself into the right frame of mind to race,” Moolman Pasio said. “It will definitely be interesting to see how Annemiek [van Vleuten] does because she’s a very competitive person so I don’t see her as starting just to start.”

Pratt will represent Australia in the upcoming UCI esports world championships. Photo: Zwift

Ride the road, ride Zwift

Australian Jessica Pratt is one of six Australians who will line up for a shot at gaming glory. The Canyon-SRAM rider became more familiar with Zwift during the early days of the pandemic lockdown, and was thrilled to be named to Team Australia based on her on-the-road and Zwift palmares.

“Immediately after I heard there would be an esports world championships on Zwift I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Our road and Zwift race results were taken into consideration, and I was excited to hear I had made the team in a group of very talented Aussies,” she said in a Canyon-SRAM release.

Pratt’s trade teammate Hannah Ludwig of Germany appears to be taking this championship event seriously as the high stakes and colored stripes offer more opportunity to the women’s peloton which saw many races canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions enforcement.

“I’ve continued to train after my last road race [several] weeks ago. I’ve been riding a lot on Zwift, have done several races, and the national team [has] had some training sessions on Zwift too. Our team is strong, especially with Tanja [Erath] in it, so I’m looking forward to it,” Ludwig said.

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