An Interview with Esports Champ, Lionel Vujasin

A candid chat with the esports great about life, his virtual cycling story, and what esports mean to him now and in the future.
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I appreciate the opportunity, Lionel. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do? Where do you live? Family life, that sort of stuff.

Well, I’m Lio, 32. I’m both Belgian and Croatian. I live in Belgium, near Liege in the Ardennes area. It’s a pretty cool place to ride with a lot of famous punchy climbs. Otherwise, I live with my girlfriend and work as a BOH and Operations Manager at NIKE.

 

I spent a lot of time cycling, studying the game, etc., but when I’m not on two wheels, I like to travel a lot and try to find hidden gems everywhere I go. My favorite places to travel are Dubrovnik in Croatia, Bali, London, and the Canadian west coast.

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What is your cycling story? How did you get involved in virtual cycling and eSports? Tell us about your eSports team.

Wow, it has been quite a journey. When I was younger, I came from an off-road background, racing XCO, mountain biking, and Cyclocross. I started racing on Zwift in 2018, as I was looking for motivation to train after workdays.

 

I somehow found out about CVR being a weekly league and qualified for the live final in Vancouver. I remember laughing with my friends just thinking about crossing the Atlantic to race bikes on a trainer! (I had never ridden on a smart trainer before the event and was a level 15 rider on Zwift. If I remember well, I unlocked the Zwift aero wheels just the day before traveling to Canada.)

 

The sh*t just got real when I actually won the event and the insane prize money that came with it. From that point, I knew the discipline had tremendous potential, and I was ready to commit 100% to it. Then I had the chance to be selected in the Zwift Allstars to race the KISS SuperLeague.  

 

I learned so much about the game from Casey Schumm and Kim Little. I had consistent top10 results, and Rhys Howell from Canyon picked me to be the original member of Canyon Esports (Canyon ZCC at the time).

 

I was immediately pumped by the project and Rhys’s vision of eRacing. The team structure is so pro, and we have all we need to perform at our best on the virtual roads. It’s a blessing to be part of such a project, honestly.

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The indoor specialist season is heating up. Are you excited? What have you been doing during the ‘off-season?’

To be totally honest with you, I’m not exactly excited about this new season. I would rather say I’m curious to see how the discipline will evolve in the next few weeks. It had obviously made a step forward last year, but we are still far from what I think Cycling eSports can be.

 

My off-season was a bit of a nightmare. I pushed myself too much last year and ended up dealing with cardiac issues and depression during the summer. It has been a really weird period, where I started questioning myself and if I really wanted to keep cycling.

 

But, well, you know the quote: “One step back, two steps further!”. I’ve made the necessary adjustments and tried to reconnect with my roots to rebuild (hopefully) stronger. 😉

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What are your goals for the upcoming season, personally and for the team?

Team-wise, for sure, we would love to keep our ZRL crown. Then again, we got it three times in a row. It doesn’t really taste the same as the first time, haha. So we will be there to animate the races and try to kick some butts, in a gentlemanly way, of course!

 

Personally, if I have another shot at the UCI World Championships, of course, I would give it all for the rainbow bands. I would love to become the first Croatian to become a World Champion in cycling. 😉

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You have accomplished so much in eSports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual cycling athletes?

Commitment from the early days. I believe I’m one of the very few athletes in the game who takes Zwift racing as it is and not as a simulation of cycling.

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You are considered one of, if not the best pure finishers in eSports. I want to take a deep dive into the topic of sprinting in virtual cycling. For a frame of reference, how tall are you, and approximately how much do you weigh in competition?

I’m 180cm for anything between 69 to 72kg. I don’t see myself as a pure sprinter because I don’t have an extremely high 15-sec power, but I know I’m capable of repeating very high power sprints many times in a race. It’s really where I usually shine.

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What is your Peak Power and 15-second Power on the road and virtually? What is your PB during a race? Why do you think they are different?

On Zwift, on a good day, I can hit just over 15W/kg for 15sec, which isn’t the strongest sprint in the game, but you know, timing is key.

 

My PB outside should be around 16W/kg, but it’s different because when I train, I don’t have the pressure to keep the ideal position, so it’s difficult to compare.

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What is your go-to sprint training workout, and when during the season do you focus on it? Do you do any specific off-the-bike training to improve your sprinting?

I don’t really have a pure sprinting workout. I try to implement a maximum sprint at the end of my long rides to recruit muscle fibers when fatigued.

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There are many theories on proper form for sprinting indoors? Some say it is more up and down than side to side. Some stress the upper body, seated, standing, that sort of thing. Describe what gives you the most power when sprinting indoors. How does this differ from on the road?

I mostly approached sprinting on the trainer as a max effort on a steep hill IRL. I stay on the hoods with an upper-body position very forward on the bike.

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Conflicting views on cadence and the ramp-up to the sprint also exist. Some feel you should drop to your heaviest gear and stomp, while others go for a high cadence spin-up. What do you do? Do you think it is dependent upon the type of trainer you use? Does the Zwift trainer's difficulty setting make a difference?

It’s definitely dependent on your type of trainer and your personal preferences. I don’t think there is an ideal technique, but you need to find the perfect balance between getting the most out of your equipment and obviously from your legs.

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How much do you factor in the gamification side of eSports? Is there a learning curve that you must master? How vital are power-ups and other things unique to virtual cycling?

I don’t think the gamification part plays a huge role, but there are some details you have to understand. You must be able to read the data on your screen and anticipate all the possible scenarios.

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Many closers have a mental checklist that they go through approaching the finale of a race. Pack position, timing, distance, visual cues, and such. What items do you check off as you prepare to unleash the beast?

