An interview with Zach Nehr.
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 Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where it is cold and snowy. I work as a freelance writer and cycling coach at my own company, ZNehr Coaching (@znehrcoaching on Instagram). You may have seen my articles in Cyclingnews, Velonews, and TrainingPeaks, where I write about everything from power analysis, to tech and indoor training tips.
Outside of cycling, I love to run and even lift weights from time to time. I like to live an active lifestyle, cook delicious food, and read good books. My parents live close by and I enjoy visiting them almost every week, occasionally watching the fire crackle with my dad, or catching up on the latest celebrity news with my mom.
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 after taking a family trip to Europe. We saw the first two stages of the Tour de France in Liege, Belgium, and I was hooked. My dad raced for many years and had all the gear and know-how to get me started. I rode an indoor trainer (my dad’s old CompuTrainer) that entire winter and started racing the next spring.
In 2014, I started attending Marian University where I would compete in the collegiate scene for the next few years. My biggest accomplishment there was winning the Collegiate Varsity National Time Trial in 2017, just a few months after having reconstructive knee surgery.
For the next few years, I traveled the country racing for Team California and Project Echelon, competing in the biggest amateur races in the US including Redlands, Gila, Joe Martin, and Cascade. The height of my career was 2019 when I finished 2nd Overall at Cascade, and earned 9th place at the US Pro National Championships, where the amateurs were allowed to compete with the pros.
What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports? What is your most significant accomplishment racing virtually?
I crashed out of the IRL road racing scene at the end of 2019, literally and figuratively. I had a few bad injuries and was struggling with the lifestyle, so I decided to take a break from IRL road racing in 2020 and was about to focus on gravel racing. I wavered in that, and it was fortunate timing for me, as the whole season was about to be canceled anyway.
My first ride on Zwift was in March 2020, and I was clueless. It’s funny looking back, how little I knew about the platform. I jumped into races probably five days a week and eventually got some results in more competitive Zwift races like the KISS Series or OH MY CRIT.
I first heard of NeXT (back then, it was called Rule5) when I received a message from Brian Duffy, Jr. I had no idea who this was, or who anyone was in Zwift racing, really. I had a good feeling about Brian and the small group of guys they had assembled, so I took a chance. And wow, look at how that turned out.
Winning two Zwift Premier Division titles with NeXT eSport pb Enshored is definitely my top accomplishment, especially the race-winning TTT that I was a part of in Season 1 of 2021/2022. Personally, winning the Pan-American Continental Qualifiers is certainly my biggest individual win on Zwift.
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 ride for NeXT eSport pb Enshored, which is a team formed from two near the end of 2021. We already had a great group of guys at NeXT in the Zwift Premier League, and we joined forces with Enshored with the goal of winning the League. Needless to say, the merger has been a great success.
Our team is very meticulous, both in preparation and execution. We recon the courses and study the race bibles, knowing all of our riders and our opportunities to attack and win. We race together on a weekly basis, and always communicate over Discord. From what I experienced at the highest level of amateur road racing, NeXT is on-par with the best.
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 am 5’11” (or 179cm) tall, and about 155 lbs (70.3kg). I’ve hit 1200w maybe 2-3 times on the indoor trainer, with a max 15-second sprint power of around 1120w.
My other PRs:
1min: 766w (10.7w/kg)
5min: 483w (6.8w/kg)
20min: 400w (5.5w/kg)
What type of rider are you? Has your riding style evolved as you become more involved and successful in esports?
I’m an all-rounder with the only weakness being my sprint. I prefer longer and harder races, such as the KISS 100 Series which last almost 2.5 hours. I’m not a pure puncheur, but I have a strong finish after a hard race, and I prefer steady 10-20min efforts. That means that TTTs are at the top of my list. I love that Over/Under style of effort, pulling at 470w and sitting in at close to 340w.
What is your go-to training workout, and why do you enjoy it so much? Has your training emphasis and philosophy changed to make you a more successful e-racer?
I love a long set of Sweet Spot Over/Unders. So for me, something like 8 minutes at 330w followed by 8 minutes at 370w. It’s a huge workload that you can settle into, and it’s as tough mentally as it is physically.
With full disclosure, I don’t do structured intervals very often, and I much prefer racing into fitness. If you structure your training correctly and choose the right races, I think you can achieve close to peak fitness on a combination of racing and resting. The structured intervals are most helpful for building fitness and working on weaknesses, in my opinion.
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?
