An interview with Ben Hill!
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 grew up in a small country town, Scone but moved to the Australian capital, Canberra, for university in 2009 and loved it. I recently bought a house in Canberra with my wife and daughter. I work for Today’s Plan—an endurance sports data-analysis platform, and I also have my own coaching company—HillTraining.
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 got into cycling the same way a lot of kids do. My Dad injured his knee playing football and started cycling to help with his recovery. He joined the local cycling club, and my brother and I followed him.
I played many sports as a child, but it wasn’t until I was 17 and started racing bikes that I found something I really loved and excelled. I progressed year on year, trying to make it to the pro peloton.
The closest I got was in the 2018/2019 seasons racing for the Slovenian continental team Ljubljana Gusto Xaurum/ Ljubljana Gusto Santic. I had a few results during this time, including winning UCI races in Italy and my only pro win at the Tour of Japan. I also wore the leader’s jersey during the Tour of Slovenia.
What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports? What is your most significant accomplishment racing virtually?
I started virtual cycling around 2017. My wife Rebecca was onto it before me, and she really loved it (still does). She encouraged me to jump on, and it did not take me long to be convinced, and within a few minutes, I found myself racing to get the fastest time up a KOM.
When I was recovering from a broken collarbone in 2018, I got into the racing and was really hooked. When I recovered and I was able to get back on the road again, I would now replace outdoor training with indoor virtual racing. My best virtual racing result came from the 2020 esports world championships, where I placed 5th.
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 race for the AERO team. We are a community of riders based in Australia. However, we have added some of our mates from across the ditch to bolster the squad. The team owner Tully really has a strong passion for virtual racing and does all he can to help support us. There is a good culture within the team, and the whole community AERO has created. I truly get great enjoyment out of racing with my mates.
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 178cm, 63-64kg
What type of rider are you? Has your riding style evolved as you become more involved and successful in esports?
I’m a punchy rider that is good on the small hills or uphill sprints. I’ve always loved attacking, racing, and getting in the breaks out on the road. Virtual racing does not favor this racing style, and I’ve had to adapt to tactics to race from the bunch, focusing on saving my energy for the final moments.
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 eracer?
It depends on my phase of training. I like 20m sweat spot or 10m over-geared efforts in the base phase or for a boost before a race 20/40 (20s full, 40s rest). Although I would not say I necessarily enjoy the 20/40s, it feels good when they are over.
My training has changed a fair bit to adapt to eracing. I do a lot more high-intensity workouts and less overall volume, but this is also due to lifestyle changes. The big difference is regarding sprinting and practicing the technique adjustments involved in producing high power on a stationary bike.
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 would love to grow with the AERO team and establish ourselves in the Premier Division competition on Zwift. This fantastic competition really motivates me to get the best out of myself and the team. The pinnacle of virtual racing is the UCI Esports World Championships, and I am honored to represent my country.
You have accomplished so much in esports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual athletes?
Spending so much time racing has given me a great race feel. I have a good idea of when I need to use my energy and when I can recover. I also like to keep on top of this ever-evolving sport and try to stay up to date with the latest training philosophies and gameplay. I also prioritize virtual races, while I think many others are still using it to supplement their road racing.
How much do you factor in the gamification side of esports? Is there a learning curve that you must master? How vital are power-ups and other things unique to virtual cycling?
Gamification is a big part of esports. It is different from the other cycling disciplines, and it takes time to learn the subtleties. Zwift racing used to be simple, get the aero and save it for the final 15s, everyone did it, and it didn’t really change anything. However, I think the Premier Division is doing some good work to add gamification to the racing with PowerUps.
During the race, some real calculations need to be made with the intermediate points. I’m often working out the odds for me to get the PowerUp I want and if it is worth using the one I have or saving it. It also requires chat between teammates as sometimes the rider to go for the points might come down to who has the best 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?
Yes, I think it already has its own community, and I can only see this growing. It’s hard work as an athlete at times fulfilling all the verifications, but I believe this leads to the racing at the top level of virtual racing being on a level playing field.
The possibilities for virtual racing are endless, and I think they are doing a great job of trying to entertain the viewers. There is a balance between making it too much of a game and taking away the human element for entertainment, but I think the sport will only grow.
Tell us about your setup. Where is it located, and what do you use? What steps do you take to verify your accuracy?
I use a laptop and connect via Bluetooth to my Wahoo Kickr and Tickr. I have a Velo Mat under my trainer and a couple of bags of garden mulch on the legs of the trainer to help keep it still. I Quad-lock my phone to my head step and have the headphone in to chat on discord.
I hate having wet hands when sprinting, so I use a couple of hand towels over my bars to keep everything dry. I use four fans around me to keep the sweating to a minimum, but even four sometimes seems like not enough. I ride in my garage, so in the winter, it’s great, but it gets pretty hot in the summer.
For verification, I go through the same process as all top races. You do your testing on your trainer, send you numbers from your outdoor files, record two power sources during the races, and record weigh-in videos. You send all the information away to the right people, and they review it. Sometimes it seems a bit much, but it’s what they need to help keep the sport clean.
I’m not sure how they look through all this stuff sometimes, but if they are happy, I’m happy. I don’t believe I am the world’s most talented athlete and if I can be competitive at the highest level, then I don’t think what my competitors are doing is unbelievable.
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?
As I said before, I think we go through the right verification processes to trust the performances at the top level. However, it is impossible to do this for all virtual athletes, and in the lower divisions, it can be a bit of a wild west.
Many of your fellow elite eracers have been publicly critical of the lack of standardization in esports. What is your view on the topic?
It would be ideal to have everyone on the same equipment, but it’s complicated. I don’t have a solution, and I think they are doing the best job they can now.
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?
I have been involved in racing esports since 2018, and it has really grown fast. I loved racing whatever race was on against whoever saw on. Now I really only get excited about the big races. I hope the racing can become a better spectacle for the viewers, and the sport can grow with more coverage, prize money, competition, and different styles of events.
What is esports' future amidst the multiple platform landscape, and where would you like to be positioned?
I have played esports on a few different platforms, and I don’t mind trying new experiences. I think Zwift is a long way ahead of the others at this stage, and I spend most of my time there. However, I’d be happy to join other racing leagues on different platforms.
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?
I envision jumping in my VR room, getting on the smart bike, and riding in a bunch that looks and feels like you’re riding outside. You have this outdoor view, and your bike moves as it would outdoors. Except you have the full game experience where you can view all the data and play the game against an entire peloton of other players.
Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us something about yourself that none of your fellow racers or fans know about you? Please?!?
I have on more than one occasion been known to yell out to my wife to get me a disposable cup so I can take a nature break during some of the longer Zwift races/events.
The floor is yours! Is there anything you would like to say?
I’m glad to see the new branch of cycling growing in popularity. I really enjoy it and I think it’s great that so many others are as well.
Thank you for sharing, Ben!
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.