Again I adapt my approach to the final based on experience. I always have different cards to play, and I pick what I think is the best one in the situation. My tip is when you have a plan, commit to it 100%. If you hesitate even .1 of a second, You are screwed!

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Do you believe that sprinting indoors is a skill that a racer can learn, or is it a matter of physical makeup and genetics? If yes, what did you do to perfect the craft? What tips would you give someone who wants to improve their virtual sprinting power and results?

You can definitely learn, but you need to understand what works best for you! There are no shortcuts. You need to practice as much as possible in a race situation and build confidence. You know it’s one thing to do max reps at training. It’s another to unleash your max effort while being already on the edge.

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Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us one of your sprinting secrets. Something you haven’t told anyone else before that helps make you better than the rest. Please?!?

I can’t tell the secret, or it won’t be a secret anymore. 😉

Come on, Really Lio? -_-
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You can’t win the race if you don’t make the selection. What are your training approach to endurance and sub-threshold work? What strategies do you use to conserve energy during the initial stages of a race? What do you do to smother the fire if you find yourself in the red early in a race?

I’m a strong believer in making the training harder than the racing itself. So I do a lot of intensities already at training with maybe less volume than other guys.

 

With experience, I think I know what I need to do to get the best out of myself for about an hour of Zwift racing. Then when it comes to an important race, I make sure I’m well-rested before the race, so I know it shouldn’t be a problem to go all out for the hour itself.

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What do you consider to be the most challenging sprint or finish on Zwift? Why does it give you so much trouble?

Ocean Boulevard Reverse and The Mall in London.

 

Ocean Boulevard because I find it super hard to nail the perfect timing. The long curve coming into the finish makes it really difficult to find the optimal position.

 

In London, I’ve always found sprinting on the Mall quite challenging because the pack is usually spread all over the road, and you need some luck to find the right wheel.

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It must be a ton of pressure to be the man that everyone on the team depends upon to be there at the end and bring it home? Tell us a bit about that. How do you mentally approach a big race? Does a sprinter have to have a different mindset than a climber or breakaway specialist?

It’s weird because I don’t see myself as a sprinter but more as an all-arounder. I try to take points everywhere I can so I don’t really have time to feel the pressure.

 

When I’m racing, I just go all in and see what comes out of it. Ask Rhys, our DS, every time I say I will keep it quiet for the finish, when the first intermediate comes, I launch my max sprint for a handful of points, haha. I think in those races, you have to stop calculating and just go all in at some points.

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There are many other tremendous eSport finishing talents. How closely do you monitor the other powerhouses in the game, during the season and before a race? Is there a specific closer you know always brings it and that you will have to be on the top of your game to beat? Who do you consider to be your greatest rival?

I always keep an eye on who’s performing well at the moment. I try to find streams, or I have a look at some power curves. When it comes to a specific rival, I don’t have any. It’s a team sport for us, so I do my best to bring as many points to my team as possible.

 

So it would not make sense to compare me to someone else if I keep contesting everything while somebody else is focusing on the finish only.

 

Furthermore, as Zlatan Ibrahimovic said: “Lions don’t compare themselves to Humans…” 😉

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In entertainment, the saying goes that actors want to be rock stars and rock stars want to be actors. Then again, chicks dig the long ball. Do you ever wish you were a climber? Are there any other sports you wish you were great at?

Sometimes I wish I would have been a little better at soccer to make a living out of the sport. Haha!

 

Again I see myself as an all-arounder. I’m not the best sprinter, the best climber, but I can TT correctly. I’m pretty good at everything, which I guess makes me kind of unpredictable, so I like that!

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Some cynics and detractors don’t trust the legitimacy of eSports. What do you say to those who question your veracity and the ability for the playing field to be leveled between competitors? How about those who wonder why what they see on their screen doesn’t always look the same as the final results?

Oh mate, I’ve come a long way from trying to deal with those people. In my mind, if you don’t believe in something, it’s your choice but just walk away.

 

The technology isn’t foolproof yet, but we have to live with that. It’s STILL the early days, and in the meantime, we have to trust the good old back-end API. 😉

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Virtual cycling and eSports have come a long way in a short time. What do you envision eSports will be like in five years? What is your vision for the future of eSports? What do you feel it will take to get it there? What are the challenges that eSports faces in becoming recognized as a trusted competition venue?

Well, it’s a pretty sensitive topic. I don’t have any expectations, especially on issues I can’t influence myself. Do I believe in the future of eSports? Of course, yeah!

 

But at this point, I’m simply hoping the people responsible for its growth open their eyes to the true priorities.

 

The marketing around Cycling eSport did a pretty good job, but you see missing opportunities as a racer. (Obviously, it’s just my opinion based on my point-of-view.)

 

To me, Zwift needs a second platform specific to racing. It’s incredible the lack of data available to the viewers during the stream (for example, time gaps in TTT).

 

Also, the Premier League division should have no more than ten teams, with no more than 40 riders racing at the same time. Riders should all be on the same trainer or PM that no one can alter so the results would be official almost straightaway.

 

I mean, it’s challenging to take eRacing seriously when results are made official more than a week after a race. And I’m not even talking about the differences between trainers and all the blurry aspects of verification. (I truly believe it must be a nightmare to judge people’s performances.)

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Is there anything else you would like to add as the indoor specialist season fast approaches on the topic of sprinting, eSports, Zwift, or anything else? You have the floor.

Simply to wish everyone a lot of fun racing with your mates in the comfort of your home! Don’t forget to celebrate all your achievements no matter how little or big they are!

Thank you, Lio!

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