A tough race and a technicality didn’t deter Patrick from realizing a dream that alluded him by the slimmest of margins a year ago.
An interview with Patrick Walle.
Tell us a bit about yourself, Patrick. Where do you live, and what do you do? What do you like to do for fun? Family life, that sort of stuff.
Thanks for reaching out to do this interview! I am a classically trained musician, and I play the French Horn in the Nashville Symphony. I’ve lived in Nashville since 2012, and I’m married and have an almost two-year-old son.
What is your cycling story? When did you start competing, and what is your racing history? What is your most significant accomplishment racing on the road?
I started riding just after winning my first position in an orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic, in upstate NY in 2010. Musicians practice a LOT, so naturally, I had spent a lot of time in the practice room as a student, and my health had not been a priority for me during school.
I knew I needed a change, so I joined a gym and started practicing yoga, but I had never ridden a bike or done aerobic sports before. A friend of mine got back into riding, so I wanted to join him, and so I got my first bike, a Caad 9. I started racing the following summer in 2011, but I kept getting dropped!
Check out Patrick’s Strava profile here.
After a couple of races, I knew I needed a coach to teach me what mistakes I was making in my training and racing, and things started to turn around. I landed a podium in a TT in my first Category 4 race, and it totally hooked me. The racing, training, and personal improvement was really concrete way to enjoy something very different from practicing the horn.
As an orchestral musician, I work weekends and have very little job flexibility but still managed to race 10-20 times per season over the next few years. I was proud to win the P1 Tennessee Criterium championship three years from 2015 to 2017.
When and how did you get involved in virtual cycling and esports? What is your eracing history and biggest win before now?
I had always discounted Zwift after trying it very early without a smart trainer. In 2019 I met an OG Zwifter named Greg Leo on a group ride, and he was properly strong. He explained what the racing community was like and how racing on the platform had helped him get stronger and stronger.
I thought that there must be something to the Zwift platform. I had a smart trainer but had never used it for anything other than intervals in the winter. Greg helped me learn the ropes and explained how to get familiar with ZwiftPower, and the weekly racing scene. Things were way different just a few years ago with the elite racing scene.
You can find Patrick’s ZwiftPower profile here.
My best result was probably just missing out on a podium, finishing 4th on Richmond UCI Reverse in the Premier League in January of last year. That’s perhaps my best single-day result, but I’m usually up there in the top 10 on the bigger races of the week.
I would love to get my Zwiftpower ranking into the top 10 this winter and have been working hard toward that goal!
You created a cycling team in 2019. Do you mind telling us a bit about it? Who was involved in the project, and what was your vision?
Sure, so in 2019, I had been throwing around the idea of starting a disruptive cycling team with a cycling friend of mine, Patrick Mahoney. He had always wanted to be involved in the sport and brought Ian Jackson, CEO of Enshored, onboard to help execute this vision.
We didn’t know we wanted to focus on esports at the time, but that happened organically after the pandemic began. Meeting Greg Leo, as I mentioned, really helped speed up the process. He hooked us up with Adam Zimmerman, who put the whole men’s team together, and Angela Pitzer, who recruited our women’s squad.
We wanted to have a small American team focused on sprinting. At the time, the virtual racing everyone talked about and trained for was live events. We thought this was the future of Zwift racing (and probably still is) and wanted to make sure we positioned ourselves well as it became more mainstream.
Covid really changed the landscape of the race scene, and that’s when the invitational races started becoming the main focus, and eventually, Zwift founded the ZRL premier league. Adam was instrumental in organically bringing new riders into our team community, and after the first season of the ZRL, we started to look for new riders to participate.
There was just too much racing for our little squad to keep up with it all. We added six European riders to our squad and formed the women’s team. We kept adding men and women to try and be more competitive. After all, we wanted to win ZRL, but the racing was just getting harder and harder.
That’s when we thought that rather than try and find one individual at a time, maybe we could join forces with another team to make something bigger and better than we had ever thought was possible.
That project evolved to become one of the most successful and innovative teams in elite esports. Can you give us some insight into the major players involved, your mission, and your goals for the short and long-term future?
Well, we sure are happy with how the team has come together! It’s just amazing to be a part of such a tight-knit group of riders all over the globe. Thom Thrall and Brian Duffy had been chatting offline as part of their friendly rivalry, and the idea got thrown out that “what if” we could bring our forces together.
