The Saris - NoPinz eracer tells why winning the Esports Worlds is within reach and how he plans to do it.
An interview with Ryan Larson.
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 am an Air Traffic Control Systems Integration and Test Engineer at Leidos (Government Contractor). I live in Galloway, New Jersey, with my wife and three cats. When my wife and I are not working or cycling, we spend most of our time renovating our house.
What is your cycling story? How did you get involved in virtual cycling and esports? Tell us about your esports team.
I started cycling after I got out of College. I was a collegiate cross country and track runner at Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University. After numerous stress fractures that caused me to barely finish my running career my senior year, I decided my last run would be the 1600m at my final track meet in 2016.
I have not run/raced since. I knew I needed to do something else to stay in shape, so I picked up cycling since my family had ridden for as long as I could remember. After a couple of years of riding and getting into shape, I was on a normal bike ride with my IRL team in April of 2017, and one of my teammates was involved in an accident and passed away at the scene.
That day taught me how dangerous cycling really was, and I really struggled to get back on the bike outside. That was when I turned to Zwift racing. I had trained with it before but never realized how much satisfaction I could get from racing indoors.
I had been racing for about six months when I found a team that I respected. Indoor specialist (now Saris- NoPinz) was a newer team, but I loved how serious they were about racing, so I started following them and racing in every race with them that I could.
After showing the team my potential/strengths, they added me to the team. My teammates are some of the best people I know. Most of them I have never met, but we feel like we know each other so well.
We are so in tune with each other’s abilities that we play off each other in races without even thinking about it. That alone is what makes racing so much fun for me, but the fact that they are some of my best friends makes it that much better.
The indoor specialist season is here and going strong. Are you excited?
I am very excited. I never really have an offseason. I ride outside more in the spring and summer, but my focus is still racing and having fun on Zwift with the guys.
What are your goals for the upcoming season, personally and for the team?
My goal was to first qualify for the World Championships at the end of November and then win the UCI Esports Cycling World Championship. I was 9th overall and the 1st American at UCI World Championship in 2020, so it’s a goal that is within reach.
For the team, our primary goal is to continue to do well in the ZRL Premier League and help esport cycling improve along the way.
You have accomplished so much in esports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual cycling athletes?
I think what sets me apart from other virtual cycling athletes is my past athletic experience. I never realized how much pain I was in when I ran in college, so when I started cycling, I realized how much deeper I could go when I didn’t have to deal with the pain of my injuries.
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?
During competition, I am about 5 foot 8 inches (172cm), weighing around 138-139 lbs (63 kg).
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 power is about 1150w, and my 15-second power is high 900s which is about 15.5 -16.0 w/kg.
There are many theories on proper form for sprinting indoors? Describe what gives you the most power when sprinting indoors. How does this differ from on the road?
I don’t do much specific training for sprinting on or off the bike. The only time I usually work on it is bridging to a breakaway in the middle of a race or finishing at the end of a race.
I gain most of my power while standing, and I think this is because I am relatively light. During a race, I am usually out of the saddle 75% of the time. I produce the same power outside, but I produce it differently.
When I sprint outside, I am down in the drops, and I have more of a side-to-side movement. When I sprint indoors, I stay in the hoods and have a more up and down motion.
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?
Since I am lighter, I have to drop to a lower gear to get the flywheel spinning faster. If I start in too low of a gear, I am unable to produce the same power.
I think different trainers depict how a person does ramp up to sprint, but again, I think it depends on a person’s weight. A heavier person would probably stomp on the pedals more at a lower cadence, while a lighter person would spin faster and have more of a push-pull technique.
Success in esports depends mainly on making the selections. What is your strategy concerning pre-race preparation and training? How does that differ from outdoor racing and training?
The best training is racing. The only way you will get better at racing on Zwift is to just race. 1 min and 5 min power are the two areas you need to increase to “make the selection” in any Zwift race. 20 min is good to have too, but as long as you have halfway good FTP, you can usually stay in the group while drafting.
I would say that outdoor racing allows for someone to be more successful the higher their FTP is, but again 1 and 5 min efforts are what you will need to bridge across to breaks or even create breaks.
How much do you factor in the gamification side of esports? How vital are powerups and other things unique to virtual cycling?
Gamification affects racing tremendously. There is a learning curve you have to get used to before you can consistently be successful. Powerups are very important, especially in the bigger races where many guys have similar physical abilities.
