The Story of Anna Russell’s Conty Quals

by Anna Russell

The 2023 Cycling Esports World Championship Qualifiers through the eyes of Team New Zealand and Saris No Pinz elite eracer Anna Russell.

Spoiler Alert

I didn’t make the New Zealand team for Esport World Champs, but I did learn a lot along the way.

Editor’s Note: On November 12, 2022, elite cyclists from across the globe competed for the honor of representing their country in the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships on February 18, 2023.

2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship qualifiers
Photo: UCI and Zwift

Over the last couple of years, while pregnant and with a newborn, I have been watching the UCI Continental Qualifiers and the UCI Esport World Champs. I was DS for the New Zealand Women’s team last year, which was a lot of fun. I loved that there was a community pathway to make it into your country team this year.

I firmly believe that esport cycling is very different from road cycling; thus, the riders should be our superstars of the Esports World. This year’s qualifiers reflect that esport nature, and instead of a long scratch race, it was a 3-race format, truly finding the best rider across varying terrain and power profiles.

Anna Russell's Twitch livestream during 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship

Below is my very honest recap of the racing from my perspective as a racer trying to qualify.

Pre-Race the Butterflies Weren’t Flying in Formation

I had felt nervous during the week for the race, and deep down, I think I knew that it wasn’t the right kind of nerves. I always tell my athletes that it’s alright to have butterflies but make sure that those butterflies fly in formation. I felt like mine were weighed down and banging around haphazardly.

piece of paper with notes hanging from a clip

I figured the nerves would turn to excitement the closer I got to the race. For me, the qualifiers started at 9 pm Saturday night, and I remember calling my mum at about 8 pm and saying that I had a dread about the whole thing.

I flicked on YouTube and watched my favorite motivational clip, the one with Al Pacino talking to a football team about the “6 inches in front of your face.” I wrote the quote on my race sheet and stuck it in front of me. I pushed aside the dread and got on my bike.

2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship race 1
Photo: UCI and Zwift

2023 Cycling Esports World Championship Qualifiers—Race One

The field size was very small in the Oceania/Rest of World race as it is Summer here now, and esport is placed a bit on the backburner in favor of sunny rides and ocean swimming. I knew all the women I was racing with and really respected them as riders.

Anna Russell on video livestream
Photo: UCI and Zwift

Although small, it wasn’t going to be easy. Race One was on Roule ma Poule and started straight up the reverse Petit KQOM. From the gun, I knew this would be an interesting race. I put in a few digs throughout, but the other ladies marked me. The rest of the race was at a very leisurely 1.8-2w/kg!

 

I talked a lot with those who had tuned into my twitch and I think they could feel my frustration that the race was so slow. It was going to be a 5-min power test at the end.

2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship race one results
Photo: UCI and Zwift
Race 1 = 4th, off to Race 2, Innsbruck climb.
2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship race 2
Photo: UCI and Zwift

2023 Cycling Esports World Championship Qualifiers—Race Two

Now the qualifiers have become a very strange way to race. We had Justine Barrow in Race 2, and she is one of the best IRL climbers in the Southern Hemisphere. Suffice it to say she crushed us all on the climb.

2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship race 2 results
Photo: UCI and Zwift

We all realized this within the first couple of minutes, so it became a solo training ride up the climb, trying to expend as little energy as possible while still making it up within the time cut to race 3.

Race 2 = 3rd, off to Race 3, Crit City.
2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship race 3
Photo: UCI and Zwift

2023 Cycling Esports World Championship Qualifiers—Race Three

By now, it was almost 11 pm, and I was ready to sprint it off against the two other girls I was racing. We all stuck together, and I picked my point of attack. Vicki Whitelaw dropped the perfectly timed burrito and outsprinted me to take the 3rd spot for our qualifiers.

2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship race 3 results
Photo: UCI and Zwift
That's where things got most revealing for me. I wasn’t disappointed. I was relieved.

Post-Race Reflection

On reflection, I think I had become caught up in the “the opportunity is there, so why not do it” mentality. Like most Zwifters, I am a very goal-oriented person, and Zwift has been amazing for keeping me fit and healthy through my pregnancies and supporting my mental health with two bouts of Postnatal Depression. 

 

Jersey unlocks for a new tour – count me in, tick off all the Zwift Academy workouts – hell yeah, complete an 8-day stage race – why not, and qualify for the eSport World Champs – add it to the list! 

I think all those goals are great, and I can healthily achieve them, but the dread I was feeling leading up to the Qualifiers, in retrospect, shows me that I was driving for a goal that, in reality, I didn’t want to achieve.
Anna Russell racing bike indoors with son riding a bike in the foreground

I have a young family, and it is summer here. Time at the beach with the kids and meeting up with friends IRL for rides and runs in the sunshine are all things I want to prioritize. If I had qualified, I would’ve given everything for that virtual New Zealand jersey, but in reality, I would have sacrificed too many things that are currently more important in my life.

Credit Where Credit is Due—What’s Next?

Congratulations to Lam Kong, Justine Barrow, and Vicki Whitelaw for qualifying for the 2023 UCI Cycling Esports World Championship. The racing was hard. I was beaten fair and square by better riders, and they will do their country’s jersey proud. 

 

I will tune into the racing with interest, but it will probably be the delayed coverage. I will be building sandcastles and eating ice cream with my family.

Your Thoughts?

Life is a tricky balancing act. What do you think? Comment below! Your fellow cyclists want to know.

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