An interview with Team SZ and Movistar Eteam's Elite Cyclist Marlene Bjarehed of Sweden.
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 the southern parts of Sweden with my husband and our two kids (12 y and 9 y). I work at Kristianstad University as a teacher, educator, and researcher, mainly focusing on school bullying.
I usually mention virtual cycling when people ask what I do for fun. My heart also beats for orienteering and other outdoor adventures.
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?
My cycling story is more or less the same as my virtual cycling story. I first got in contact with Zwift and Zwift racing in 2017 when I was training for my first ever Triathlon race. However, my triathlon career ended after that race, but my love for Zwift racing grew. Now I have plenty of more km indoors than I have done outdoors. Nowadays, I ride outdoors, trying to snatch some local Strava QOMs on the few hills in the area.
What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports? What is your most significant accomplishment racing virtually?
As mentioned above, I got caught in the eracing scene soon after trying out Zwift. In 2018 and 2019, I raced for Velocity Vixen (now Velocity Vixen/Fox) and was then recruited to “Team Swedish Zwifters [Team SZ].”
Karl Tiselius was DS back then and had set out to build a larger women’s squad. We were only a few women when I started racing for Team SZ—now we are more than 100—so I must say that the goal of a strong women’s squad has indeed been reached. Team SZ has women competing in all categories on Zwift [A-D], and we also compete in the top echelon of races on Zwift (i.e., Premier Division, Zwift Grand Prix, Zwift Knock-outs) and on other virtual cycling platforms.
Individual accomplishments include winning the Swedish National Cup (Swe-Cup) in 20/21 and Scandinavian Cup in 2022. I have represented Sweden in the UCI Esports World Championships twice (with modest results both times).
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?
Sweden is a small country, but our team is a force to reckon with in virtual cycling. The members of Team SZ are dedicated and coordinated—all with love for racing bikes indoors. For example, this season, we have eight women’s teams in ZRL from A to D (and 14 men’s/mixed teams).
During the 2022/23 season, I got the opportunity to race for Movistar e-team in the Zwift Grand Prix races. It was not an easy decision, as it also meant that I could not race with Team SZ in this series. However, this also allowed new riders to ride and develop—both in Team SZ and Movistar.
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 am 170 cm and usually weigh between 50 and 53 kg. I am most proud of my 1-minute PB set this autumn (513w; 10w/kg), while my sustained power over longer durations needs some improvement.
My PB for 5 min is around 295w (5.8w/kg), and 20 min PB is around 255w (4.9w/kg). I still haven’t reached 800 watts in my sprint, so let’s say that is a goal I hope to achieve in the near future.
What type of rider are you? Has your riding style evolved as you become more involved and successful in esports?
I think I am an all-rounder, and my best results come from rolling courses with shorter climbs like the Watopia QOM. Points races with sprints and shorter QOMs suit me, like in the ZRL. I still have more work to get my absolute power numbers up and improve my sprinting technique.
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 like red and blue but struggle with yellow threshold workouts. One of my favorite WOs currently is shorter 30s intervals in Zone 6 or above and plenty of rest in between. Time is limited, so most workouts are around one h for me.
What are your short and long-term esport goals? Do they involve becoming the UCI Cycling Esports World Champion? What does that mean to you?
My goal is to have fun and continue to grow as an eracer. I am not getting younger, but I still feel that there are gains to be made. This will be my third UCI Cycling Esports World Championships.
The format is all new this year, and I hope that it is a good thing to be an “all-rounder.” It is exciting to represent Sweden once again, and I am thrilled that this year we will have a squad of eight women lining up for the Swedish national team. I think that on a good day, I can proceed to the final race.
How much do you factor in the gamification side of esports? Is there a learning curve that you must master? How vital are PowerUps and other things unique to virtual cycling?
Well, I do love the gamification when I get the aero powerup before the sprint, but I curse it when I end up with a ghost.
There are indeed things to master in virtual cycling. Lately, I have tried out a few (for me) new platforms. This weekend we (Team SZ) will participate in The Echelon Racing League, the first team-based racing I have done on RGT.
We are now all discussing the best way to approach corners—something you do not have to master in Zwift. Although there is a learning curve, I also think that different platforms might suit different kinds of riders when it comes to racing.
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?
I think cycling esports will continue to grow. In Sweden, virtual cycling has been placed under the national cycling federation (SCF). For this season’s National Cup on Zwift, you will need a cycling license to compete (though it can be an esports license or a regular cycling license).
As a result, fewer people will participate in the national cup. The same goes for verification and standards for equipment to use in races. When the requirements get higher (i.e., verification, equipment), fewer people may be able to participate. It is a fine line.
Tell us about your setup. Where is it located, and what do you use? What steps do you take to verify your accuracy?
My husband and I share the equipment. Since February, I have been racing primarily on our Tacx NeoBike, but we also have a Tacx Neo 2T that we can use when we train and race simultaneously. We use Favero Assioma Duo for dual recording, and I connect them to my Garmin Fenix S.
Many of your fellow elite eracers have been publicly critical of the lack of standardization in esports. What is your view on the topic?
I think Standardization is a good thing, but it is unrealistic to do all races on the same equipment, as we do during the World Championships. Even trainers or smart bikes from the same manufacturer may differ.
What is your opinion of the new race formats being used during the Zwift Grand Prix and the World Championships?
I think some work needs to be done with scoring different races, but overall I enjoy the new formats.
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?
Maybe more IRL events where racers compete on the same equipment (i.e., in Sweden, the National Championship will take place IRL in Jan 2023). I also think there will be more “invitational” races and leagues with verification processes.
Thank you, Marlene!
Anything you’d like to ask Marlene?
Ask away. Comment below! I’ll see what I can do.
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, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!