Elite Eracer Mary Wilkinson Is No Longer “A Runner On A Bike”

An interview with Mary Wilkinson!

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 a small village called Long Preston, in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, North England. I work as a web content manager for an Outdoor Retailer and provide Science & Research consultation for a nutrition development company. As noted on my social media, I also have a side job as a farmer! That is more of a hobby now, but having been brought up on a farm, I really wanted to keep farming some sheep, so I do.

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 when an injury literally stopped me from running. I was representing Great Britain at the 2014 World Mountain Running Championships one day, and the next, I went out for a run and felt a strange sensation in my foot. Since then, I haven’t been able to run.

 

I searched hard for several years to find the cause and treatment for the injury, but to no avail. Throughout that time, I was riding my bike to keep some fitness in the hope of returning to running. After three years of an emotional rollercoaster as hopes of being able to run were continually raised and dashed, I eventually accepted I wasn’t going to be able to, and the relief of admitting that was huge and gave me the freedom to move on.

 

At that point, I turned my attention to cycling properly, and as a competitive person (both with myself & against others), I needed a focus, so I made a plan to target the UK National Hill Climb Season in 2017. With little expectation and still very much “a runner on a bike,” I was surprised and pleased to snatch 2nd in the National Championships that year, just behind Joss Lowden and just ahead of Hayley Simmonds. Mixing it with these two amazing riders gave me confidence that my power on a bike (at least going uphill) was pretty good.

 

The problem with Hill Climbing is that the season only runs for two months. What was I going to do for the other 10? Initially, I had no intention of road racing, the peloton looked far too scary, and I was still extremely new to bike riding; however, a friend convinced me to enter a local race and pretty much had to drag me to the start line, but I’m so glad they did. From that first event in Spring 2018, cycling has given me some of the best experiences I’ve had in sport.

 

Performance-wise, I made pretty rapid progress in 2018, gradually learning the skills of road racing and improving my power. I won the British Masters Road Race title that year and claimed 3rd place at the British Cycling Women’s Road Series Event at Ryedale GP, which was probably my best result.

 

This season I have a new team, Team Boompods, and I have refound my love for racing, and I’m excited for a successful year ahead for the team.

What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports? What is your most significant accomplishment racing virtually?

I pretty much started my cycling journey on Zwift. As soon as my running injury hit, I started riding a turbo trainer because it allowed me to push harder than I could outside (pain is good, right?!). It was the Zwift Academy that brought my attention to Zwift. I saw an advertisement for the first one in 2016 and signed for the game and the academy on the last day of registration.

 

I bought a smart trainer and completed the whole 3-month plan in the one month I had left to do it! From the first ride, I was hooked. I loved the focus Zwift gives you, the constant real-time feedback, and the immersion in-game with the terrain and other riders.

 

Zwift played a massive part throughout my cycling career. It was very much a training tool for the first few years, and I didn’t race on the platform until the end of 2017. Once again, I completed the Zwift Academy in 2017, which focused training positively impacted my result at the National Hill Climb that year.

 

Come 2018, I was racing more regularly on Zwift, and the CVR World Cup Series caught my attention. At first, I didn’t believe that they would get the top 10 male and female riders from the series together in Vancouver for the finals, but they did! The live finals were incredible and something I hope we can go back to after the COVID interruptions. Without the level of consistency you get at live events, it is challenging to ensure a level playfield regardless of the hard ZADA work to try and get it. Winning the CVR World Cup was pretty huge, not just a big payday, but from a confidence perspective. I was finally starting to feel like I belonged in the cycling world, which translated across virtual and IRL.

 

Although not directly racing related, my most significant accomplishment in eracing has to be making the finals of the Zwift Academy in 2018. The week we spent with Canyon//SRAM was one of the best weeks I’ve ever experienced. Yes, it was intense, but I learned more about myself and bike racing that week that pretty much all the proceeding years before. It was quite simply incredible. On top of that, my recent 6th at the UCI World Championships is also something I’m pretty proud of accomplishing.

You’ll find Mary’s ZwiftPower here and her Strava here!

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’m very lucky to ride for one of the top-ranked esports teams in Canyon Esports. We are one of the most competitive teams in the world, we are also a very close-knit group of riders, and I think that this helps us achieve as much as we do; we all want to perform for each other.

 

On and off the bike, we support each other, and despite never having met a lot of the team IRL, it feels like we are really good friends, and I think this contributes hugely to our success.

British pro cyclist Mary Wilkinson
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 171cm tall, generally race at a weight between 55-57kg (although I usually let that go up a bit in off-season & maybe a little lower in hill climb season). Indoor power PB’s are approx. 15s = 13w/kg; 1min = 9.5w/kg; 5mins = 6.3w/kg and 20mins = 5.1w/kg.

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

I’m pretty much an all-rounder, but my favorite terrain is courses with short, punchy climbs, preferably with one to the finish. I always surprise myself with my sprinting ability in eracing because I am by no means a sprinter IRL, but what I can do is produce power when fatigued, and I also think that on Zwift, there is a lot more importance on timing a sprint.

