Here’s How Rally Cycling Took On Zwift’s UCI eSports World Championships

December 09, 2020

Here’s How Rally Cycling Took On Zwift’s UCI eSports World Championships

On December 9, the first-ever UCI-sanctioned eSports world championship road races took place via the popular Zwift virtual cycling platform, and Rally Cycling fielded some very impressive performances at the historic event. In the Elite Men’s category, Canadian Matteo Dal-Cin finished in 7th place overall amidst a field of some of the world’s strongest pro cyclists. Pro cyclist and avid virtual racer Krista Doebel-Hickok didn’t quite have the race she would have wanted, but is able to brilliantly describe the unique nature of racing virtually and what it may mean for the sport moving into the future. Read on to learn more about the athletes and this fantastic event.

indoor cyclingRally Cycling’s Krista Doebel-Hickok is no stranger to racing virtually.

FELT: Describe in general what it’s like racing on Zwift versus racing in the real world.

Krista: They both take fitness, logistical preparation and tactical know-how. Different fitness types, logistics, and tactics ar einvolved, but part of being a good bike racer is being able to adapt—in these Covid-19 times more than ever.

When it comes to fitness, the Zwift races are mostly like crits or crazy-long time trials for me, as there is little to no recovery or "easy" moments in virtual racing. For flat stages, I say it's kinda like sprinting after doing a time trial. Oh, and your bike can't move under you while sprinting on a trainer. So it’s a restricted sprint. For mountain stages, it’s kind of like doing a time trial after a crit. For almost all stages, though, the starts are fast and frantic, and the finishes are gutting. I like that feeling—where you've given it all you’ve got—and there’s no reason to save anything in these races.

Regarding preparation, we still have to check that all our equipment is on point, although fans replace ice socks for those of us who have experienced ice burns. And we don't have mechanics around to help out, either. I now have 20 outlets being used in my room, about half of which are for eSports racing. We still have to do course previews on Zwift and online, and we still have meetings and registrations, and we add-in live feed/broadcast checks.

Onto tactics, I am yet to understand 99.9% of what is going on in Watopia or wherever the Zwift gods set up a race. The idea, generally, is still to conserve your energy and hit hard when it matters. But you better have that power up at the critical moment. And you better figure exactly how you conserve without missing a move. I find it is far, far harder to chase back in the virtual world. Oftentimes, if you miss a split, you could be willing to do a maximum effort and use up every ounce of energy you have left to get back on and still not be able to do it. You don't just pay a price for being out of position—your race essentially ends. I guess in that sense, Zwift is a good and cruel teacher.

Up until this world championship event, we have had little-to-no team tactics, so team meetings have been more about making sure we all get our avatars moving, etc. I'm actually enjoying seeing what the race tactics with a full virtual team can entail. I have much to learn in this department! And I can tell you our team strategy for world championships is more detailed and intricate than it was for the “IRL” one.

FELT: What made the Zwift worlds race unique compared to other virtual pro races?

Krista: Everyone seems to value it as much as we value every race. I’ve been racing bikes since 2012 and am yet to be able to not care about a single race as if it is the world championships. So, for me, it's the same. I always do the best I can---that's who I am and I don't think anyone will get me to change.

FELT: Do you employ different tactics when racing virtually versus the real world?

Krista: For me, the tactics are pretty simple: ride as hard as you can, don't get dropped, and if you’re still not dropped at the finish line then go as hard as you can until you see results. Then go think about how you could have done better. In the real world, I am often racing in support of a teammate and actually have easier moments, in which case the tactics are more... well, tactical.

FELT: Tell us your favorite few things about racing on Zwift.

Krista: The community! Racers and fans and everyone are in it together and it's like everyone just wants to have a good time and get the best out of themselves, which is hopefully better than everyone else's best. I also like that being in my first year of riding on Zwift, I am still learning and improving. I like the pain—both physical and mental. And I like to show myself that I can suffer and never quit even when I’m frustrated, whether with myself or with eSports mechanicals or the game or life!

FELT: Did the eSports Worlds feel different than competing at any other virtual race?

Krista: Once the race got going, it felt much like any other virtual race. It is possible that the level was even higher than usual on the critical parts of the course. Normally these races feel super-hard during the whole hour-ish, which suits me well. But today was, well, a bit more chill until it became crazy hard. I will say that between 3:30am when I started my day and 5:47am when the race got underway, I was even more anxious than usual, so I guess it did feel a little different pre-race. And the amount of logistical and technical preparation for this race was even more than most virtual races, which is already a lot.

FELT: How do you feel your performance went?

Krista: According to Zwiftpower results, I did the highest average watts/kilogram for the race. And, I was dropped after, like, 10 minutes. So, well, I can't say I am pleased. I guess I was the top performer in inefficient use of—or poor distribution of—power. Like I noted above, the race as a whole was not high power, in comparison to other Zwift races I've done, but you needed that punch at the right moments in the right positions and I didn't have it.

FELT: What are you most looking forward to in the 2021 season—virtual or otherwise?

Krista: That is a most excellent question. I've actually been asking myself that for the last five hours. I just had a frustrating virtual race and don't even know if we will have IRL races, so… I don't know. I have a lot of regrets about my World Championships road race in September, so I'd like to be able to look forward to that, but who knows what opportunities the year will or will not bring. These are unpredictable times and years.

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indoor cycling basement
Racing virtually may not appear as glamorous as racing in front of cheering fans, but the performances are real... and really tough. Matteo Dal-Cin took an impressive 7th place overall at the UCI eSports World Championships.

FELT: Tell us what it’s like racing on Zwift versus racing in the real world.

Matteo: I would say aside from the obvious thing of being indoors and bolted down to the trainer,  the biggest differences are that the fight for positioning and need for teamwork is far less on the game platform as you can pass through one another—so real estate on the road isn't a thing and you can use all of your competitors for drafting to move up. The game side with the power-ups is also a super big factor as depending on the finish, it’s nearly a necessity to have the right one in order to be competitive.

FELT: What made the Zwift worlds race unique compared to other virtual pro races?

Matteo: For me, the drafting dynamics in the game made it feel much more like a peloton where you are rewarded for making the big effort required to make the group with a big rest in the wheels for doing so compared to something like Rouvy where we did the virtual Swiss race—which was essentially a time trial where you could see live what your opponents were doing but couldn't benefit from their draft.

FELT: Do you employ different tactics when racing virtually versus the real world?

Matteo: Yes, I think it's much more “do or die” in making the splits, as losing the draft to ride your own pace punishes you more than in real life. So you are far better off going flat out to make the group than thinking you will save yourself from blowing up and catching up later as the races are short and it never eases up. Once you're alone you have very little chance against the group's speed.

FELT: Tell us your favorite few things about racing on Zwift.

Matteo: Being from Canada, it is an awesome way to keep motivated in the winter months without having to do a structured workout, day in and day out, which I really appreciate. The community aspect is also something I really enjoy, in that after you finish, everyone is super friendly and positive with one another for a job well done in the group chat.

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