Get to Know Elite eSports Racer Liz Van Houweling

The ProVision eracer tells her virtual cycling story and how Zwift allowed her the opportunity to come out of retirement and compete on an elite level following the birth of her children.
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I appreciate the opportunity. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do? Where do you live? Family life, that sort of stuff.

My husband, two kids, and I live near Des Moines, Iowa. My kids are 2 and 3 years old, so they keep me busy! I am also a cycling coach with Zoom Performance and do personal training.

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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.

I grew up riding bikes with my family but never did any racing until I joined the club team in college. I raced road all through college and for a few years afterward until I met my husband, Ryan.

 

He got me more into mountain bike, cyclocross, and gravel racing. Then we had two kids, so I “retired” for about five years. Once I decided it was time to get back into shape, I discovered Zwift and absolutely loved it!

 

I raced by myself for a while until I decided I wanted to get involved with ZRL. I found a team out of the UK, ProVision, that raced during my son’s nap time. Since then, I’ve been mainly doing mixed racing and have improved with the help of my teammates pushing and motivating me. ProVision has some experienced Zwifters, so they’ve taught me a lot.

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

I am very excited! Although I haven’t had an off-season from indoor riding! I did one mountain bike race this summer, but I’ve still put in a lot of time on Zwift.

 

With little kids, it’s more realistic than riding outside all the time. I felt like I wasn’t very good at the game side of Zwift or sprinting, so I’ve been focusing on that this off-season.

 

I have been getting outside as much as possible.  I’ve taken a couple of trips to Colorado to mountain bike and taught my kids to ride bikes!

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

Personally, I want to continue to be more of a factor in races both at the finish and for intermediate segment points. I’m still improving, especially in my short-term power, so I want to keep working on that.

 

For our team, we were hoping to have an outstanding ZRL season this time but had a bit of bad luck, so now we’re just trying to make up as much ground as possible in the overall standings. I think the team’s goal is always to have fun while also being as competitive as possible!

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

I don’t consider myself that special of a racer! But I’ve taken the time to improve on my weaknesses and learn how to be a better Zwift racer. It’s not all about pure power output, so I try to be smart. I also seek out opportunities to push myself because that’s the only way to continue improving.

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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 5’6” and weigh about 59 kg.

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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?

Peak power virtually is 825, and 15 sec is 750 watts. I haven’t ridden with a power meter on the actual road in a very long time, so I don’t even know what it is on the road!

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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?

I don’t have a specific sprint workout. Sprinting in actual races is very helpful because it is as much about timing and reading a race as it is about having the best pure watts. It is also different trying to produce sprint power at the end of a hard hour-long race than with fresh legs.

 

But I did focus a lot on improving my sprint over the summer. I knew it was a weakness of mine, so one of my ProVision teammates, Lee Wild, took the time to work on it with me.

 

We did some meet-ups and just sprinted against each other! Once I knew I could produce the power, it still took me quite a bit of time to figure out how to successfully implement it at the end of races. And I’m still figuring it out!

 

I do not do any specific off-the-bike work to improve sprinting. I like just riding my bike too much!

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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 think it all depends on the person and you have to figure out what works for you. Now I just stand up and try to push on the pedals as hard as I can!

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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?

Again, I think this depends on the person. Being a slightly lighter rider, I know I can’t just put it in my hardest gear and go because I’d never get on top of that gear. I do more of a ramp-up and change cadence and gears when needed.

 

I used to have a wheel-on trainer and did not feel confident standing up and going for it. But now that I have a direct-drive, it feels very stable. I’d imagine most direct drives feel very similar.

 

I keep my trainer’s difficulty around 50%. The only time I think it could have a massive impact on a sprint would be a very significant downhill sprint.

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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?

I don’t train specifically for any one power profile. I think you need to figure out what is holding you personally back most and focus on that.

 

For me, I started working on 15-30 sec power and noticed an increase in my other relatively short-term power numbers as well. The 1 min effort in eSports is critical because it allows you to position yourself for the sprint properly.

 

Outdoor racing is so variable depending on the course and field. 20 min power, general endurance, and the ability to perform LOTS of repeated bursts of high power are probably a bit more important since the races are generally longer, and positioning yourself in the pack can require mini sprints.

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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’ve only tried Zwift, so I can’t comment on the other platforms, but I think there is a learning curve to master. The concept of drafting is similar to the open road but executing it well and learning the pack dynamics is different. Doing more races teaches you the trends of where the race is going to get fast and allows you to position yourself better.

 

Power-ups can play a considerable role in virtual cycling, too big sometimes, in my opinion, but it is a game! The aero is an exceptionally huge advantage, and in certain situations, the steamroller is as well.

 

They can certainly mean the difference between winning and losing. I accidentally dropped an anvil on an uphill, which was the end of the race for me.

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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?

It’s helpful to know the course so you can look for visual cues. I jump anywhere from 200-500 meters to go. If I know there are some strong sprinters I’m most likely not going to beat, I may try to go earlier to take the snap out of the legs of the bigger sprinters. I try to enter the finale with a plan but then am ready to change it based on what other people do!

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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?

Everyone can at least improve their sprint. Some people may never become extraordinary sprinters, but I think most everyone can at least be competent.

 

If someone wants to improve, just ride around a course with multiple sprint segments and go for each one! Work on improving your technique and power outside of a race first. Then do lots of races with various types of finishes so you can improve timing, adaptability, etc. It’s never the same!

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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?

I usually go outside if I want a good endurance ride because it’s hard to hold myself back on Zwift and not turn everything into a race.

I’m still trying to get better at conserving energy in a race, but basically, I just try to sit in as much as possible if I need. Move to the front where you know it’s going to get fast and then fade back again. If I get in the red too early, I just try to slow my breathing and be as efficient as possible.

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

I wouldn’t say there is any one finish that has given me trouble. Course knowledge is enormous, so when I don’t know the finish, that is generally the hardest.

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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?

It can be the most straightforward job of all because your job is just to conserve as much energy as possible during the race and save it for one significant effort at the end. If your teammates are animating the race, there is always the chance that one of them will succeed as well. It’s just important that everyone knows their role for big races and communicate as the race unfolds. I wouldn’t really say I am always the one that is expected to finish it off!

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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 don’t like a ton of pressure, so I don’t want to be a rock star or an actor! When I do races with primarily men, my strength is climbing. When I do women’s only races, my strength is sprinting. So I guess I do get the best of both worlds!

 

I love cycling, so I don’t think about what it’d be like to do other sports, but I think it’d be cool to be an excellent cross country skier or something. Those athletes are fit!

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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?

eSports is only going to continue to grow. I do think it would be cool if it became an Olympic sport or at least a more widely recognized sport. Some steps are going to have to be taken to ensure cheating is not present. That is for someone else to figure out, though!

 

It’s fun to watch the pros, but the power of eSports still exists for the average person who just wants to have fun and get fitter.

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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?

Rules are being put in place to try to make it as fair as possible, but it’s a game at the end of the day. People are probably going to cheat, especially as more money gets involved.

 

I think each person just needs to do what they can to ensure they are doing everything as honestly as possible to feel good about themselves and not worry too much about everyone else.

 

It’s hard to tell who wins a bike race in real life sometimes. I can understand why sometimes what the screen looks like is different than what is actually happening. That’s why you have to keep pushing all the way through the line. Let’s just be grateful that we can virtually race people all over the world!

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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?!?

No way, I’ve already divulged too many secrets!

Thank You, Liz!

If you enjoyed this interview check out some more on the Esports page of The ZOM!

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