After reading this candid interview, you will have little doubt why Barney is one of the best athletes and personalities in esports.
I appreciate the opportunity. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do? Where do you live? Family life, that sort of stuff.
Hello (hahahahaha). I am James Barnes or also known as Barney in the Zwitch (Twitch Zwift Community). Work as a Microsoft Dynamics 365 Functional Consultant to fund my cycling habits and adventures. Live in Auckland, New Zealand, with my Fiance and two whippets (yes, they have their own Instagram page).
What is your cycling story? How did you get involved in virtual cycling and eSports? Tell us about your eSports team.
My cycling story began at the age of 10 when my Dad took on the Cycle Challenge, a 94km cycling race around my hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa. I told my Dad that I am doing it with him next year.
The following year he dusted off his old downtube shifter road bike, and we went out on a few training rides together. I managed 4h35min that year, riding side by side with my Dad.
The next year he said if I took it seriously, he would get my first bike for my birthday. I got a blue Trek 1200 with a 10spd Shimano – Carbon fork and Aluminium frame.
That year with a bike, more training, and my new steed managed 3h45min. From that point forward, I completed 18 back-to-back and raced in the Elite bunch from 2015 until I moved to Auckland in 2019. I have completed two Absa Cape Epic (2016, 2019) and raced on the Velodrome.
My journey with virtual cycling came from the day that they announced Zwift Beta, and I had to get in. With my love of gaming and cycling, it was a match made in heaven. I saved up for a Tacx Vortex Smart, and soon I was ripping around Jarvis Island racing the blue pacer bots. The rest is history.
I joined Innovation in 2018, and that was where my dedication to Zwift racing grew. We had a mean WTRL TTT team and ZRL Community Team – Winning our division for three years running. Though always narrowly missed out on promotion to Premier due to team members being sick or family commitments.
I joined NeXt Esport P/B Enshore Cycling in September 2021 after reaching out to Adam Zimmerman asking if I could join up with this squad as this was the next logical step. The only way to get stronger was to race stronger riders.
The indoor specialist season is heating up. Are you excited? What have you been doing during the ‘off-season?’
Being in the Southern Hemisphere, we are going into our season, which helps a lot. A fresh set of lockdowns here has put a damper as most races have been canceled or postponed.
That is where Zwift racing has been a lifesaver, and with the help of Alex Coh, my coach, we have made massive progress since I joined him in September.
So to answer your question about the off-season, I don’t really have one as I am generally riding/ training year-round. It’s just about managing load and fatigue.
What are your goals for the upcoming season, personally and for the team?
A big goal was to find a new team and selection for the upcoming (current) Premier League Season. Then it was to represent and help that team the best I could as I knew the level of racing there was a much higher level than I had raced in the past.
Clearly, I did not aim high enough after the results from the first two rounds (hahahahaha). A big goal for me is never to lose the reason I ride.
That is the enjoyment and passion that I have for the sport. When you lose that, you lose a lot of motivation and drive to push yourself.
You have accomplished so much in eSports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual cycling athletes?
Thanks for the compliment. Yeah, I would never have dreamt of being interviewed by GCN when I was a teenager. I looked up to Matt, Dan, and Si when GCN just started. They were the racing encyclopedia of cycling.
I think this is just the beginning of Zwift racing and esports as a whole. Look how much it has grown in the last two years. It is going to continue (I hope).
Nothing sets me apart from any of the other riders. I am just a guy who loves cycling, just like the Zwift avatar next to me. Happy to answer questions and offer advice to the community.
It helps that I started working in a bike shop at the age of 16 and continued until I was 27. I am still the same guy who has as much passion for cycling as the next, and I want to share that with the rest of the community.
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 am 179cm and 74kg. I look like a stereotypical cyclist. Upside down bodybuilder – All legs, no upper body.
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?
Road – 1273w
Zwift – 1204w (according to ZP)
The difference to me comes down to the data rates that Zwift captures and also trainer lag. Trainers always often miss the 1s peak and take an extra 1s to start ramping up.
Also, body position, frame movement, drivetrain loss, trainer flex, and down the black hole we go.
What is your go-to sprinting 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?
Group sprint for that bridge or street pole during a bunch ride, as this simulates outdoor race conditions as best possible. On Zwift doing smaller races where I practice pack drafting and sprint finishes.
There is no replacement for actual race sprinting. Doing set sprint workouts will help your numbers, but if you can’t get the timing right or know how to read a sprint, your chances of winning drop.
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?
Having a solid core is the foundation for any effort. If you don’t have a solid foundation, everything else around that crumbles quickly. Yes, indoor is more up and down due to restricted frame movement, but you still need that solid foundation to generate that power.
With regards to style, that comes down to the individual, finish, and strategy.
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?
Cadence is also a personal choice, and yes, the trainer you use does make a difference. It is due to the flywheel weight that affects the effort/ability to create that “snap” power.
Trainer Difficulty only makes a big difference if there are variations in the gradient leading up to the finish line. When you are sprinting at 60kph+, a 1 or 2% change is not noticeable.
Success in esports depends largely on making the selections. What is your strategy with respect to pre-race preparation and training? Do you train for a specific power profile when you move indoors? If yes, what areas do you stress, 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes? How does that differ from outdoor racing and training?
The most significant difference is the surging nature of Zwift racing, and obviously, races rarely go over an hour. Unlike outdoors which are 3hours +.
Therefore Zwift races are a lot more “brutal” in the sense of their intensity and selection, as you mentioned. Indoor your 15 second to 5min power is critical as these make sure you make the selection and can survive climbing the majority of rollers in Zwift.
