From a unique perspective, this cycling pro compares cycling esports to in-real-life racing. You’ll be interested in hearing his thoughts.
As a professional road racer with a long, decorated career and an esports competitor, Ben Wolfe brings a unique perspective. Ben is just coming off a successful campaign with the Best Buddies Cycling team in the USA Crits racing series. He was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Ben’s Career History to Date
But first, a bit about Ben. Ben signed his first professional contract with the Jelly Belly Pro Cycling Team as a teenager in 2013. During his career, Ben has ridden for several teams and represented the USA for multiple campaigns overseas.
Ben was an alternate on UCI World Championship teams, posted podium results at national championships, and earned a USA Cycling pro-national title. In addition, Ben earned two Most Courageous jerseys at the Amgen Tour of California.
Ben is the Real Deal, and Here’s the Proof
You can only get so much by reading a list of a professional cyclist’s Palmares. Ben is no joke, and this brief race description of the USA Crits Final will prove it. The 10th race in the USA Crits series took place in Winston-Salem, NC and the Best Buddies team held the Team Overall, Best Young Rider, and Lap Leader jerseys and were attempting to win their 4th race of the season.
A break formed a quarter of the way through the race and two of Ben’s Best Buddies teammates were in it. With ten laps to go, Ben launched a solo attack from the group to bridge and assist Mike Hernandez and Danny Estevez for a chance at victory.
Ben made the junction in 2 laps and immediately took over to close down a solo rider off the front. Ben kept the pressure on and set up Mike for a third-place finish.
Check out these numbers that show Ben’s effort to establish the break, get across, and close down the solo flyer to position his teammate.
20 minutes at 412W average power
469W Normalized Power
1285W Peak Power
Enough said! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Ben. Here it goes.
When did you first start riding virtually, what were your initial impressions, how has it evolved for you, and your competitive eracing history so far?
Absolutely! I was first introduced to e-racing while I was on the Hincapie Pro Cycling Team in 2019. They started a professional series (I don’t remember what they called it), and a few teams took part. To be honest, I hated it.
I didn’t understand how it worked and why I would get dropped so fast. It was frustrating, and I definitely would mentally check out before the event started.
Back then, though, I did anything to avoid riding the trainer. Training in terrible conditions was my jam, as silly as it was looking back.
It wasn’t until the pandemic happened in the spring of 2020 that I really gave Zwift racing a chance. It took changing my mindset around eracing to the fact it is its own discipline.
It is NOT raced like a road race or even a crit. Once I did that, I started to grasp how it worked, the powerups, the 3-second delay, the insanely hard starts, and the fact that the effort itself rarely allowed for any real rest- it was just like doing a hard over/under effort in training.
Sitting in the group was usually a tempo pace, and the attacks were LT and over. Once I got that in my mind, I started enjoying it as a great training effort, at the very least. The competition forced me to push myself more than I thought possible on the trainer. Add in a bit of competition, and BOOM, you surprise yourself!
You had a great season racing in the USA Crits series in 2021. Tell us about your team, your role on the team, and how the season went.
Thank you! It was definitely a fun season. The Best Buddies Racing Team came together late winter with a bunch of “retired” pros such as myself, Travis McCabe, Ruben, Mike, and brought in others like Danny Estevez (current US elite road and crit champ).
It took a few weeks for us to jive together since we were all used to racing against each other, but once we did- it was a blast, and we ended up nailing a lot of our original season objectives.
My role was definitely as a support rider- it was my role for most of my career. I enjoy teamwork and helping my teammates find the finish line first.
How did the virtual training and eracing you did during the months before the USA Crits series prepare you for the season? What aspects of training and racing virtually provided a unique benefit and contributed to your success this season?
It kept me primed and ready to suffer! Eracing is unique because it is (mostly) fitness-based. There is no bike handling or pack navigation to worry about, so it’s really just about pedaling hard and suffering the most you can, which drags a lot of fitness benefits out of it.
I think many people realize that even when they are suffering, they can dig a little deeper than they thought they could, which is an eye-opening experience for IRL racing. It kept me going through the winter months here in CT!