What would that look like? Would our values align? Do we have complementary strengths? It only took one call to feel good about combining our forces, so we ironed out the details, got it on paper, did our virtual handshakes, and the rest is history!
We believe that the success of our team comes down to the details. We are constantly studying the courses, continually optimizing equipment, and always racing for the team’s good. It was a gratifying first season to see the guys ride so strong.
We want to continue being the most competitive team out there and good ambassadors for the growing discipline. Who knows what Zwift racing looks like five years from now in the long term? We want to be at the forefront of the conversation and front of the race for years to come.
How has racing for NeXT p/b Enshored prepared you for elite esports competition? Is there anything unique about your team and teammates that have contributed to your success?
Depth stands out as our main asset. We can field the most potent team week after week for the Premier League in the first round of the 2021-22 season. We also have three teams competing for the top spots in the Atlantic, EMEA, and Americas-east community divisions.
We are on Discord together for every race – ZRL, Oh My Crit, KISS, you name it. Everyone is so supportive of each other. We are all chomping at the bit to beat each other, but anytime anyone gets a significant result or a personal best, our team Discord blows up with excitement. It’s an excellent growth environment for every member of the team.
What virtual cycling platform do you compete on primarily and why?
Zwift is my primary platform. I’ve also raced a bit on RGT but do all of my training on Zwift.
Since its introduction, your goal has been to compete in the Esports World Championships for Team USA. Did you attempt to qualify in 2020?
Absolutely. To me, there is no greater honor in sport than to represent your National Federation at a world championship. I was runner up to the final spot you could earn on the RGT qualifier in 2020 but didn’t quite make the team. I missed out by one place.
As disappointing as that must have been, it did open the door to another opportunity with Team USA and USA Cycling. Do you mind telling us about it?
Matt Gardiner had worked with USAC and Rally for the virtual TdF, and Jeff Pierce, director of performance with USAC, asked him to fill the DS responsibilities. Matt had just had a child, so he couldn’t commit to the schedule and recommended that I fulfill the role. I’m grateful that he recommended me, and I accepted.
It was a great experience to help get the most out of a collection of such superstar American athletes.
Describe the experience as DS for the USA Men's and Women's teams in the Esports World Championship. What were your behind-the-scenes duties, and did any other prominent members of the esports community assist?
Admittedly, it was a ton of logistics. We had to coordinate meetings and liaise the US athletes with Zwift HQ and the UCI for any questions and concerns. Matt Stephens and Zach Nehr helped crunch all the data and plan our race day strategy.
We spent a lot of time trying to predict how the other nations would race, and because it was a first-of-its-kind event, figuring out who was really in it with the chance of winning. We predicted both races would come to a sprint because the field depth and the climbs on the course were not very decisive. We had a bunch of fast finishers and tried to coordinate our attack timing based on individual strengths.
Was supporting your fellow eracers a rewarding and fulfilling experience? How do you think it would have compared to competing in the race?
Oh definitely! Last year’s team was a mix of athletes that focus on Zwift and IRL pros, all of which have their individual resumes that are extremely impressive. It was an honor to help them achieve their best possible performances.
As an athlete, you have to focus on yourself and the race preparation. It’s a very different role than directing a team. I found I had to focus on each athlete’s sensitivities. Everyone needs a different type of coaching and leadership in the lead-up and through the intensity of the race.
I tried to be cognizant of these unique needs for everyone. It was a new challenge unifying such prominent personalities from different teams into one cohesive group.
As exhilarating as it must have been for you to support the team, it's not the same as racing. Did it make you want it more?
We did a lot of preparation on the 2021 worlds course, and I felt terrific about it personally. I love a hard, punchy sprinting race. I focused on helping the team do their best and chase Gold in the whole process leading up to the race.
However, as soon as that race ended, I had 2022 on my mind. I think part of me believed that the course would be more drastically different in 2022 than 2021, but when I found out the race would be on Knickerbocker, I doubled down on my commitment to being prepared to qualify.
Was the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship Continental Qualifier event a goal for this season? When did you decide that you would attempt to qualify? What was it that told you that you have what it takes to compete for a spot on the national team?
World Esport championships are here now, and here to stay, so I can’t imagine a more important or significant single-day race now or ever. The qualifier was the path to that race, so I planned my training accordingly when they announced the dates.