As anything longer is not often tested in Zwift races/ series. The most extended sustained efforts I find are WTRL TTT which I think mirrors outdoor racing probably the closest.
Power profile is also unique to the person. Thus, you will target races that suit you. You won’t find me going for an Alpe race, for example.
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?
Mastering power-ups to gain the most out of them is the difference between winning and losing. Along with understanding the draft/ pack dynamic.
You can save yourself a lot of effort and stress if you can predict the movement of the bunch as it progresses through the course. The best racers out there will finish in the top 10 with the lowest w/kg of those around them. Those are the guys who understand the game/race the best.
Many finishers 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?
What is the finish?
How fast is the bunch?
Who is in the bunch?
What powerup do I have?
Am I in the right gear?
Trust yourself that you can do it.
Alright, close your eyes and hold on until you pass that line.
Practice makes perfect. Sometimes it goes well. See what worked and when it goes badly, see what happened, then work on a plan to reduce that from happening again.
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?
Sprinting is definitely heavily biased towards how you as a rider are built and your power profile. Though even smaller riders can sprint with much larger riders.
It all comes down to how you sprint and the finish. The best way to hone your sprinting skill is to do the races. That is where you will gain the most skill and understanding of what works best for your sprint.
If possible, record the sprint, then go back and rewatch it. Find where you can improve, then focus on that for the next race. You learn by doing and making mistakes.
You can’t win the race if you don’t make the front group. 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?
Before joining Alex, it was a lot of Z2 and Sweet Spot work, but Alex would say Zwift racing (hahahaha). My training approach is to listen to my coach – They know best, and we plan around what races I am targeting.
Knowing the start of the race is key to how you should approach it. If you are going up forward KOM, you know positioning is critical at the beginning, as is a proper warmup.
But if you are going towards the Epic you have some time to get your bunch position, so there is no need to panic. Again knowing the course, you are racing, and understanding how the pack works are vital.
What do you consider to be the most challenging finish on Zwift? Why does it give you so much trouble?
New York. That map is just pain and suffering. The reverse lap banner finish is tough to get the timing right as there is a short negative than positive gradient to the line. Also, don’t forget about the general nature of any New York course (up and down).
It must be a ton of pressure to be the racer 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?
Luckily in NeXt, there are no expectations. Yes, some riders fall into particular roles, but one rider is marked as the key. The team’s depth is massive. It is safe to say anyone from the crew could win.
The fact that I got my timing right in round one was nothing to do with me being the racer they chose. We all depend on each other and support each other.
Approaching any big race is the same way I approach even smaller races so that it just becomes routine. I do my homework and understand the course and any small details that could be the difference.
Yes, a sprinter will look at things differently from a climber or breakaway as we focus more on the finish than the whole course, but we all have to pay attention to the details.
There are many other tremendous eSport talents. How closely do you monitor the other powerhouses in the game, during the season and before a race? Is there a specific racer 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?
In Premier, there are too many to count – the quality of the field is enormous. You must just focus on yourself and what you can do well.
Don’t let other riders take away from your strengths. Use your strength to cover your weakness.
A great example is the NeXt team lineup. The quality and depth there are massive, but you divert energy away from something worthwhile if you focus on others.
In entertainment, the saying goes that actors want to be rock stars and rock stars want to be actors. What type of rider do you consider yourself? Do you ever wish you were a climber or a sprinter if you are the opposite? Are there any other sports you wish you were great at?
I find myself in a funny middle ground as a kinda all-rounder, but I can’t do long climbs. I don’t wish to be a climber at all.
Those guys have a gift for suffering, and I would also need to shrink myself. I enjoy the tactics and dynamics that sprinting brings. Yes, it is high risk and reward, but I prefer suffering for 1 minute over an hour up a big climb.
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?
Even looking at round 2 leaves a sour taste in some people’s mouths though yes, people make honest mistakes. We have a huge list of pre/post-race items we need to complete to be compliant. Missing one step is very easy to do if you are not careful and follow your routine.
There will always be people who try to twist the system or break the rules to get an advantage—taking away from those of us who are transparent and clean. Look at the World Tour, for example.
It will be the same for Zwift. As the anti-cheat measure progresses, so will the cheaters find new ways. I just want to show people that you can do it cleanly, openly, and be competitive if you put in the work.
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?
It will become just as big as the UCI World Tour. People will come to the live venue or tune into the broadcast and support those events like the le Tour de France.
The biggest challenge is getting people exposed to racing and understanding. Yes, we might not have the “big names” of the World Tour, but the quality of the racing is the same.
It is due to a lack of understanding of what they are watching. The fans don’t necessarily understand that Lionel’s pet duck is a community legend, just like MVP is a bike-handling wizard.
Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us one of your virtual racing secrets. Something you haven’t told anyone else before that helps make you better than the rest. Please?!?
Be yourself. Be the guy/girl/person people want to ride with and talk to. Ego is your worst enemy.
With regards to zwift racing, the best secret is knowing how to ride the draft/pack. Simply put, when riding in a bunch, aim to be the lowest w/kg of anyone on the screen. Win the race, too, with the lowest w/kg. It will teach you to ride efficiently and not waste matches.
My biggest personal secret was pairing up with Alex Coh. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.
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.
Often I find people obsessed with the numbers and forget why or what they are actually trying to do. Enjoy cycling.
I just enjoy everyone’s unique stories about cycling. You can find this in the Zwift Twitch (Zwitch) community. Great seeing people smashing out those efforts and just having fun. Everyone supports each other. Find me here: twitch.tv/barney_nz
Then a small punt to Alex Coh, my coach. Thanks for helping me. Monique for your support <3
NeXt for your support then the brands behind the team:
Thank You, James!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!