What aspects of virtual cycling translate well to crit racing in real life? Are there any qualities unique to virtual cycling that do not?
The ability to suffer is the most important thing. Some of the crit courses (Athens, Grant Park) are races of attrition, and eracing helps push you to suffer in a relatively consequence-free way. Worst comes to worst; you get dropped and can sign up for another race immediately to try again!
Bike handling/pack skills are the most significant issues. I think many riders spent time Zwift racing in 2020, got quite fit, and learned how to suffer well, but forgot how to handle their bike.
I noticed a lack of respect for giving space and overall awareness of others in the group this year compared to years past, which led to quite a few more crashes than I would like to have seen.
What was your highlight for the season racing in the USA Crits series? How did the team do?
My highlight of the season personally was the Spartanburg, Athens, Grant Park weekend of racing. I felt like my old self again. I felt strong and enjoyed the courses a whole lot.
I love a challenging, dynamic racecourse where you have to be fit to be there. I don’t like races where you can just sit in and wait for the closing laps.
The team crushed that weekend, we won Spartanburg, got 2nd in Athens, and I finished second at Grant Park.
Overall the team took 3 out of the four leaders’ jerseys for the series. Best Team Overall, Best Young Rider, Lap Leader, and Mike finished 2nd in the individual overall standings.
You put in a killer effort during a late laps chase at the USA Crits Final in Winston-Salem. Tell us a bit about it. What were you thinking? How did it feel? Is that what you meant by virtual cycling preparing you to suffer?
Thank you! It was certainly the deepest I went all year. Ouch! I went across because I thought the guys upfront needed help, so I decided to try and get free of the field. Luckily, I was able to get away, but what I did not know was that the group had a ~35-second gap, and then a rider was solo by a further ~30 seconds.
So I definitely bit off a little more than I could chew. I made the most of it and was able to dig deep enough to help the team out. That is definitely an effort that happens in Zwift races, so I would say the ZRL winter season kept that level of training/suffering in my life so I knew what I could push through!
One of the many exceptional performances you had this season was at the Grant Park Crit during speed week. You finished second to Tyler Williams of Legion of LA. Tell us a bit about it.
That was certainly a fun day! I think everyone was pretty tired from Spartanburg and Athens the previous nights, so the racing felt slow motion.
I found myself feeling pretty good and made the late-race move with Tyler Williams, Oscar Sevilla, and Spencer M. We battled it out in the closing laps, and Tyler was the smartest, and he jumped early.
I was not able to close the gap. All in all, an enjoyable day out!
As virtual cycling becomes mainstream and a respected performance venue, more professionals are utilizing the platform. What is the vibe in the USA Crits peloton surrounding virtual cycling?
I think many people like to rag on it because it’s hard and different, but secretly- I think many people use it, especially in the colder months, to keep motivated and sharp.
I know Tyler Williams and I spoke about it after the Grant Park race, and both agreed it’s brutally hard but an excellent option to push yourself.
That’s interesting. Tell us a bit more about the conversation with Tyler. Zwift sponsors his Legion of LA team. How does that affect the way they race and promote virtual cycling?
Tyler and I are old National Team Teammates, so we go back before Zwift was even a thing! We both joked that we wished we had access to this winter training tool back then, but are happy we have it now!
For myself (I can’t speak for Tyler here), the winter training was always great, but it would take me a few races to become comfortable with suffering and “race pace”, no matter how well the winter went. You can only push yourself so hard solo, so access to virtual races, which keep that sharp, certainly helped me in the IRL races this year. It is a phenomenal training tool.
Okay, that brings us to the answer that we all want to know. What is harder, a USA Crits race or a ZRL race? What do the other guys in the USA Crits peloton say?
Oh, man. I think this is comparing apples to oranges. I would say they are both equally challenging in their own way. The crits are definitely more stressful because you have to navigate your bike while pushing the effort. But ZRL doesn’t allow for much coasting or “sitting in” recovery like the crits do.