I’m not the lightest rider or the strongest sprinter. I fall somewhere in the middle as an all-arounder. That gives me many options to do well and help the team on a course like Knickerbocker.
If the race had climbs longer than 10 minutes, I wouldn’t have considered my name because I think there would be better riders for the job, but The 3-5 minute climb effort suits me well, and I like this course a lot.
On November 28, Zwift hosted the Pan American qualification race for the 2022 UCI esports cycling world championships, and the top six places earned a spot on Team USA. Tell us about your setup for the race. Was there anything unique or challenging about the situation you faced that day?
It was Thanksgiving weekend, so my family luckily agreed when I took my equipment on the trip and dealt with preparation. It was a lot to ask of them, but they understood how unique this day was.
We race a lot on Zwift, and there is always another race, but there isn’t always a World championship qualifier around the corner!
You lined up for the race but were unable to compete. Why, and how did you find out?
Unfortunately, there was some confusion with my ZADA equipment and power verification. I wasn’t racing on our Premier Team roster for Season 1 but had submitted all of my verification on the timeline for the League race.
Thinking nothing of it, I submitted my weigh-in, but when the race started, I got a notification that the organizers automatically removed me from the event. The race organizers said there had been a misunderstanding, and my submitted and received data was never analyzed, so they didn’t realize they had it.
That must have been a tremendous letdown. At what point did you decide that you would compete in the race-off on December 11 on the RGT platform?
Definitely, the legs were good, and I felt like I had a good performance in me, so it was tough to see that go to waste. RGT had one remaining slot to qualify, but I was supposed to be working. The day before, our rehearsal schedule changed, and I could compete after all!
How did the race-off go, and what was your result?
Jadon went solo about 9km from the finish, and try as we may, we weren’t able to bring him back. RGT crits very often come to group sprints, so I was banking on my finishing speed. I ended up having the same time as 2nd place (Scott Gleason) but again just missed out on making a spot.
That must have been another tremendous letdown for you. Can you describe your emotions and the thoughts going through your mind?
I was pretty disappointed to come so close two years in a row. It’s hard not to stay in a rut when you get bad news in the sport. I tried not to tie myself emotionally to things I felt were beyond my control, but it stung because I was on the edge the second year in a row.
Like with any disappointment, I give myself until the end of the day to absorb process and feel that disappointment, but when I wake up the next day, I recommit to looking forward and getting back to work.
When did you decide to petition USA Cycling for a discretionary spot, and was it a difficult choice to make?
I had always planned on petitioning if I didn’t earn a spot. I would have preferred to earn a place based on a result, but petitioning was an easy choice to make. There were still slots available, so I might as well give it a shot!
What was the process? Do you feel that it was fair and equitable? Does the process work?
USAC had a form to fill out with info about Zwift ranking, results, etc. I made a case for myself based on my power profile, which suits this course pretty well, and my best times on the Knickerbocker glass road climb.
It seems like we have a solid and experienced team. I don’t know how many others petitioned for a spot, but it does seem like we will have a powerful team for the race!
What did you say to the USA Cycling petition committee that convinced them that you were deserving of a discretionary placement?
By the numbers, I tried to give them a clear picture of my power profile first and foremost. It is a puncheur course, and I’m a puncheur. I think I’ll be able to bring a lot to the race for the team.
How and when did you find out you had made the team, and how did it feel?
I was getting ready for a team race, and I got an IG notification from Frank Cundiff with a screengrab of the names of the team. I had made the cut! I was ecstatic.
How does it feel now knowing you have the opportunity to represent the United States and the NeXT p/b Enshored Cycling team you had a hand in creating?
I never dreamed that the UCI would adopt Zwift racing as its own discipline this quickly. We haven’t even had a US National Championship or even a State Championship for eracing since I started racing on Zwift, so it’s pretty incredible to have this shot to race for our federation! I hope what we can do this year sets the stage for many successful roads to worlds in the future.
Starting this team has always been about looking forward, not knowing what is ahead but knowing if we just keep looking, something is exciting out there. This opportunity feels like realizing yet another of those “it” moments.
The qualification road has been a long and windy one. Can you describe the rollercoaster of emotions you've experienced? Did you ever lose hope?
