When Alice was 13 her track and field athletics team manager told her she didn’t have what it takes, and she has been proving everyone wrong ever since.
An interview with Alice Lethbridge.
I appreciate the opportunity. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do? Where do you live? Family life, that sort of stuff.
I’m a secondary school Biology teacher living in Surrey, England.
What is your cycling story? How did you get involved in virtual cycling and eSports? Tell us about your eSports team.
I started cycling when the Olympics came to London in 2012. I was an elite runner who was injured yet again and waiting for surgery on my foot when some friends encouraged me to go and watch the TT and road race as they were so local. I thought it looked more fun than cardio keep-fit in the gym, so I joined a cycling club.
I totally resisted Zwift for a long time, and two years ago, I told a friend I wouldn’t go on Zwift to participate in Zwift academy if he paid me £1000, then lockdown happened. Two of my IRL (male) clubmates challenged each other to a Zwift TT in the racer’s WhatsApp.
British Cycling offered a week’s free trial, so I decided to sign up and beat them both. Club activity quickly moved online, and it was a way to stay connected. It wasn’t long before I was offered to join a women’s race team and asked to help set up Socks4Watts.
I think that was the real turning point. As everything in the real world felt like it was going wrong, I made amazing new friends on Zwift. The Thursday TTT was something I could look forward to each week and focus on when things in life were so challenging. I’m still with Socks4Watts, managing the women’s team and occasionally riding the TTT. I now race for Heino in the ZRL, though.
The indoor specialist season is in full swing. Are you excited? What have you been doing during the ‘off-season?’
The indoor off-season has been outdoor racing for me. The season was immensely challenging this year as races kept getting postponed, then often eventually canceled, so you never really knew what you were training for or where you were going to end up racing that weekend.
I did my first ever UK National series races, though, which were great, and then moved IRL teams and got the chance to compete at UCI level, which was a steep learning curve but an amazing experience.
I was pretty shattered at the start of last ZRL as I’d just come off my first-ever pro-level stage race. I definitely needed a rest at the end of the season. Luckily, I managed to keep my body going just enough to take a qualifying spot in the continental qualifiers.
You can follow Alice on Instagram by clicking here.
What are your goals for the upcoming season, personally and for the team?
Doing well at the UCI Zwift World Championships is a key target, so the ZRL will build towards that. Zwift and UCI have given amateur community athletes a fantastic opportunity to compete in this event in 2022, so I want to make the most of it. After that, my focus will be totally on the outdoor season.
You have accomplished so much in eSports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual cycling athletes?
I don’t think I’m remarkably different from anyone else, to be honest. I think I possibly just fight a bit more for what I believe in and thrive on being challenged, whether in sport or academically. When I was 13 years old, the team manager at my running club told me I’d never be any more than a decent club athlete at best and tried to destroy the confidence I needed to take me to the next level.
I had big dreams, though, and set about proving her wrong. After battling and overcoming anorexia, and sitting out sport for a few years between the ages of 14 and 17, I joined a different club where people fully supported me. Soon I found myself in the England U20 Cross Country team and representing GB U23s on the track.
I’m also always looking to improve. Obviously, I’m pleased when I win. Still, I have a very analytical mind, and I can’t help but look for what I could have done better (or spend at least a week before the race developing dozens of potential race strategies and scenarios).
That can lead me to get very anxious about races at times, but as my awesome Zwift team manager, Lars, said to me, I spot details that others don’t, which benefits the whole team. My favorite races to plan for are the TTTs, and I was so pleased with how well the adapted race plan worked last season in the race where we were a rider short from the start.
The one thing that probably is a bit different with me is what I do in the world or eSports off the bike. I have a passion for developing other riders, and in doing so, I am not afraid to make more competition for myself.
I run a community team, including a junior squad. I am currently working on a trans-Atlantic program with Twenty24 to use Zwift to help improve retention from junior to senior racing in women’s cycling.
I firmly believe sport should be encouraging and supportive, and I fight to promote these values if there is any sign of threat to the inclusivity or legitimacy of racing.
You are considered one of, if not the best pure finishers in eSports. For a frame of reference, how tall are you, and approximately how much do you weigh in competition?
I’m 175cm, and my weight has been between 60 and 64kg. I tend to gain weight quite easily when I’m stressed at work and sleep-deprived, so that can fluctuate a fair bit.
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?
I would genuinely have to go and look this up as I’m not a sprinter. All I know is that it’s the one thing I need to work on the most, and seeing all those sprint courses for the next ZRL season did not make me smile!
Success in esports depends largely on making the selections. What is your strategy concerning 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 learned pretty early on in Zwift that you often need to treat every hill like it’s the end of the race. There’s no point pacing yourself and getting dropped, as it’s infrequent that you’ll ever get back to the front pack. I like doing races with the men as practice as it’s so hard to hold on.
I gear all my training to the outdoor season. I had a fantastic surprise opportunity to join a women’s UCI continental team last summer, and this year is all about making the most of that opportunity as I’m no spring chicken. As much as I enjoy indoor racing, it is nothing compared to the thrill of racing a women’s world tour race outdoors.