For me personally, I think ZRL racing is harder due to the fact I am not as experienced and can’t hide!
What are your goals for this virtual eracing season? Do you intend to race with your USA Crits professional team, or do you belong to a virtual team?
I will definitely do some eracing once the cold winter months set in! Most of the BBRacing team lives in the warmer parts of the US, so I will be racing with my CCNS Team for the ZRL series to come!
As a professional racer with experience in both venues, do you consider eracing a separate and distinct discipline? If yes, what qualities are unique that differentiate it from racing on the road?
Absolutely! E-racing is more of a fitness video game with a low consequence, whereas IRL is more of a fitness chess game at high speed with high consequence.
Where does eracing fall on your priority list? Do you race as training for the road race season? Or do you consider eracing another form of racing, placing a similar amount of emphasis on it?
That’s a tricky one! In all honesty, I use it as excellent training at the end of the day- but any time I line up to a race, I want to have a decent performance just because of my competitive nature!
What is your vision for the future of eracing? What do you feel needs to happen for esports to attain that level of acceptance and popularity?
It is a great tool to utilize for training and a unique way for communities to grow themselves. It is a relatively easy way to connect without having to travel.
To be accepted and popular, there needs to be a more significant human factor; part of the fun in cycling is sharing experiences. It’s hard to have that over a screen with the visual being an avatar.
Do you think that esports will be accepted as a racing discipline alongside other traditional forms of racing? If yes, what would you like your role in that to be?
I want to think so. I mean, every traditional form of racing once started as something new! I don’t exactly know what role I would like. Right now, I am just diving in to explore it more, but I know I would like to continue to utilize it for community growth, rider development (from a fitness standpoint), and a fun way to get through the dark winter months!
In addition to being a professional cyclist, you are also a cycling coach and are involved in a youth cycling development organization, the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program.
The CCAP is a true passion of mine. I believe sports (cycling specifically, of course) are incredibly important for children to experience. There are so many important life lessons that can be passively taught to kids; dedication, hard work, patience, teamwork, the list goes on and on. So being able to be part of such a great program that helps kids gain access to cycling is something I am proud to be a part of.
Tell us a bit about your role in the program. What is your view on the utilization of virtual cycling platforms for youth development and Junior racing?
My role is as a coach, mentor, supporter, friend, and most importantly, a community member. The main role I will be playing coming up is running the CCAP Zwift Winter Program where we utilize Zwift, Zoom, and other technology to ride together and learn these skills throughout the cold winter months.
This way, we come into the spring season ready to have fun and continue to develop skills that can be used throughout the whole CCAP 4-season programming. I think this is a prime example of how Zwift, and virtual cycling, can continue to be utilized to promote cycling, especially in locations where the winter season is brutally cold!
Thank you, Ben!
Ben-Wolfe is a Coach for Charles Coaching and Nutrition Services (CCNS)
BEN WOLFE is a certified USA Cycling Coach and has been a CCNS athlete since he first started cycling. Since then, he has competed at both a National and International level of racing.
He has competed for the last seven years at the Professional Level, racing for teams such as California Giant p/b Specialized, Jelly Belly p/b
Maxxis, and Hincapie Racing p/b BMC. Besides over 40 race victories in cycling events throughout the country, Ben’s top results included a top-10 in the National Championship Road Race and two top-10 placings in the U23 National TT Championships – including a 3rd place finish in 2014.
Coach Ben has spent seasons in Europe with the USA U23 National Team, competed in World-tour level races such as Tour of California and Tour of Utah. He has also been the first alternate for the UCI U23 World Championships in 2014 and 2015.
Coach Ben’s extensive racing experience and genuine approachability help him connect with athletes, understand their physical and mental challenges, and provide the keen advice they need to reach new levels of success in their training and racing. Ben is full of enthusiasm and is currently accepting athletes.
The folks at The ZOM are sensitive to the controversy surrounding the leadership of USA Crits. We in no way endorse or support the individuals in question and the alleged accusations. The amazing athletes that compete deserve acknowledgment, however.
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!