Monilee Keller Takes a Deep Dive into The Pain Cave For This One!

Monilee will be representing Canada in the 2022 Esports World Championships and has been a force on the eracing scene for years. After reading this candid interview you will know why.
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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 values are family, fitness, community, and authenticity. I love the outdoors, I love to learn, I love being active, and I love to explore my limits. I am a life-long athlete, a mother of 3 girls (ages 4 to 10), a wife, and a Partner Group Program Manager at Microsoft.

We live in Redmond, WA – about 10 min from Microsoft on a 25acre property (with trails I can ride and run!). We love to spend our time together doing family rides, gardening, exploring new places, hiking, playing in the water (especially wake surfing!), skiing, and spending time outside.  

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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 horses, so I never really got into biking as a kid. I learned to ride a bike in 2002 when I discovered the sport of adventure racing. Adventure racing is a team sport that ranges from 6 hours to 5 days and consists of paddling, hiking, running, rappelling/rock climbing, orienteering, and mountain biking!

 

I was into all sports except biking – so I bought a mountain bike and fell in love. I’ve been racing my bike ever since, taking breaks while pregnant and after giving birth.  

 

In 2019, after giving birth to our youngest, my husband bought me a Kickr for my birthday. I used to do multi-hour rides in our garage by myself with the Computrainer all winter :).  

 

The Kickr led me to Zwift, and I fell in love immediately. I found a great community, BMTR (who I still ride with and lead rides for), that was amazingly welcoming and did long rides on the weekends – I was hooked.

 

I am racing on the AEO team with the wonderful ladies who taught me how to race on Zwift. The goal of AEO is to have a safe place for women to ride and race as a community – to support each member, from A riders to D riders!  

 

The team is amazing. I love that the team leaders don’t make goals for the riders/racers but allow us to shape our path WITH them.

 

It is so fun to race and ride with such a great community.

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

I believe in ‘shaking things up’ – it’s good for the brain and the body. A little shock to the system can do a lot of good. So yes, I am excited!  

 

Over the summer, I raced mountain bikes and tried road racing and gravel racing for the first time. I’m stoked to do more of it next year!

 

This fall, I am balancing cyclocross (yes, I am trying that this year too – I’m calling 2021 my ‘year of sampling’ – the only issue is that so far, I love every single discipline 😀 ) with the PRL races, so it will keep things interesting.

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

My primary goal is always to learn – there is always something new to learn – tactics, skills, and even better pedal stroke. So I hope to learn! My second goal is to have fun and enjoy the process. I believe if you don’t have joy in your life, you need to examine your focus/priorities.

 

This year I want to learn to time my sprint better 🙂 The team does not have a specific goal, but I’d love for us to be in the top 3 in the PRL – I’ll do what I can to help!

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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 see myself as special but I am stubborn (or determined)! Also, I am willing to go pretty deep in the pain cave. I have learned to welcome pain like an old friend, and it allows me to push myself pretty hard.

 

I wish I had the ‘killer/racer instincts,’ but I don’t, so I work with what I have—a strong work ethic and the ability to go deep for extended periods of time.

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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 ft 4 inches and weigh between 110 – 112 pounds. Last year I got down to 108, but I think that’s a bit light :). It’s tough to maintain a healthy weight (i mean that both from a physical and mental perspective) as an athlete but it is so important to remember that it is just one data point of about 1000 🙂

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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?

My peak 12s power on the road is 725W. I haven’t been able to replicate this in Zwift yet. I think part of it is practice, and part of it is just the adrenaline of having other racers physically around you that pushes you to sprint harder IRL.

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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 often do sprints as part of my ‘race tune-up’ rides. I do a short set of work followed by some sprints. It’s great for practice!

 

I am currently doing this threshold workout where I do a sprint at the end of the threshold. It’s brutal!  

 

I do strength work (squats, box jumps) during my off-season to help with my sprint.

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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?

Ohhhh, tough one – I don’t feel like I’ve cracked this yet. But in general, I think the same position that works outside will work best for me inside. I get the most power when I’m in the drops, standing up. I think it’s more up and down than side to side.

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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?

Low cadence work is harder to recover from, so I try to minimize it. I rarely go below 60 RPM because I find it inefficient (and I don’t produce the power).

 

I like to keep my cadence above 80, even leading into the sprint. It will lower a little if I want to shift into a harder gear for the sprint. The timing of this is something I need to work on! I didn’t really know anything about trainer difficulty for a long time, so am used to riding at 50%. I do like the feedback of the gradient.

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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 change my training for inside. I am currently focused on Cyclo-cross IRL, so my training has a lot of threshold and sprint work. I’ll be moving to focus on VO2Max soon, which is both exciting and scary 🙂  

 

I think the type of power you need inside is similar to outside – it depends on the course. Some courses will suit the sprinters, some will fit the climbers – and it’s hard to do both really, really well.

 

I believe in maintaining a solid base and working on different areas (sprints, vo2 max, threshold, strength) over the season.

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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?