Many finishers have a mental checklist that they go through approaching the finale of a race. What items do you check off as you prepare to unleash the beast?
I check off pack position, timing, distance, where the big sprinters are in the pack, but the big one is my speed relative to the rest of the pack at the point I want to start my sprint.
So before a sprint, I want to try to time it so when the sprint starts I am moving through the pack/blob. A perfect timed sprint for me is to be in the front third of the pack with my avatar already going faster than the rest of the pack.
That way when others make the first move to sprint I’m already moving on to their wheel before I really have started my all-out sprint effort. It is something that is hard to time when there is a massive pack and the speed is high but when you get it right you can beat the big sprinters without having to match their pure watts.
Do you believe that sprinting indoors is a skill that a racer can learn, or is it a matter of physical makeup and genetics? What tips would you give someone who wants to improve their virtual sprinting power and results?
Physical makeup and genetics do play a big part, but you don’t have to be the best sprinter to beat the big sprinters. Timing is everything, and you have to know what your strengths are when it gets to the end of the race and what your opponent’s weaknesses are.
If you have a good 5 min effort, take off 2 miles before the finish. If you have a good 1 minute take off with half a mile. The worst thing you can do is do the same thing repeatedly, hoping to beat the pure sprinter who puts out 700 watts more than you at the end.
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 a race?
My strategy is to race into shape. I don’t do a lot of endurance or zone 2 work because most of the races we do are 1 hr tops. I always try to push it in races and make moves that people have to react to, so I feel much easier when I get in races that call for more endurance. I conserve energy by lowering my cadence and allowing my body weight to produce my watts.
What do you consider to be the most challenging finish on Zwift? Why does it give you so much trouble?
I don’t think there is any particular finish. The effort that others have to put in the race is really what affects my finish. If everyone has to work, then I am usually in good shape. It gets harder if people are sitting in the back in Z2 since I am not a pure sprinter. Again I try to play to my strengths while simultaneously playing to others’ weaknesses.
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?
There is some pressure, but everyone on my team can win any race we compete in, so we all try to help each other by playing into their strengths. I try to treat every big race we do as any other community race.
We always finish well when we are having fun and not stressing about the race. Splinters and Breakaway specialists do have to have a different mindset. Breakaway guys can drain their tanks more during a race, while sprinters always have to make sure they have some pop in their legs for the finish.
There are many other tremendous eracing talents. How closely do you monitor the other powerhouses in the game, during the season and before a race?
There are a lot of racers who are very good, but I try not to focus on who is in a race. There are teams like Canyon, BZR, Next, etc., that you have to watch out for when you race, but I try not to allow the presence of others in a race to affect me.
What type of rider do you consider yourself? Do you ever wish you were a pure climber or a sprinter?
I am an all-around rider. I can climb and sprint pretty well, but that also means my job during a race can switch depending on the race situation. When you are racing at 5 am, going from “Ryan, you are sitting in for the sprint, to “Ryan, we need you to bridge across to the break” doesn’t always have you jumping for joy.
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?
There will always be cynics and detractors in any sport. Personally, if a person wants to ask about my legitimacy, they can look at my result and number from the world championships where multiple well-known World Tour pros competed. Every racer used the same trainer, trainer software, weighed in, and was subject to anti-doping standards.
As for the difference between what one sees on the screen and what they see in the results has to do with how quick your internet connection is and where the back-end API on the game actually has you relative to others you are racing.
Virtual cycling and esports have come a long way in a short time. What do you envision esports will be like in five years and beyond?
I am hoping eSport will get to the Olympic level. We are already at the UCI level so getting to the next step isn’t that far off. I think the future of eSports is in-person events where people can see the riders riding their bikes while also watching their avatar.
The fun part is seeing the effort the racers are putting in while competing. To get here, I think it will take some cooperation from the group’s outline of Zwift. As I said, the UCI has started recognizing esports as an actual sanctioned event. The same collaboration will be needed from other groups like the Olympic committee.
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?!?
My fan/ventilation setup is top-notch. I’m basically in a wind tunnel, and when I slightly open my sliding glass door to my zwift room, I can feel the suction of my fans trying to bring in air from the rest of my house.
Is there anything else you would like to add as the indoor specialist season moves towards the World Championships? You have the floor.
When I first started Zwifting, I thought being at the top tier of the sport was so far out of reach, but I quickly realized we all have much more within us than we think. Keep pushing, keep pedaling, and keep believing.
Thank you for sharing, Ryan!
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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!