I didn’t start off cycling winning races, but I’ve always had the “Well, I’ll get it next year” mentality. I tried to always keep that same perspective with getting on team USA. It’s fine to be very upset about something as long as you use that to reinvigorate your passion. Keep pushing and having the approach that seemed to help me deal with the unexpected twists and turns.
Where does this achievement fall in your list of cycling accomplishments? Has the challenge to secure a position on the team made you more motivated?
It has to be a top-5 already to just be on the team. We’ll see if this can climb to number 1 if we can bring home some hardware 🙂 Knowing I need to bring my absolute best to the team on February 26 is hugely motivating every time I get on the bike right now.
The World Championship will take place on February 26, 2022. How do you plan to approach the race mentally and physically?
Practice makes perfect. In preparing for orchestral auditions, students execute “mock auditions” where they play for a committee of peers or professors to practice the more high-stakes playing experience.
Zwift has lots and lots of opportunities to race against the best in the world. I will be hitting a steady diet of hard racing on top of my interval preparation. I’m sure we will get a lot of reps on the Knickerbocker course to practice the effort.
On the day, there will be so much energy and excitement. I’ll need just to stay relaxed, stick to the plan, and then go out there and give it a good smash.
What are your goals and expectations for the race? How will you put yourself or one of your teammates in the best position to win?
I want team USA to win Gold. We haven’t begun to outline our tactics, but I’m sure our plan will come together as we start racing and meeting together. The course has a few dynamic moments other than the glass climb, but making the race hard and selective the first time up is bound to be on everybody’s mind.
I imagine there will be a few other moments when riders try to get away before the second ascent as well. It would take a big group to escape on the climb proper and stay away from the favorites in the bunch. This course will be so exciting. We will see!
Have you contacted the other Americas Qualifiers to discuss tactics and strategy? How do you anticipate that playing out?
Last year the teams worked well as a unit, and I expect this will be no different. We haven’t all met as a team just yet.
Several of your USA teammates are also on your NeXT p/b Enshored squad. How do you feel that will affect the team dynamic?
I think it’s a major positive because we communicate well and know our respective racing styles. However, I think all of the racers on team USA are pretty familiar with each other just because of the community itself, and I’m sure we will gel quickly.
What is your view on the topic of standardization in esports? Do you feel it is fair for a racer to qualify on RGT if Zwift hosts the race?
Standardization of equipment for one race or a series would be cool to see at some point. I don’t know if it’s fair or unfair. I’m impartial because it takes a big engine to win on either platform.
My only recommendation to Zwift Racing organizers or USAC would be to try and make a qualifier on the same course the athletes will perform the race, or something very similar. Variety, of course, could have a tremendous effect on who is a good racer for the particular terrain, and we all should want the strongest possible team for the individual race demands.
What is your opinion on the belief that RGT is less strict when it comes to validation of a secondary power source, authenticity verification, and general race controls to discourage and detect inaccurate results?
Their rules are less demanding, and virtual racing does need some verification process, but from what I know behind-the-scenes there is a good effort going on. It’s tough because a lot of the responsibility and expense of ensuring equipment is working fairly and correctly falls on riders. Maybe someday, that expense could fall on the eracing promoter.
What is your solution to this problem and the qualification format in the future? The process worked for you, but do you think it requires change?
I think electing some riders and having some riders qualify by race result/merit is a good balance and reflects other national team qualification processes.
You have been deeply involved in the elite eSports scene for many years. How has the landscape changed during that time, and where do you see it going?
It will only grow, which is exciting. There hasn’t been a live event in a LONG time, and I would love to be at that. Part of me thinks we will see more of those in the future.
I think the fully virtual racing series would continue to be essential to the platform’s community racing scene and pro-development. Still, I would love to see more regional live racing events. That would be so exciting and has always excited me about Zwift racing since Adam and Greg told me the stories of their early live racing experiences.
What is the future of esports, and where would you like to be positioned?
Esports, in general, will continue to be more and more of an integrated part of daily life and the sports that people choose to watch. Kids are growing up with it, and what the kids are into is the future.
If Quickstep is the Wolfpack of road cycling, then I want NeXT p/b Enshored to be the Wolfpack of eracing now and for many years to come.
The floor is yours! Is there anything you would like to say?
It’s surreal to be here now, with this opportunity, and the training leading up to the World Championship will be demanding, so shoot me a ride on and LET’S GO, TEAM USA!
Thank You, Patrick!
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!