by Brian Duffy, Jr.
The 2023 Cycling Esports World Championship Qualifiers through the eyes of Team USA and NeXT Esports pb Enshored elite eracer Brian Duffy, Jr.
On November 13, 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.
Being a part of Team USA last year was an incredible experience—one of the most memorable that I’ve had as an athlete. I had an opportunity to represent my country in a niche, but a growing sport that seemed as though it was on the verge of a rapid ascension of popularity around the world.
And so as the Qualifiers approached to again be a part of the team, the athlete in me was excited to test my limits against the continent’s best talent, and the ESports cycling fan in me was equally excited to be a part of the sport’s rise to credibility.
As most viewers of this forum probably know, the format for qualification looked significantly different than last year. While last year was a single scratch-race that had the makings of a sprint finish, this year’s format consisted of three stages that had varying parcours and strategies.
Fortunately, as a member of a team in the Zwift Grand Prix series, I have some experience in these new formats and the type of racing that they yield. But I also knew that while my chances for qualification weren’t bad, they were still unlikely—the field was talented, and the type of racing in these formats favored a bit of luck and a bit of savviness, to which all could be beneficiaries on the right day.
Pre-Race—Strategy, Tactics, and Thoughts
In the two weeks before the race, I felt I hit an inflection point in my fitness and thus gained increasing confidence as the race date approached. In studying the race options, the first race, which finished on a moderately steep 5-minute climb, favored me well, the second race, which was conducted on a very steep ~14-minute climb, favored me less well, and the final elimination race could go to anyone who had a bit of luck, a bit of strength, and a bit of aggressiveness.
Thus, I decided ahead of time to place my chips on race 1, which awarded an automatic qualification spot for the first finisher, should the moment be there.
As I watched the races from the other Continents unfold prior to mine, I noticed that this race wouldn’t simply be a sit & kick type of race, which is common among community Zwift races. Largely due to the incentive structure, aggressive racing was paying off.
For example, in race 1, if a breakaway of a couple of athletes generated a meaningful gap, the peloton had little incentive at that point to chase them down. They were content to relinquish the automatic qualification spot to the break and instead conserve their energy to place high enough to advance to the next round, where another qualification opportunity awaited them.
No one athlete wanted to be the one to chase down the break as it would create such fatigue that it could then crush their own ability to advance to the next race. And given that most people were racing for themselves as opposed to their trade teams, there weren’t many team dynamics.
Going into race 1, I wanted to go for the win, but didn’t want to do so in a way that required burning too many matches that, if it didn’t work, I’d be unable to ride the climb in race two effectively. But at the same time, I didn’t want to let a non-teammate freely escape up the road. The primary goal was to earn somebody from NeXT an automatic qualification spot.
And if the race was together going into the final kilometer—I felt good about the chances that either myself or somebody from my team would win. It was a fine balance to make that a reality.
As the race set off, I knew there were a few riders who would be aggressive, and my plan was to shut down their breakaway attempts immediately. I figured that this might require a little extra effort on my part, but if I didn’t do it and nobody else ended up doing it, those athletes would quickly be 30 seconds up the road. And if I reacted quickly, the acceleration would be short enough that it wouldn’t create fatigue that I couldn’t handle.
During the flat sections of the course where breakaway attempts were common, the usual suspects—Tim Rugg, Danial Jamrozik, and others—attempted various get aways. My eyes were locked in on looking for avatars that were moving quickly through the peloton, and when I spotted one, I immediately increased my power a couple of hundred watts in order to position myself onto their wheel and ride the draft. I did this about three or four times, and fortunately, no breaks were sticking.
The Pivotal Coounterattack
As a team, we then decided to take the initiative and place the pressure on others. After one of the breakaway attempts was covered, our own Scott Catanzaro attempted a counterattack. We calculated that Scott, who owns one of the biggest diesel engines in the sport, had the talent to stay away if the peloton didn’t cooperate (especially since the NeXT team wouldn’t be chasing).
From our point of view, this would either guarantee our team an athlete qualifying for the World Championships, or would force other riders to chase him, which we could take advantage of.
As we approached the final KOM, Scott’s lead had grown to roughly 25 seconds. But as the slopes rose, Tim Rugg and Danial Jamrozik resumed their attacking behaviors, pushing 7-8wkg at times to try to close down Scott and to shed the peloton. Anticipating they would do this, I continued to jump on their wheels as soon as they increased the pace.
As we approached the flamme rouge, it became clear that Scott would be caught and that the race would culminate in a hard bunch sprint. I was gutted for Scott, but his aggressive and selfless move did exactly what it was supposed to do—it fatigued the other riders more than the NeXT riders. Scott, as you might recall, is the reason that I qualified last year—he nearly single-handedly bridged the peloton to last year’s breakaway in a sacrificial move. He’s the consummate teammate that anyone would love to have at their side.
Now, in the final kilometer, I switched to thinking about how I would try to finish this race. I knew it was setting up in my favor—punchy finishes on tired legs are my strength—but timing, momentum, and alertness were key. Given the final km ranged from 4-7% gradient, I expected there would be a long-range attack before the all-out sprint which would occur at the end. And sure enough, with about 0.5 miles to go, Rugg and Bouchard-Hall gave it another go. I quickly moved into third wheel to cover the attack, and other riders followed.
The Winning Move
Because of the acceleration of the pace and the nerves of everyone involved, a few athletes behind me slingshotted past, dropping me to about 8th wheel with 0.3 miles remaining. From my standpoint, this was ideal, because if I could regain momentum by getting into their slipstream, I’d be able to generate a lot of exit velocity at the finish.
But given the pace everyone was riding (~9-10wkg) at the tail end of a 5-minute climb, this wouldn’t necessarily be easy to do. I rode steady around 500-550w, and then when I saw that my avatar was starting to catch the draft of those in front of me, I decided to fully commit.
I first increased my power to about 700-800w, which started moving me up through the line of riders ahead. Based on the perceived relative velocity of my avatar, I anticipated that I would take over the lead just as the gradient hit its steepest—an ideal situation.
Once my rider broke the plane of the lead rider with 800 feet remaining, I activated my power up, put my head down, and gave it everything that I had. The timing worked in my favor, as I took over the lead with maximum velocity, with peak power (14wkg), at the maximum gradient (7%), and with an aero power up. This allowed me to open up a gap that couldn’t be closed and avoid having to suffer through rounds 2 and 3!
Post-Race—Takeaways and Impressions
I can’t wait to be a part of Team USA once more and to continue along this journey in the growth of ECycling. I’ve been encouraged by the testing of new formats, the heightening of data & equipment standards, and by the quality of athletes emerging. I’ll be sure to do everything that I can to represent my country well on February 18. But before then, you’ll find me helping the NeXT eSport pb Enshored team attempt to win their third consecutive Zwift Premier / Grand Prix season championship.
Congratulations to Brian Duffy Jr. and all of the qualifiers?
Comment below. I’m sure they’d like to hear from you.
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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, TheDIRTDadFund. 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.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!