Liz Van Houweling
The USA women's team put three in the top ten but are first in the hearts of eracing fans for their unified and gutsy performance at the Cycling Esports World Championships.
Almost exactly 12 months after I discovered Zwift, I crossed the finish line of a Continental qualifier race, which earned me a spot in the 2022 UCI Esports World Championships for Team USA. I knew I sprinted too early and ended up in 3rd, but the top 6 qualified. I was “In!”
A feeling of disbelief overcame me. I was a nobody riding in my basement in Des Moines, Iowa. My two toddlers were in the room next to me with no clue what was happening. But slowly, pure joy seeped in as I realized I would have the opportunity to represent my country on such a high level.
Little did I know that qualifying was just the first of SO many steps to get to race day on February 26. Virtual racing is still a relatively new sport, and everyone is experimenting with making it as fair as possible.
I respect that. I also was slightly stressed with how many rules and procedures we had to follow to the exact detail or risk disqualification from the race!
An overview of what was required to complete:
- UCI license
- Zada power test workout performed on the Wahoo Kickr V5 trainer provided to all participants
OR Real-World power data performed on an incline and from various time intervals (within the past six months)
- Whereabouts submitted to enter anti-doping test pool
- Code of Conduct signed
- SafeSport training course
- Background Check
- Height Video (submitted the day of the race)
- Weight Video (submitted 2 hours before the race)
- Lighting/Video check (Zoom call the day before the race) for broadcast
Race Specific Prep
In addition to ensuring I was following all of the rules, I was also in the midst of racing my first ZRL Premier Division season with my Saris-NoPinz team. We were doing well, and I wanted to properly prepare for each of those races on top of doing everything I could to be ready for Worlds.
I often found time to ride the NY Knickerbocker course (and especially the KOM). The main climb is similar to 3 stair steps with very steep pitches followed by relative flats. I began considering and practicing different strategies for personally getting up the climb fastest.
More importantly, I started to believe. Maybe this type of climb might actually favor my more punchy nature. Maybe, just perhaps, rainbow was not as far away as I once assumed.
To say I felt overwhelmed sometimes would be an understatement. The US team started a Discord channel to discuss all of the logistics, ask questions, and offer some empathy, which was a huge help along the way.
The Week Before Worlds
I was thrilled to learn that 2 of our Saris-NoPinz teammates, Matt Gardiner and Jennifer Real, would act as our DSs in the “car” for race day. I know the importance of having knowledgeable and motivating people in my ear!
We had a team meeting a few days before the race to discuss strategy. Each individual explained how they saw themselves contributing to the team. We felt like we had the numbers and strength to make an impact on the race, and we were all looking forward to it!
I did not sleep well the entire week leading up to the race as I played out last climb scenarios way too many times. However, I felt ready.
My training had gone well. I’d mostly managed to fight off the cold that both of my children had. With all of the logistics completed, it was almost “go time!”
Race Day—Pre-Race Prep
Height video and weight video were completed and submitted. The pen opened over an hour before the race started, so I got in as soon as our DS let us know so that I wouldn’t start at the very back.
I got my kids ready to spend a couple of quality hours with my husband. (Please don’t use the internet! Or come crying to me!) I pulled on my shiny USA team kit, which still seemed unbelievable. It was time to race bikes.
The Race—How It Played Out
The start out of the pen wasn’t quite as fast as some Zwift races, but still quick. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the first assault up the NY KOM. We made it there as a group and started climbing.
Surprisingly, no one seemed too intent on really pushing the pace. We shed half the field that first time up, but I felt comfortable. I’d made it through one climb—just two more to go.
Nothing much happened on the second lap until we got to the climb again. This time Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio seemed more motivated to push the pace.
It was faster, but I hung near the front without being on it and crested with the group—just one more climb to go.
The Final Lap
In the last lap, my US team decided we needed to make the race harder to make Moolman-Pasio and the GB team work, hopefully. Teammates Kristin Kulchinksy, Katheryn Curi, Stef Sydlik, and Curi again all took turns attacking.
While these efforts eventually were brought back, they did a lot to animate the race and force others to put in some work. I admired their strong efforts and willingness to sacrifice an individual result for the team!
Meanwhile, I drafted as much as I could at the back of the pack and prepared for one more climb.
The Final Climb
Moolman-Pasio put in a dig on the climb before the climb and got a small gap, and I knew this was going to be tough. A couple of girls bridged up to her, but I waited patiently for the second stair step.
I knew my 5-min power wasn’t my biggest strength, and I feared going too hard too early wasn’t my best strategy. I watched the gap open slightly with now four girls ahead.
I hit the steepest section on the stair step, dropped my feather, and tried to sprint. Nothing! My legs were destroyed, and I did not have the pop I needed to put in a big effort to close the gap.
I kept pushing as hard as I could across the last flat section and up one more ramp to the finish as I tried to hold off everyone else.
I ended up in 5th, and we had 3 American women in the top-10. A solid result, to be sure, but maybe not quite what we were hoping. The team and I rode an intelligent, tactical race, and we can be proud of that.
I want to say “Huge Congrats” to Loes Adegeest for riding such a strong race. But I’m already dreaming of rainbow next year!
NY KOM #1-3:25 at 315 watts, 5.7 w/kg
NY KOM #2-3:17 at 337 watts, 6.1 w/kg
NY KOM #3-3:11 at 355 watts, 6.4 w/kg
Entire Race: NP= 237 watts, Avg Power=202 watts, 3.6 w/kg, Avg HR=156bpm
To my husband and kids for all of their love and support. To Team USA, especially Matt Gardiner and Jennifer Real, for sharing their wealth of knowledge and experience before and during the race.
To team Saris-NoPinz for the training support and many, many needed laughs. To Lee Wild for preparing me physically and mentally for a brutal race.
And to all of my friends across the WORLD who reached out to show their support. It’s truly been an incredible experience to share with you all.