Elite esports racer and award-winning cycling journalist, Aaron Borrill, opens up about balancing work and training—and what it means to represent his country at the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships.
An interview with Aaron Borrill!
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you live, and what do you do? Family life, that sort of stuff.
I’m originally from Cape Town, South Africa. I moved to England with my wife and daughter in 2019. I’m the tech editor at Cyclingnews.com, the world’s biggest cycling site, and have been writing about anything and everything with wheels for the past 16 years. Before working as a cycling journalist, I was the associate editor for TopCar magazine, so I’ve got a decent grasp of how machines work dynamically, aesthetically, and technically.
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 cycling (mountain biking) in 2013 after being pressured by my work colleagues at TopCar, but it was only after my wife started entering us into races that the bug truly bit. To give some context, I was 85kg when I started, and I’m now 62kg.
It took a while to get into it, but I started to place decently at races after some structured training. More specifically, most of my experience is as a mountain biker or stage racing. I’ve ridden the Absa Cape Epic twice, finished on the podium at stage races such as Wines2Whales, Berg and Bush, Gravel and Grape, and raced Sani2C with my wife.
I’ve also raced the Haute Route Alps and category one crits and road races. In terms of achievements, I won my first race in 2016 and have collected myriad age-group-level wins along the way, too.
Follow Aaron on Instagram at @aaron.borill and Twitter at @AaronBorill
What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports? What is your most significant accomplishment racing virtually?
Back in 2017, I was involved in a massive, high-speed crash where I broke my arm and severely dislocated my elbow, completely tearing the ligament sheath, which displaced both my radius and ulna behind the rear section of my humerus bone. As a dedicated, obsessive person, I had no other option but to sign up for Zwift.
Needless to say, I was back on the bike 24 hours later and racked up over 2,200km in 41 days. The benefits were quickly apparent, and I finished my first race back in the top ten of the 75km Elgin MTB Race in Cape Town in a pro-laden field. I kept using Zwift on and off, but things only really picked up again when my good friend Neill Ungerer convinced me to join Toyota CRYO RDT and race the Thursday WTRL TTTs.
It was a brutal introduction to the savage nature of Zwift racing, but I loved it and got addicted to the pain and turning myself inside out with my teammates every week. We were promoted to the Premier Division last year and finished a respectable 13th last season but got relegated due to a technicality, a new rule capping the Premier Division to 15 teams and not 19/20 as before.
For me, getting selected to represent South Africa for the 2022 UCI Cycling eSports World Championships is my proudest accomplishment.
Tell us about your esports team. How has racing with your team prepared you for this moment? Is there anything unique about your team that has contributed to your success?
Toyota CRYO RDT has an excellent culture, team cohesion and is packed with talented riders such as Felix Koehler, Lars Wichert, Eddy Hoole, and Martin Maertens. Racing with these guys week-in week-out forces you to lift your game and has made me a much better rider as a result.
There’s no ego in the team setup, and when there’s a problem, the boys always lobby together to give a helping hand and advice. This sense of camaraderie and trust has made us one of the best TTT forces on the platform.
As a journalist and tech editor for a prominent cycling publication, you have a unique perspective. How does that influence you and your success as an eracer?
From a tech point of view, I get to see and use most new products before the general public and have a good handle on what’s coming soon. During my testing protocols, I test the equipment to the maximum, pretty much at the highest level in cycling eSports. There’s always something new bolted to my indoor rig.
I wouldn’t say this influences me or aids in my success. It does allow me to provide a unique and objective take on cycling paraphernalia as a whole, helping me showcase my findings to the world. It brings me real joy, and I’m extremely fortunate to call it work.
What is the philosophy for esports and virtual cycling coverage at your publication, the CyclingNews? How has it evolved, and where do you see it going in the future?
When I started at Cyclingnews in 2019, it was pretty much non-existent. The only coverage came from smart trainer buyer’s guides and reviews. The COVID-19 pandemic thrust cycling esports to the fore. Our production team helped carve out some content around the virtual Tour de France and 2020 UCI Cycling eSports World Championships, where we also covered Pro Pain Caves and rider setups in detail.
It went down very well, and, looking at the analytics and organic search, indoor cycling is continuing to peak, proving it’s now a bona fide cycling discipline. I want cycling esports to have a dedicated channel on Cyclingnews covering everything from the team news, tech and race news to transfers, equipment, and Pro Pain Caves. Let’s see…
Do you feel cycling esports will ever gain acceptance as a trusted discipline and gain popularity as a unique discipline? What challenges does it face?
