Elite Eracer Illi Gardner—No Special Effects Required in Her Stunning Performance

An interview with Illi Gardner!

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 Cardiff, Wales; I finished university last year and am now working as a VFX artist (which, along with sports, was one of my main hobbies growing up!).

Click here for Illi’s ZwiftPower and here for her Strava!

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 grew up swimming competitively and ran cross country & track at school, which led to triathlon. I started entering local bike races to improve what was my weakest leg of the three and ended up enjoying it so much that I decided to focus on cycling!

 

My first proper season was 2016, and I spent the last few years racing on a UCI team. My best international result was 5th at the Tour de Feminin in 2018, and in 2021 I podiumed in a few national races.

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 Zwifting in 2017 but didn’t get into racing until a few years later. I did the odd Zwift-organised Pro-Am/Classic race and got really into eracing during the early 2020 lockdowns. My best results have probably been a few top-tens in various Premier League races.

Illi Gardner racing her bike indoors
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 been having so much fun racing with Wahoo Le Col; it’s a great balance of fun and hard work. We have a fantastic DS, Adam, who’s always coming up with new strategies to try out, and everyone’s willing to give it a go.

 

Being a part of the team has also really helped me learn how to race; while I still have a long way to go in conserving energy and racecraft, I’ve gained a much better understanding of how Zwift races can be won. I think the supportive atmosphere and eagerness to keep racing fun have contributed to our success as a whole.

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 167cm tall and about 50kg. I have no idea what my peak power is, but probably something embarrassingly low as my 15-sec is just under 600w, then roughly 280w for 20-mins, 320w for 5-mins, and 430 for 1-min.

What type of rider are you? Has your riding style evolved as you become more involved and successful in esports?

Climber! It obviously doesn’t translate directly to the eracing world as climbing on a turbo is quite different from out on the road, but it’s still my favorite. I’m certainly not ‘punchy’ but have had to get better at short bursts of power which are often necessary for Zwift races.

Illi Gardner professional cyclist racing outdoors
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?

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always loved hill repeats. Maybe it’s just because there’s nothing too complicated to think about, and it’s guaranteed to be tough! I suppose this can translate to doing something like sweet spot training on the turbo, although these days, my training pretty much just consists of doing Zwift races and riding hills when outdoors. It’s very unstructured, but I’ve found that the best way to get better at Zwift racing is to do lots of them, as it forces you to push yourself and learn things you wouldn’t otherwise.

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?

It might be a bit vague for a goal, but honestly, I’d just love to be able to race without panicking every time I start sliding backward in the pack! Not many events have been confirmed, so I don’t have many concrete goals other than UCI Esports World Championships; it’s pretty special to represent your country, so the opportunity to do that is undoubtedly incredible.

You have accomplished so much in esports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual athletes?

I prefer it when the race is hard, and I enjoy the suffering! I get really twitchy when there are ‘easy’ spots in races as you know it’s just going to get really hard again soon. I’d prefer it if it were just threshold the whole race!

Professional cyclist from Great Britain Illi Gardner
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?

I’ve never been skilled in the gamification side of things. I prefer the physical exertion aspect rather than the luck and strategy involved in PowerUps, although I realize it’s been a part of Zwift racing since the start, and it’s something that some people enjoy. Having the ‘best’ PowerUp and using it at the optimal time can certainly mean winning or losing, and it’s something I’m still yet to master!

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?

Cycling esports has certainly gained more acceptance as verification measures have improved. However, many people don’t take it seriously, and I think some will always meet it with a certain level of antipathy. It’s easy to dismiss exceptional results as unbelievable when there’s a lack of direct tangibility for the viewer.

 

We’re all racing through very composed-looking avatars, after all! But increased coverage and more transparent data have definitely helped and only continue to improve.

Tell us about your setup. Where is it located, and what do you use? What steps do you take to verify your accuracy?

My normal setup is in our shed (which gets very cold in the winter and is home to too many spiders for my liking!). I have a Wahoo Kickr v5 and have undergone all ZADA verification required for the Premier League, which involves filmed tests, dual recording, real-life data, etc.

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?

Most critics probably don’t realize how much verification and analysis goes on behind the scenes. Of course, whether intentional or not, there remain slight discrepancies between trainers, power sources, and more, and things won’t be perfect, but to a certain level, I think one has to accept that.

Many of your fellow elite eracers have been publicly critical of the lack of standardization in esports. What is your view on the topic?

Of course, we’d all be racing on exactly the same equipment in the ideal world, but I’m not sure that will feasibly happen anytime soon. Many efforts have already been made to improve standardization, such as having to race on an approved model of trainer with tight accuracy in elite races. And, once again, this is likely to keep improving.

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?

The two disciplines have become more interwoven as the esports world has grown. In 2020, we saw virtual versions of races being run, such as the Tour de France and women’s Tour of Britain, with the teams that would have been competing in the real events. It’s been good to see Zwift utilized in different ways, and it’s turned into a platform used by the vast majority of cyclists out there.

What is esports' future amidst the multiple platform landscape, and where would you like to be positioned?

Zwift is the most widely used and currently pretty dominant, but a few other platforms with unique features have been interesting to watch develop. Obviously, from a racing perspective, you want to have the ability to compete against as many people as possible, and it’s hard to see that changing anytime soon with the vast reach that Zwift has. I’ve done some great events on other platforms, and you never know what developments could arise in the future that could draw people in.

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?

Given the improvements that have been made in terms of verification within the last year or two, there will probably (hopefully!) be continued progress in terms of standardization and in-game accuracy to make it as physically similar to real-world racing as possible.

Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us something about yourself that none of your fellow racers or fans know about you? Please?!?

Can’t be giving that away! Although if my competitors knew how much I sweat and swear during races it would probably give them a lot of confidence.

Illi Gardner in post-race celebration cycling victory

Thank you for sharing Illi!

For more interesting insight into the lives and background of other eracing greats check out the Esports page of The ZOM!

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