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?

Interestingly, my go-to workout is probably a workout designed to emphasize recovery. As any Zwifter will know, there is always a tendency to get drawn into riding too hard on easy days. So I have a workout that I do in ERG where the power is deliberately kept low. 

 

My training emphasis changes more based on the time of the year, but as I have progressed through my cycling career, I have probably increased the amount of tempo, sweet spot, and threshold intervals I have included. This change has occurred because I don’t really enjoy them, so I’d previously avoid them, but I can now really see their value.

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?

Qualifying for the World Championships was a huge goal and one that I am very happy to have achieved. I had to get myself into the best shape I could at the time, I was delighted with how the Championship race went, and 6th was a pleasing and solid result in a stacked field.

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

I don’t see myself as different from a huge number of the very strong riders currently racing on Zwift. Perhaps my strongest asset is that I never give up and will work as hard as possible to be the best that I can be. I’m also pretty stubborn so getting rid of me is tough!

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 and definitely something that you need to practice and learn. You can get so far with raw power, but to make it to the top, you need to understand how to use the draft effectively and other ways to maximize your efficiency in the game. Having the proper PowerUps at the right time is also crucial, and knowing when to deploy them for maximum benefit.

Mary Wilkinson Zwift cycling avatar
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?

We all know that cycling esports faces a lot of barriers to becoming an entirely accepted discipline in the cycling world, but in my eyes, it really shouldn’t. Yes, there is still work to ensure that the numbers seen on the screen are legitimate across all riders. As long as the hard work from the likes of ZADA to ensure the playfield at the highest level is as equal as possible continues, this will eventually happen. Until everything is standardized, all we can do as riders is keep pushing the sport’s profile in a positive light.

 

From a broader perspective, until it becomes accepted that eracing is not trying to be road racing and that it is a different discipline within the cycling domain just like BMX, Cyclocross, Downhill MTB, etc., it is not going to get the acceptance it deserves. I hope that people will gradually see that at the end of the day, eracing is different. It requires a different skillset and, in many ways, different physiology. It isn’t trying to replace another discipline, which needs to be accepted and embraced. Ultimately, I believe it will, but it’s going to take time, and it’s going to require a return to live events.

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

I have one of the least glamorous Zwift rooms ever! I’m literally in the “Utility Room,” where all the boots, coats, and bits and pieces for the farm, house & garden are stored, but that is a progression from the shed where I started turbo training pre-Zwift.

 

As a member of Canyon Esports, I’m fortunate that the best brands in the business support us. I have a beautiful Canyon Aeroad bike attached to the Wahoo Kickr, with the Climb & Headwind for added realism. In addition to that, we also have Ceramic Speed OSPW and Bottom Brackets for maximum efficiency and Infocrank Power Meters to provide the most accurate dual record data around. To have such fantastic equipment support is a huge benefit and something we, as riders, are exceptionally grateful. It really does take the stress away, knowing you can rely on your equipment 100%.

 

Accuracy and transparency are something that Canyon Esports is fully committed. Having the equipment we do ensures we can be as sure as possible that the data we record is 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?

Until recently, I was very naïve to the widespread (even at the top level) and seemingly “easy” ways to gain an advantage in eracing. To be honest, from a personal perspective, in line with my thoughts on drug-taking, I really don’t understand why anyone would cheat. At the end of the day, you are lying to yourself and falsifying what you are personally capable of, and I want to see how good I actually am, so why manipulate something to make that look better?

 

But, for sure, there is some way to go until the playing field is entirely level. There will always be people who want to try and “beat the system,” but I also know that those promoting the top level of the sport want it to be as “clean” as possible and are doing everything they can to achieve this. We as riders have to trust this process, yes, it will take time, but with patience, any methods and manipulations will eventually be identified and pushed out.

Mary Wilkinson winning a bike race

Credit to Ellen Isherwood!

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

Standardization across racers in terms of equipment etc. is only one piece of the puzzle. Yes, it would be a big way to achieve a more level playing field, but it is not the only problem to be addressed. At the moment, it is pretty much impossible to do because of the number of companies involved with the sponsorship of teams and also financial constraints for individuals and those in charge. Ultimately this is probably the way to go, but for now, I just don’t think it’s possible.

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 awareness of esports within the cycling world has increased during my time in the sport, and I feel that it is gradually becoming more accepted. It still has a long way to go, but with all the additional exposure, coverage, and continued drive to maximize the accuracy of the data and performances, I can only see the profile and support of eracing continuing to increase.

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 gAs mentioned above, I think that eracing will continue to grow. With the right support, coverage, and continued improvements in ensuring maximum accuracy of performances, the sport is set to become a fully accepted discipline in the cycling world.et it there?

As mentioned above I think that eracing will continue to grow and with the right support, coverage and continued improvements in ensuring maximum accuracy of performances the sport is set to become a fully accepted discipline in the cycling world.

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

I’m useless at these things…some people will know this but I have a Ph.D. in the Psychophysiology of Pain and as part of that research I got to electrocute people!

Thank you for sharing, Mary!

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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