Yes, of course. I think it’s already soaring in popularity. Having in-real-life pro riders and ambassadors such as Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio pushing hard to galvanize its reputation and the benefits it offers as a fitness, social, and racing tool, it’s only a matter of time until it converts all the fence-sitters.
The significant factor is around fair play, verification, and ensuring a level playing field. Zwift, Zada, and the UCI are already installing measures to ensure no cheating or unfair advantages. A large part of this argument centers around rider education and ensuring correct calibration, zero offset, software, and game updates.
Was the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship a goal for the season?
I’m a goal-focused individual and set myself a litany of lofty targets in 2021, including winning the regional 10-, 25-Mile TT Championships, Hill Climb, and 10-MIle Road Bike TT Championships in Surrey. I’m happy to report I managed to bag them all, but making South Africa for the 2022 UCI Cycling eSports World Championships was number one on the list. That, however, almost didn’t come to fruition, but I’ll answer that in more detail in the following few questions.
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?
When the Continental Qualifier news first broke, Eddy (Hoole) and I were signed up to race Taiwan Cup 2021 for ProTouch Pro Racing against the likes of Jason Osborne, but there was a date clash. We both decided that the opportunity to race the World Championships was of greater importance and were in with a real shot to qualify.
We chose the qualifiers over Taiwan Cup. I had a good lead-up to the ZRL Premier Division, and my outdoor performances and data were in a good place. I knew I had an excellent opportunity to represent my country. It was just a matter of executing the perfect race.
What was the qualification procedure, and how did you qualify?
Eddy and I contacted our African ZRL Premier Division rivals – Gary Muller (Canyon eSports) and James Barnes (NeXT eSports pb Enshored) – to lockout and secure a top-four finish. We strategized about the race on WhatsApp, set up a Discord channel, and executed our plan to precision, breaking away on the Hilly KOM Forward and keeping things pinned for the next few kilometers until we established a sizeable split.
I finished third but later learned of an issue with my dual recording, rendering my result null and void. I was devastated but accepted the decision – this is one of the realities of esports where equipment failure is real.
I thought my dream was well and truly over. Thankfully, Cycling South Africa had two more spots available. I was selected and added to the squad with Brad Gouveris (Toyota CRYO RDT), which helped lift the spirits ahead of Christmas and keep the dream alive.
Tell us about your setup. Where is it located, and what do you use? What steps do you take to verify your accuracy?
My wife Jenna and I have a dedicated bike room upstairs which is essentially our Pain Cave. It houses everything from our bikes, helmets, sunglasses, equipment, and general test gear (there’s a lot of it), including our indoor racing setups.
My usual racing setup comprises a Cannondale Supersix Evo Disc paired with Elite Direto XR-T strapped to a Saris MP1 Nfinity Trainer Platform. I have two fans, log my rides on either a Garmin Edge 520 or 830 GPS computer, and run Zwift on a MacBook Pro hooked to a Samsung 42-inch TV.
After my dual recording issue, verification is something I take very, very seriously now. I changed my verification measures to include triple recording. I changed my secondary power meter. I currently use a spider-based P2M and Favero Assioma DUO pedals which have been rock-solid in terms of reliability and data harvesting.
How does it feel to have the opportunity to represent South Africa in the World Championships? Did you ever dream that it was possible?
It’s hard to describe. I’m still pinching myself, if I’m honest. It was a childhood dream to represent my country (back then, cricket), but I wasn’t good enough.
It took me decades to find something that I was really good at—cycling—and then a further few years to find my niche, which turned out to be esports and time trialing.
At 39 years old, I’m proof that you should never give up on a dream. If you’re dedicated, passionate, focused, and disciplined, you can achieve anything, even if it takes longer than expected.
The World Championship will take place on February 26, 2022. How do you plan to approach the race mentally and physically?
I received my World Championship Wahoo Kickr V5 in late January, so I’ve been using it exclusively and have kept all my training indoors since January 10. I’ve brought on my long-time coach, Jared Salzwedel of Cycle Dynamic Coaching, to get me ready—both mentally and physically.
He’s a brilliant coach but also a sadist, dishing out some horrific intervals in preparation for late this month. I’m currently doing 15-18 hours a week, polarised in structure with specific intervals designed to mimic the efforts of the NYC Knickerbocker Course.