How much do you factor in the gamification side of eSports? Is there a learning curve that you must master? How vital are powerups and other things unique to virtual cycling?
It’s a massive part of the game. Not just the powerups, but also learning how to ride the gradients differently to outdoors. Knowing when to accelerate on each course, learning the exact moment to push a PU button.
It is probably my favorite part of Zwift because it requires my brain and is my biggest source of frustration because it’s so easy to get wrong.
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?
We’ll come back to this one once I learn how to sprint. Give me an uphill finish, though, and it’s usually a different story.
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?
There’s definitely a genetic component, but that doesn’t mean that people like me who are predisposed to endurance can’t improve the sprint. I’m currently doing cadence and core work to try and improve my strength and leg speed. My teammate Cecilia has been giving me some lessons too, and I recently set a new indoor 15-second best 🙂
You can’t win the race if you don’t make the front group. What is 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 have a high threshold and unusually high efficiency according to the physiological testing I did, so this generally isn’t a problem for me. I do better in a sprint finish on a race that’s been really hard than one that’s been easy. I like riding hard and get REALLY bored in pootle along races.
What do you consider to be the most challenging finish on Zwift? Why does it give you so much trouble?
Downtown Watopia. I’ve never got that finish right—from either direction.
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?
At Heino, there’s no star in the team, and there’s no leader. And I definitely have the worst sprint out of the whole team! We all ride for the team, every race. We will support whoever has the best legs on the day or gets in the best position near the finish.
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?
I’m known for keeping a close eye on everyone. I like data, and I like planning for different scenarios. Managing Socks4Watts means I’m continuously checking in on our riders’ data, which means I’m always seeing race results for my ZRL competitors. I also like seeing how other riders in the community do, so I can say well done when they have a good race or set a PR.
In terms of my greatest rival, well, there’s one rider in the Women’s community that is putting out numbers that are head and shoulders above everyone else right now. We expect her to walk away with the victory in every ZRL race.
Beyond that, there are so many strong riders out there and some new teams in the ZRL with IRL professional riders, so this season looks set to be the most competitive ever. Luckily, many of the best riders on Zwift are my teammates, and they are genuinely the people I look up to the most on the platform!
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?
Despite being ‘heavy’ for Zwift, I’m more of a climber than a sprinter. I like the longer climbs or courses with repeated climbs. I want to sprint, but I’m not too fond of the training enough to improve it. I wish I could still run properly, but my foot’s two breaks ruined my biomechanics.
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?
As far as I know, no one has ever directly questioned my data, except me wondering if I really can do that well! I was told by a sports psychologist a few years back that imposter syndrome is relatively strong in me, so I’m usually the one not recognizing the strength of my performances rather than someone on the outside questioning them.
I hope that because I have multiple different indoor and outdoor rides, all showing similar peak powers using four different power sources that people will trust in my performances. My outdoor rides in Time Trials and Road Racing and my background in running at an international level all support legitimacy of my performances on Zwift.
I could never gain any satisfaction from a result that I didn’t believe was entirely from me, and any time I’ve been concerned my equipment could be overreading, I’ve contacted ZADA and Garmin straight away. Only to be told everything is fine from their perspective.
Regarding the sport as a whole, a lot has been done by Zwift and ZADA to try and ensure that competition is legitimate. Still, sadly there will always be people, even at the very top level, that enjoy the challenge of breaking the rules and seeing how long they can get away with it.
What I guess they don’t appreciate is that their malicious actions threaten the future of the sport for everyone, including themselves. The bigger their lies become and the longer they get away with their activities that are so obviously not legitimate, the longer the IRL professionals will stay away from the platform and see it as a ‘joke’ sport.
While people are cheating at the top level, the sport will unfortunately never get the respect it deserves. It’s such a shame as so many hugely talented and honest athletes work so hard to provide a fair, transparent and legitimate racing environment that offers fantastic opportunities for those who don’t have the means to compete at an elite level outdoors.
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?
Global lockdowns really helped in bringing new people to the platform. I’d love for it to become better respected amongst cycling traditionalists. We need to get back to having some in-person live events to help with this. There’s cheating in every sport, but it’s much easier when you’re hidden away from the ‘commissaires’ in your own home.
Despite all the checks, there are ways people can cheat the system. The ZADA rules also say they can drug test athletes, but I don’t think they ever have outside the UCI championships. I would like to see this start happening with drugs testers randomly turning up to take samples after a ZRL race.
I think we’re at a fundamental crunch point in the sport right now with the involvement of the UCI, and the upcoming championships in February will either make or break Zwift as a respected sport.
Special thanks to @bruceybuildsbikes for this photo!
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?!?
I’m definitely not better than the rest. Playing to your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses would be my top tip for Zwift racing. I’m ‘heavy’ and tall in the women’s elite community, which immediately puts me at a disadvantage with the Zwift algorithms.
I use my brain and my abilities to methodically plan and prepare before races and to quickly assess and evaluate a situation within a race to my advantage instead. The only limits to your achievement are the walls you build around yourself!
Thank you for sharing, Alice!
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, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!