Three days after Thanksgiving, I lined up on the virtual start line of the Zwift worlds qualifiers – specifically, the Pan-American men’s continental qualifier to the 2022 UCI eSports World Cycling Championships.
For the second edition of the UCI eSports World Cycling Championships, Zwift created a series of continental qualifier races for both men and women that would grant five athletes in each race a spot at the world championships, scheduled for February 26, 2022. There were multiple nations represented in each qualification race, with Europe having the largest fields – more than 250 riders in each race. Competing for a spot on Team USA, I lined up against 82 other starters from America, Canada, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Argentina.
The funny part about this race is that in order to be eligible to race, each rider needed to be approved by ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis) through a vigorous series of power tests, real-life ride videos, height, and weight checks, and equipment verification. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when 20 riders suddenly vanished from the field three minutes into our race.
While the 2022 Zwift worlds will take place on the Knickerbocker course and feature a KOM/QOM finish in the virtual New York City, Zwift held each Qualifier race over two laps the Watopia Figure 8 route, which includes the Watopia Reverse KOM and Watopia Forward KOM. The Figure 8 is generally regarded as a sprinter’s course, which created an interesting conundrum for hopeful climbers looking to secure a spot for worlds.
I am a rider who falls somewhere in the middle, a rouleur mixed with a puncheur; not the best at sprinting, but not bad either. One- to three-minute efforts seem to be my specialty, and so I was planning to attack somewhere between 3km and 2km to go. My teammates and I on NeXT eSport pb Enshored had just won the most recent season of the Zwift Premier League, and so we were confident heading into the qualifier. The numbers analyst that I am, I was thrilled to do a practice race the week before and try out my long-range attack. At 2.4km in the practice race, I held off the field by a handful of seconds – this tactic worked.
I knew that the four climbs — two each lap — would help split the race. This race was a little bit longer than a typical Zwift race, at 59.9km in total. That meant fatigue would play a huge role coming into the finish, which is something we don’t always see in short and explosive Zwift races.
There’s a lot of people who fear the start of Zwift races, but on this day, it wasn’t really that bad. Before the first climb, I hardly broke 300w, and I was happy to sit in the pack with more than 55km to go.
Average Power: 242w (3.5w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 138bpm
I pride myself on how easy I can ride during a Zwift race, and I’ve spent a lot of time practicing in the draft of a fast-moving pack. In virtual riding apps/video games like Zwift, I think of it like a computer game. When riding in the draft of a peloton moving 50kph, there is a certain minimum power output you need to maintain your position. My goal was to always hit that minimum threshold and not push any harder so as not to expend any more energy than necessary.
The first climb of the day was the Watopia Reverse KOM, and with more than 50km remaining, this climb was relatively easy.
Lap 1 – Watopia Reverse KOM
Average Power: 339w (4.8w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 153bpm
I wasn’t expecting the race to kick off until the Watopia Forward KOM, but the team of Saris | NoPinz had other ideas. A team of strong climbers, rouleurs, and time trialists, Saris | NoPinz had no plans for a field sprint, and so they launched a huge attack with 48km to go. Two other riders came with this move to make it a break of four, and soon their gap was in excess of 20 seconds.
The alarm bells started going off in the field as we approached the next climb and the break suddenly had 35 seconds gap; with this in mind, we went full gas up the climb in order to pull back as much time as possible. This was one of my biggest efforts of the race, and close to a 90-second power PR for me.
Lap 1 – Watopia Forward KOM
Average Power: 594w (8.5w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 175bpm
We only pulled back a few seconds on the climb, and so the intention from then on was to chase the breakaway. For the next 12km, I traded hard pulls at the front of the peloton, pushing 450-500w for 30 seconds at a time and slowly closing the gap. You can see these pulls clearly in my power file, and how I recovered in the draft after each pull.
This is a rarity in Zwift racing, to have a strong breakaway up the road and a need to chase. People expect the big blob (peloton) to simply mow down every breakaway attempt, but this isn’t always the case.
Chasing the breakaway:
Average Power: 343w (4.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 409w (5.8w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 161bpm
Average Pull: 460w (6.6w/kg) for 45 seconds
As we approached the Watopia Reverse KOM for the second time, the break had just 12 seconds and we were closing fast. The peloton hit the climb much harder this time and caught the break halfway up the KOM. This took another huge effort out of my legs, and I knew the next climb would be even harder.
Lap 2 – Watopia Reverse KOM
Average Power: 417w (5.9w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 173bpm
Peak 3min Power: 433w (6.2w/kg)
The attacks kept coming in the final 15km, and as we approached the second and final climb up the Watopia Forward KOM, just one rider remained off the front with a 30-second lead. I attacked the second half of the climb in hopes of dropping the sprinters, but apart from one or two falling off the back, the peloton was still 30 riders strong coming over the top of the KOM.
Lap 2 – Watopia Forward KOM
Average Power: 560w (8w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 179bpm
With 3km to go the lone breakaway had 13 seconds and my teammate, Greg Grosicki, attacked and chaos ensued. Inside 3km to go, I knew my opportunity was coming up fast. Having done thorough course recon, I knew there were two steep hills in the rolling Esses section of Watopia just before the finish. If I could launch a counterattack there, get some speed, and give it everything, I’d have a chance.
When Greg caught the solo breakaway, another rider countered, but I waited. On the next roller, I attacked with a full sprint and pedaled as hard as I could. I tried to hit each roller at >8w/kg and then “rest” at 6w/kg on the downslopes. I flew past the counter-attacker with no time to wait, and with 1km to go, I had six seconds on the field. I had been holding onto my aero power-up for this exact moment, and as I pressed my space bar and hit 38mph, I thought I had it in the bag.
Unbeknownst to me, the peloton had opened up the field sprint very early — at 800m to go. They were closing in on me like a freight train, and the gap was tumbling by the second. The field caught me on the line, but I had held on to win by 0.079 seconds.
Average Power: 562w (8w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 184bpm
Average Speed: 34mph (54.7kph)
First 48 seconds: 652w (9.3w/kg)
I collapsed onto my handlebars as my avatar crossed the line, and when I regained consciousness I saw that my teammates Brian Duffy, Jr. and Thom Thrall finished in second and third places, also punching their tickets to worlds. J Bruhn (Eat DIRT) and Kevin Bouchard-Hall (Velocio) earned the last two spots in the qualifier and will also be heading to the 2022 Esports World Championships on Zwift.
As for me, I still can’t believe I won. I set a two-minute Power PR with my attack after an hour and 17 minutes of racing, and I haven’t dug that deep in a very long time. My solo attack was almost the same difficulty of effort as the lap 2 Watopia Forward KOM, although they were very different efforts – the final climb was ridden at a steady 7-9w/kg, whereas my solo attack started with a 14-second sprint at 12.5w/kg.
It will be an honor to represent Team USA in February, and it will be fascinating to see the race play out on a completely different course with a KOM/QOM finish in New York.
Zach Nehr – Pan-American Men’s Continental Qualifiers to the 2022 UCI Esports World Championships:
Average Power: 298w (4.3w/kg)
Normalized Power: 359w (5.1w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 154bpm
Maximum Heart Rate: 189bpm
Final 38km Normalized Power: 386w (5.5w/kg)
The teams at ZwiftPower and ZADA (Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis) helped ensure fair competition for all and verification for riders competing in the Zwift Continental Qualifiers.
My ride on Strava:
Livestream of the Zwift Continental Qualifiers: