An interview with Mason Rocca!
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you live, and what do you do? What do you like to do for fun? Family life, that sort of stuff.
I live in Evanston, Illinois, a town outside of Chicago. I’m a high school math teacher and basketball coach. I have five children, and so much of my free time and fun is spent with them at their various activities. Cycling plays a significant role in my life, too, both virtual and road cycling.
You are an accomplished athlete on the NCAA, Professional, and International levels. Do you mind sharing a bit about your career, its significant milestones, and the experience?
Sure, I played basketball at Princeton University and then played professionally for 15 years, 14 in Italy. The highlights of my professional career included playing five years in Euroleague, the top league in the world behind the NBA.
I played on a team that earned its first-ever promotion from the second division to the first division. I also played for the Italian national team (I have dual citizenship) and got to play in the 2006 World Championships in Japan, where I competed against Yao Ming and the US national team that included players like Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and other NBA stars.
I absolutely loved living and playing in Italy and competing worldwide. I got to play with teammates from many different countries and learned a tremendous amount about their cultures from them. Finally, the quality of basketball was the highest level I had ever played at, and that was a rewarding capstone for my career for a sport that I love.
When did the sport of cycling enter your life, and how did it influence your athletic career? How has your athletic history prepared you for or influenced your cycling career?
I took up cycling after I stopped playing basketball professionally. It began as a way to enjoy the outdoors and get some exercise and morphed into filling the competitive void left in my life by basketball.
For the first couple of years, after I retired professionally, I continued to play basketball with high school friends in a competitive recreational league. However, I had some serious ankle issues from my pro days that gradually worsened until I decided to stop playing basketball for good. Fortunately, cycling was manageable with my ankle, and as I wound down my basketball playing days, I ramped up my cycling.
In basketball, one of my strengths was always my conditioning. I wasn’t the most highly skilled player, but I was a smart and hard-nosed player. I learned that I had a greater natural aerobic capacity than many of my competitors and teammates, so I trained very hard to maintain that advantage.
I wanted to tire out my opponent by outworking them. It showed up in extra rebounds, gathering loose balls, running the break, and getting layups when others were tired. In cycling, obviously, aerobic capacity and conditioning are hugely important. Not only did I have a good aerobic foundation to start with, but I also knew the mentality needed to train.
Finally, I love to compete, and I’ve always looked at the small details in sports to find advantages. Things like timing, teamwork, and reading your opponents are aspects of the sport that I paid a lot of attention to in basketball and now do so in cycling.
When did you begin your competitive cycling career? What level of success have you had (race Category), and what is your most outstanding achievement in road racing?
I competed in my first road race in 2017, two years after I retired from pro hoops. I am currently a Cat 3 road racer, and my best result was winning back-to-back Masters Intelligentsia cup races in 2019, where I also won the Masters Crit State championship.
I missed out on 2020 racing because of COVID, and 2021 season I broke my elbow at the beginning of the summer and missed that season too. I’m looking forward to getting back to it this summer.
What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports?
My first Zwift race was in 2019. Some of my friends and teammates in the area told me about it, and I was hooked right away. I loved the sport’s competition, convenience, and safety (I have had a few crashes IRL that suck, especially when you are large like I am). I also am a math teacher and engineering major and love the analytics/numbers aspect of virtual cycling.
For a frame of reference, how tall are you, and approximately how much do you weigh in competition? What is your indoor PB for Peak Power, 15-second, 1-minute, 5-minutes, and 20-minutes?
I’m 6’7” and weigh around 227 lbs. My indoor PB for Peak Power is about 1400 watts, 15 seconds is 1262, 1 min is 946, 5 min is 545, and 20 min is 455.
What virtual cycling platform do you compete on primarily? What are the significant competitive, technical, and gamification differences between RGT and Zwift, and how did they affect your performance and results?
I use Zwift primarily, but I recently competed in parts of the Echelon Racing League and the Esports National Championship on RGT. There are many differences between RGT and Zwift. The main differences are that RGT creates a more realistic in-game experience because you can’t ride through riders like you can in Zwift.
Instead, if you ride up behind someone and don’t pass them with enough power, RGT slows you down to stay behind the rider. Furthermore, they slow you down on curves, just like IRL. As for the algorithms used, there are also significant differences.
I feel like RGT gives me an advantage vs. Zwift. Although I have done so few races in RGT compared with Zwift, it is hard to justify it with data. In particular, I notice more of an advantage in RGT on the downhills than in Zwift.
I’ve read various theories about the different algorithms, and I don’t know which is more accurate. I’m much larger than most cyclists, so I’m guessing that algorithms that work for most people may affect me differently.
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?
I’ve raced with VCRT for the past year and recently joined the newly formed mTNT team, and it has been great. I’ve loved racing with a virtual team. I’ve developed some great friendships with my VCRT and mTNT teammates, and I love reconning and racing together in ZRL and the TTTs. The banter on discord is fantastic, and I’ve learned a lot about racing, culture, and cycling technology from being on the team.
On February 20, 2022, you became the Elite Men's USA Cycling Esports National Champion after beating a stacked field of riders. Can you tell us what the win meant to you and where it falls in your long list of athletic achievements?
The win was amazing. It ranks up there pretty high, even though it happened in my basement! For me, the surreal aspect of virtual cycling is how the people who appreciate my accomplishments the most are people that I’ve never met in person.
They are my VCRT/mTNT teammates that hail primarily from Europe and other parts of the US. Recently, some of my local cycling teammates (606 Racing) have started to join me on the virtual scene, so I’ve been able to share experiences with them.
In the nationals, I had two 606 teammates who raced, and we communicated on Discord. Having teammates to share in the glory of a big win makes the experience so much more rewarding.
The race was incredibly exciting, and it came down to you and one other rider exchanging blows in the final kilometers. How did the race unfold, and what was going through your mind?
The race was three laps on the Iron Horse Durango course, which has about a 6-min climb in the middle of each lap, then there is a long descent followed by a long flat section before the finish. I knew the climb was the danger zone for me. I’m a heavy rider, and my goal was not to get dropped on the rise.
In the first lap, the pace was reasonable (6:41), and I was able to stay with the group. On the 2nd lap, the pace exploded, and the group got shredded. I got dropped about ⅔ from the top, despite a PB on the climb and summitting at (6:14).
Fortunately, the lead group had both Next and Restart teams represented, and it wasn’t a large group, and they didn’t really work together. Some other riders and I joined up on the descent and were able to get back on during the flat section.
On the last lap, the group had been whittled to about 7 or 8. On the climb, Duffy and Bouchard-Hall broke away from everyone. There was another group of two behind them (Nehr and Jamrozik), after which I was. Again I was able to bridge up to the chase group, and then we bridged up to Duffy and KBH.
We still had about 5 km to go before the finish. I felt really confident about my chances for the sprint, and my goal had been to be in the front group for the sprint, so I was feeling pretty good.
When did you make your move, and what made it stick? Do you care to share your race data and stats for the epic attack?
I had reconned the finish a couple of times and knew there was a short bump and then a steep descent about 1 mile from the finish. I had planned to attack on the bump, get some separation on the descent, wait for it to flatten out, and then hammer it home.
It actually worked out really well because KBH attacked before the bump, but I was ready for it and jumped on his wheel, there was a brief let up, and then I countered just before the descent.
I got a few seconds on the group, and then on the descent my heavy weight increased that gap. I was able to conserve a little until it flattened out, and then I hammered for about a minute to the finish. Here are my dual analysis power stats for the ride:
At what point did you know that you had done it? That you had become the very first USA Cycling Esports National Champion? What is the first thing that popped into your head?
I honestly have always been taught never to count your chickens before they hatch. In RGT, they give you gaps in distances, not time. I didn’t stop hammering until about a second before the finish line, where I punched my basement ceiling with both hands.
It is literally only a few inches from my head, so it wasn’t the most picturesque celebration, but it worked for me! I couldn’t believe it when I crossed the line. I know that many don’t consider virtual racing a real sport. For me and many others, it very much is.
It has its flaws and is still developing, but it is still such an incredible sport. To reach the national level of success and actually become National Champion for the US is on par with making the Italian national team for basketball. It is an incredible feeling, and I’m very proud of it.
The race took place on the virtual cycling platform RGT, where you have had tremendous success. You also race prolifically on Zwift but don't enjoy as much success, relatively—currently ranked 17th in the A category. What is your most outstanding achievement on Zwift, and what is your explanation for the difference?
My best individual race in Zwift was a couple of months ago in an Oh Crit!! Race. I won the race, and it was a super-stacked field. I broke away with about 0.8km to go on the Volcano Circuit course, and the group didn’t chase me. I won and got a race ranking of 69.81, which was my lowest ever by far.
Another amazing achievement was with my VCRT team recently in ZRL. We qualified for the A community ZRL playoffs with a shot for the Premier Division. Working together with a team is so much fun, and I love the guys.
Lately, I haven’t been concentrating on getting my Zwift ranking up. I focused on the Echelon Racing league and the ZRL season. Before ZRL and Echelon, I spent all of my energy doing high-ranking Zwift races, and I got in the top 30 riders in Zwift. Now, my ranking has dropped, but that’s okay.
Did you attempt to qualify for the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships? If yes, how did it go? If not, then why?
I didn’t, unfortunately, but I wished I had. I was invited to race, but it happened right at the beginning of basketball season (I coach high school hoops), and I had a million things going on. There was a pretty serious verification process, and I just didn’t have time to complete it, so I opted out of the race.
In retrospect, that was a mistake because I think I could have done well. I also missed out on the RGT qualifying race for the Worlds. I didn’t even know about it until it was too late. I won’t make the same mistake next year.
A former professional basketball player listed at 6 foot-eight inches (203 cm), your dimensions play a more significant factor on Zwift, where the algorithm accounts for CdA (coefficient of aerodynamic drag), basically, a product of drag and your frontal area, whereas on RGT they don't. What do you say to those who feel the difference and your unique body type accounts for your success on RGT?
The RGT algorithm that keeps a constant CdA definitely gives me an advantage in certain parts of the race (not so much on climbs, where speeds are slower), but I wouldn’t say it accounts for my success. Zwift and RGT both have quirks in their algorithms that create advantages and disadvantages for different types of riders.
I could counter and say that Zwift’s algorithm emphasizes Watts/KG and not enough on overall Watts. Or that their method of scaling up linearly CdA based on height is unrealistic. There are so many variables that go into winning a race – draft, w/kg, overall watts, CdA, timing, gradient, speed, etc., that to claim that one algorithm is more realistic than another is hard to do.
We would need to see the formulas, have some defense, and have some in-depth theoretical and actual studies done to show how they perform. I love math and engineering, but I also love racing, and I prefer to just get used to the algorithm and try to win the race.
Is this the reason you have gone to great lengths to be transparent, making a list of your equipment, your ebiopassport information, team transparency information, and Zada verification public on your ZwiftPower profile and other social media?
Yes, I’m a member of VCRT’s transparency movement as well as a member of ebiopassport. I know that I’m somewhat an anomaly in the virtual cycling world. There aren’t many riders my size and certainly not many in the upper rankings of riders. I know that many probably question whether I’m cheating or not, so I spend a lot of time with the different verification systems in place to make my results as accurate as possible.
Some cynics and detractors don’t trust the legitimacy of esports. What do you say to those who question the integrity and ability for a level playing field between competitors? What challenges does esports face in becoming recognized as a trusted competition venue?
I agree that the integrity of esports is essential to its success. However, doping is a huge problem in cycling IRL as well. It will never be perfect, and there will always be those who cross the line to get an advantage.
I also think that there has been tremendous progress in this area over the past couple of years, and I think it will only get better. The community of virtual cyclists is a data-driven community, and we are constantly striving to improve the sport.
A more significant challenge is getting the IRL cycling community to embrace esports. Many cyclists, including some of my friends, scoff at virtual cycling as unrealistic and not worth their time.
This attitude hurts the sport, but the top cyclists will follow the money if virtual cycling can get sponsorships and increased viewership. If esports gets more money, more top riders will get involved, and it will grow. Unfortunately, it always comes down to cash in the end.
What is your view on the standardization of esports and the multiplatform landscape? How would you like this to evolve in the future?
I think having multiple platforms is healthy for the sport right now. There are so many unique ways to design virtual cycling that having multiple designers and companies working on it means they will try more ideas, and the competition will spur greater innovation.
I hope that RGT and Zwift can coexist as long as possible so they can push each other to come up with a better product. The risk comes in if it divides the resources up and confuses new viewers. It also divides up the sponsor money.
What are your short and long-term esport goals? Do they involve qualifying and competing in the UCI Cycling Esports World Championship? What does that mean to you?
I want to race in the ZRL premier league and compete in the next UCI Worlds. I also want to defend my National Championship.
However, I also really enjoy riding IRL and haven’t had an excellent outdoor race season in a while due to the pandemic and some injuries. I’m looking forward to this summer to work on that, so I will somewhat put my virtual racing on hold.
As a world-class athlete who has competed professionally and internationally, you have a unique perspective. Do you feel cycling esports will gain acceptance as a trusted discipline and gain popularity as an individual discipline? What challenges does it face, and what will it take?
I think that cycling esports will continue to grow in popularity. It is such a valuable tool and an exciting way to exercise and compete. The key is marketing and sponsorships. If you look at pro sports, the leagues that have succeeded have been able to market their sport well and attract viewers, bringing money.
I think virtual cycling has huge margins of growth. Virtual cycling broadcasts have access to incredible amounts of information that IRL cycling doesn’t. In our Echelon Racing League, viewers got to listen in on the Discord channels of the racers. They got to see the racers on their trainers via zoom. They also could see their heart rate info, power info, and so much more.
Current broadcasters haven’t fully figured out how to utilize all this information well. It is a lot to handle. But it could become so much more of a fascinating viewer experience than IRL races. Virtual cycling has to exploit this advantage and do it well. GCN’s coverage is pretty good, but there is even more that they could be doing.
Esports has come a long way in a short time. What do you envision it will be like in five years and further into the future? What will it take to get it there? Where would you like to be positioned?
Like I said earlier, I think the key is to improve the viewing experience, market the product better, attract more sponsor money, and become more of a professional league. The great thing about Zwift is that it already has a phenomenal developmental league structure. Anyone can enter, and anyone can rise to the top. You don’t need to travel anywhere, you don’t need to join some elite team, and you don’t need to hire an agent to promote you.
Many professional leagues have worked for years to try and develop a strong developmental/feeder program without success. Virtual cycling has the base, and now it needs to build up the top end of its programming.
I love the professional basketball/soccer model of sports in Europe. I’ll describe the basketball setup because it is what I know best, but soccer has the same structure. In Europe, at the top is the Euroleague, which is composed of the top teams from all the different countries in Europe.
Each country has a certain number of spots in the Euroleague based on how the country’s performance at some of the international competitions (worlds, European, Olympics, etc.). Next up is the A domestic league. Each country has an A domestic league that includes the Euroleague teams. Then there is a B league, C league, etc. Sound familiar (think Cats)?
Every year the top 1 or two teams from each league move up a division, and the bottom 1 or 2 get relegated. Teams in the D division are often small towns where the players aren’t paid but compete for fun. Teams in C pay their players a small stipend, but not enough to be a job. B teams are where some players can be paid enough not to have a job. A teams are legit professional teams.
Zwift has this structure already built. And it isn’t limited by geographic location.
Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us something about yourself that none of your fellow racers or fans know about you? Please?!?
Hmmm. If you look on the internet, I once competed on an Italian TV cooking show (a video exists too). Unfortunately, I lost the contest, but I learned some new tricks in the kitchen! Here’s a recap article.
Thank you, Mason!
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!