Short-term, I would love to put in a good performance at the UCI Cycling Esport Worlds. That could mean getting a Top 10 myself or helping a teammate win. Either would make me very happy. Long-term, I want to win the World Championship. I think that’s every rider’s dream, but even in the virtual world, wearing the rainbow stripes would be surreal.
You have accomplished so much in esports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual athletes?
My background in (semi-)professional IRL road racing gave me a huge base of fitness to build off of. I also had years of experience with racing tactics and interval training, so I already knew how to suffer. I also played a lot of video games growing up, and always had an apt for racing games.
I love to recon courses, learn timing and positioning, and play the game as much as I focus on winning the race. It’s still an endurance sport, but you can see a lot of Zwift race results beforehand by doing the calculations.
How much do you factor in the gamification side of esports? Is there a learning curve that you must master? How vital are PowerUps and other things unique to virtual cycling?
There is a pretty big learning curve to Zwift racing, especially at the elite level. It took me a long time to learn how to draft, and now I think that’s one of my biggest strengths. Saving energy is crucial, and utilizing your PowerUps is a huge part of that. When going for primes in the Premier League, it’s almost impossible to win one without a PowerUp.
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?
I do think esports has its place in the cycling world, and the sporting world at large. It will always be its own unique discipline, as I think it should be. No one says that mountain biking is the same as road racing—even though they’re both cycling, they are two completely different sports. I think eracing should be viewed the same way, with equal respect and admiration, but with the full recognition that it is its own unique sport.
Tell us about your setup. Where is it located, and what do you use? What steps do you take to verify your accuracy?
Right now my setup is tucked into the corner of the dining room in my apartment. I have a nice view out the window, since I live on the 7th floor of my building, and I can even crack open the window to let the cold Wisconsin air cool me off.
Currently, I ride a Wahoo KICKR on top of a Saris MP1 Nfinity Platform, with an HP Laptop running Zwift. I would love to get more high-tech one day, but this setup fits well in my apartment and my budget.
I dual-record every race and ride with a Quarq power meter, and I am super diligent about tech stuff and my trainer accuracy. I update my in-game weight at least once a week, as I really value that transparency as well.
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 would say that, just like any sport, there will be people who try to cheat the system. What we can do—and what Zwift and ZADA have been doing—is to be as honest, transparent, and as proactive as possible. We test like crazy, and you’d have to be a technological genius to beat the systems we currently have in place.
I trust the competition for my own mental health as much as anything because being an optimist is more enjoyable than being a cynic. In-person venues can be even better because you have all the competitors in the same place at the same time, on equal and verified equipment. Of course, esports in cycling is still in its infancy, but I see so much potential for good.
Many of your fellow elite eracers have been publicly critical of the lack of standardization in esports. What is your view on the topic?
They have a legitimate argument, but esports is also a unique and growing discipline. Most riders buy their own trainers and calibrate and test their own equipment. No one is making millions of dollars from eracing, so there isn’t a big rush to standardize the competition in the strictest capacity.
Zwift and ZADA have done an incredible job in what they do, and we’re already leaps and bounds ahead of standardization practices from a few years ago. Changes take time, but everyone is listening and good things are being done.
You are 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?
Esports is more legitimate than it has ever been in the eyes of IRL cycling. Zwift Academy, in my opinion, has been the biggest event/program that put eracing on the map. People see eracing as more than just a weird hobby—it is an extremely hard sport with very fit and talented athletes.
Sometimes these athletes go on to be some of the best professional bike riders in the world, and I think more and more people are starting to see that. I hope that people continue to see eracing as its own unique discipline, but one that has the potential to ID talented athletes. The Zwift Academy will only continue to grow, and it’s great to see both elite-level riders and beginners taking on these tough workouts and challenges.
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?
Esports will continue to grow, despite the groans of some. I hope that people continue to see it as its own sport, not a competitor to IRL sports. It would be amazing to have a professional eracing league with full-time professionals. That means big-name sponsors, revenue sharing, and sponsored teams and athletes.
The competition would be better than ever, you could organize international competitions from riders’ homes, and you could have big buckets of prize money that make the competition so much more interesting. Of course, I’d love to be a part of that one day.
Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us something about yourself that none of your fellow racers or fans know about you? Please?!?
I love to put BBQ sauce on my eggs in the morning. Please don’t hate me, it’s actually quite tasty.
Thank you for sharing, Zach!
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, http://www.TheDIRTDadFund.com. 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.