There is definitely a learning curve. For example, in one PRL race, I got distracted by deploying my power up and totally botched the sprint. Power-ups add a dynamic you don’t have IRL and the drafting is different too! You definitely need to spend time learning the platform you race on.

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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?

I love this question. I look at pack position and distance. The red numbers are visual cues. I don’t feel like I have a checklist, but I remind myself to keep an eye on the distance, so I’m not caught off guard. For some reason, it is much easier for me to stay focused in an IRL race than a Zwift race.

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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?

I think it’s both. Some people are genetically built to be climbers (tall and lean). Others are born with more fast-twitch muscle and constructed to be sprinters.

 

We are all born with a set of genes that we can use to our advantage, but there is a lot you need to learn to leverage these genes. I know many people who ‘are not sprinters’ but can win a sprint simply because they have trained their body to perform to its max and are better tactically.

 

It’s a combination of genetics, discipline, and smarts. My tip would be Practice, Practice, Practice – use IRL and Zwift races to work on your timing and power.

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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 believe each person is very different. I love endurance work (in fact, I did 24hr Solo Mtb races for several years). Luckily, I do well with a high training load, so the endurance rides are part of my regular routine, and I love them!  

 

To conserve energy in races, I try to focus on drafting as much as possible – though I definitely have more work to do here 🙂 sometimes on courses with longer climbs (over 3 minutes). I just can’t hang on to the front group.  I will admit that I’d push harder if someone was yelling at me (and I mean YELLING!).  I’m working on yelling at myself but it does not always work 😀

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

A 5-10 min climb as the finish is the hardest for me. On a long climb like the Alp or Ventoux, I can settle in. The 5-10 min efforts are the hardest for me.

 

Part of it is that you don’t really train for 5-10 min efforts in mountain bike racing. It’s very spikey – you need endurance and punch.

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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?

I am currently on a great team. We often have 3-4 of us in the front pack, so the only pressure is what I put on myself. I race for fun, as a stress release, and to compete.

My goal for each race is to do my best that day. I am still working on leaving it all ‘out there on the course. As a long-time endurance athlete, I find that I’m always ‘saving’ myself (not sure what for, lol).

I don’t really see myself as a sprinter, a climber, or a break-away specialist. Pure sprinters have much more raw power than me, and also have a different mindset where they are able to ‘go all in on the finish.

 

I’m working on that, and on a good day, I can do it. I want to be consistent at it. I do think that the focus is different.

 

To surprise the group and getaway, a breakaway specialist is looking for the ‘right spot,’ which would be different from IRL vs. Zwift. And they use their power numbers to determine how far from the goal (KOM, Sprint, finish) they will attempt this.

 

The sprinter is looking to stay safe in the pack until the end, where they focus on position, momentum, and power to get the win.

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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?

There is a lot of talent! It’s pretty fun 🙂 I know their numbers, racing style, what they are good at, etc., and in a race, I might think ‘person x might attack here.’

 

But beyond that, I don’t watch them in a race. When I race, I’m pretty selfish. I focus on myself.

 

How am I feeling? Am I recovering when I can? Am I being smart? Am I conserving too much? Am I focused? For me, that is enough to focus on 🙂

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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?

As the saying goes, I think I’m more of an all-arounder—a jack of all trades, master of none. I am okay at endurance, climbing, and sprinting 🙂

 

I’m learning to be a better sprinter, so maybe that is my biggest asset right now. But I don’t consider myself a sprinter.

 

Before Zwift, I always thought I was a pretty good climber. After competing against some of the best in Zwift, I realize I’m an ok climber 🙂 It’s been pretty cool to be able to compete with talent around the globe.

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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?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion.  If you are racing at a high level, there is an entity called ZADA that will verify your race power with outdoor and indoor numbers. It also enforces specific equipment requirements are met and ensures transparency.  

 

It is unfortunate, but if an athlete wants to ‘cheat,’ they can find a way – IRL or via e-sports. I think ZADA does a lot to ensure a level playing field, and, similar to drug use, the athletes have to do their part too.

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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?

Hard question! I believe it will become a genre of sport in its own right – like cyclocross, road, mountain biking, BMX, etc. It breaks down competition barriers like travel and the need to have many bikes for athletes and levels the playing field. I like that.

It means that people who have big jobs, stay-at-home parents, or just don’t have the money or sponsors to travel can compete at the highest level, which I think is awesome. I think we are on our way!

Having good media coverage is a big part of it. I think too that we need to celebrate everyone – including the community racers, which is where the most heart, effort, and good stories are often found – is critical to success.

I would love for the media coverage to get a bit more personal – maybe rotate thru the teams and talk about the people – what they do (other than racing), etc. – make them real.

Do this across community and pro levels, and you gain a captive audience. Connection is essential, and I think this is a missing piece in esports today.

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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?!?

Haha. cookies 🙂 I make my own. OK .. more seriously, it is about having fun. If I am excited to race, I will do my best. It’s about finding joy and following it.

 

Follow Monilee on Instagram and Linktree at @monileekeller.

 

Thank You, Monilee!

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