What are your goals and expectations for the race? How will you put yourself in the best position to achieve the most significant outcome?
It’s all about awareness, concentration, and practice. Finding reference points on the KOM and KnickerBocker course as a whole is handy in establishing some mental milestones. I raced the course in the Battle of Teams hosted by Kalas eSRT, and we hit the KOM at 7w/kg every lap, but the dynamics will be completely different at Worlds.
Everybody is on the same equipment with trainer difficulty set to 100%, and there will be nerves. I expect a very different race with a lower overall w/kg. My main focus is staying alert and ensuring I have enough sliding room to react to any moves and make sure I don’t lose contact on any of the descents, which happens a lot with lighter riders like myself.
That said, it’s more about the experience than the outcome, but I have a top-30 result as the primary goal. I think that would be a good result for me, considering the stacked field and esports royalty taking part.
Have you contacted the other Africa Qualifiers to discuss tactics and strategy? How do you anticipate that dynamic playing out?
Of course. We have a Team South Africa channel set up on Discord, and all six chat daily. The banter is top quality, and we all get on really well. That said, we’ve also invited the only other African rider—Andre Matias, from Angola, to the group to help ensure he’s ready to roll come 26 February.
In terms of the race, we have some serious firepower in the form of James Barnes, Brad Gouveris, Gary Muller, and Eddy Hoole, so there’s a good chance one of them can finish on the podium. I will do my best to assist any of them in bringing home some silverware.
Many of your fellow elite eracers have been publicly critical of the lack of standardization in esports. What is your view on the topic?
I think for any serious esports racer, it’s about debunking all the negativity and connotations about our sport. There will always be doubters. That’s a given, and we see that in every cycling code.
For a while now, dual recordings have been the go-to measure in sifting out dishonest racers, but cheaters can even doctor dual recordings. Every racer needs to be on the same equipment for the discipline and the results to be taken seriously.
It’s simple, and a significant event such as the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Champs is a case in point with each participant racing on a pre-checked and calibrated Wahoo Kickr V5. The ZRL Premier Division has, without a doubt, lifted the awareness of verification, and Zada is doing an excellent job in policing things, but there’s still work to keep the critics at bay.
Things are headed in the right direction, and the discipline is in a better space than it was just a year ago. I’m aware there are minimum requirements now for smart trainer accuracy, and this might get even stricter in the coming months and years, but it’s the only way to level out the playing field.
For many years, you have been deeply involved in cycling and how it relates to the elite esports scene. How has the landscape changed during that time, and where do you see it going?
Yes, 100%. It’s already gained traction and credibility over the past two years, and the coverage continues to improve from a production and race news perspective. I feel this is just the beginning, and in another two years or so, it’s going to be a massive, massive sport with decent salaries, greater coverage, and riders getting the same treatment and cult-like reputations as their in-real-life pro cousins. Watch this space…
What is esports' future amidst the multiple platform landscape, and where would you like to be positioned?
In terms of esports platforms, it would be great to standardize everything, but that’s a very tricky task, isn’t it? Zwift has been around a while and has measures already in place to police the highest level and ensure some semblance of credibility for the results.
Other apps, such as WhiiZu: World, are on the rise, which recently hosted the Taiwan Cup. RGT Cycling is also doing superb work, and there are some outstanding racing events hosted on the platform.
As an eracer, there’s already so much background work to be done ahead of a series, such as the ZRL Premier Division. Having to do similar things (in the future) for other platforms just wouldn’t be feasible from a time management point of view. Let’s not start on monthly subscriptions.
For me, I enjoy the holistic and intuitive experience that Zwift offers. It’s continually evolving and has the resources to call upon investors and sponsors’ backing to ensure it’s heading in the right direction. I think it’s hard for any rival platforms to compete with that. At this point, that is.
The floor is yours! Is there anything you would like to say?
It’s always good to thank those that support and encourage you behind the scenes. A large reason I can do what I do is because of my support system. My faith is a big part of who I am, and God has allowed me to follow my dream and given me many talents, both as a writer and athlete.
My wife Jenna is my biggest supporter and continues to remind me to chase my dreams. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some long-time sponsors, too, the biggest of which are Toyota and Powerbar, who has been with me since 2016.
Thank you for sharing, Aaron!
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!