The Zommunique logo June '23

Elite Cyclist Aaron Borrill is Captain South Africa

Award-winning cycling journalist and elite cyclist Aaron Borrill is leading Team South Africa and esports into the future.

Aaron Borrill discovered Zwift in 2017 after a high-speed accident at a race in South Africa landed him in the hospital with a broken arm and a severely dislocated elbow. While he used the platform to stay fit and keep his legs turning, it wasn’t until he relocated to the UK from South Africa in 2019 that he started to race.

In 2020 things really kicked off for him. The COVID-19 pandemic brought many riders indoors, and during the burgeoning WTRL TTT series, he found his groove—and his niche. 

When lockdowns eased, he started competing in time trials in 2021, and the rest, as they say, is history. With two years under his belt, he’s already achieved incredible success, including a 19:44 10-mile time and a raft of regional championships covering the 10- and 25-mile distances. 

His 2022 race results—spanning open and club events—speak for themselves: 22 time trials, 18 wins.

Having already competed for South Africa at the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, his peers dubbed him Captain South Africa for 2023. He hopes for a better showing at this year’s event (his preparations last year didn’t go as planned).

It’s shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested Cycling Esports World Championships yet.

An interview with Captain South Africa Aaron Borrill.

Elite cyclist Aaron Borrill's trophy

When we last spoke in February 2022, you were the tech editor at, living with your family in the UK and preparing to represent your native South Africa in the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. How has your life changed since then?

Quite a bit has changed on the work front. I’ve got a new position at another cycling publication— and, I’m the editor of the latter. Regarding IRl racing, I had a really good outdoor season following the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, which gave me the assurance to change my outlook on esports and what I want from it, but we’ll touch on all of that a little later.

elite cyclist aaron Borrill on time trial bike

How has media coverage of cycling esports evolved over the years, how has the growing popularity of Zwift racing changed the opinion of traditionalists in cycling media, and what's your vision of the future of esports in the cycling press?

We spoke about this a year ago, and it’s good to see how things have progressed in such a small space of time. While the mainstream cycling media are quick to report on the scandals, it’s been great to see some really good coverage on established publications when it comes to the esports community news and what various esports industry players are doing, new esports platforms, and then also how opportunities such as Zwift Academy is adding credibility to our discipline. 

I’m hoping the media coverage grows, and we finally get to see a dedicated esports website that covers everything from race news and reviews to rider profiles and inter-platform results.

Let’s just say there might be something like that on the horizon soon—let’s just hope the world economy picks up first, as that’s going to be the driver behind advertising opportunities and getting companies involved to make it profitable and beneficial to all.

cyclist aaron borrill riding indoors

What impact have you had on esports in South Africa from where you presently live in the UK and your position in the sport and the press? Is lending your experience and authoritative voice in commentating on the Zwift Masters South Africa series a way to achieve that goal and raise awareness of esports in your native country?

100%. I’m one of the commentators for Masters SA on Zwift—specifically the Toyota Tour de Virtuale incorporating Masters SA – where aspiring South Africans (and riders from other countries) fight it out for massive prizes, including a spot at the final hosted in an arena with live weigh-ins and standardized equipment. Not only does it allow SA riders to race for good prize money it also acts as a way to uncover talent.

In 2021, 18-year-old Jason Miller won who actually earned a spot on Toyota CRYO RDT following his performance. Last year, it was won by Jacques Janse Van Rensburg, which gave the competition massive credibility owing to his palmares and the fact that he has raced all three Grand Tours and is a former South African road champion.

But it’s hard in South Africa. There is an energy crisis, so rolling blackouts happen 4-6 times a day, and unless you’ve got solar power, a generator, or an inverter, it makes things tough for the average citizen. The climate in SA is also such that riders prefer riding outdoors – the weather is warm all year round, so it’s challenging to get the talent riding indoors. It naturally doesn’t interest a lot of the riders. That said, there is some amazing talent, and we’ve got five of the best South African eSports racers currently competing in the Zwift Grand Prix.

For me, I want to elevate esports in South Africa by imparting my knowledge where I can. To help those looking at making it at the highest level and doing everything in my power to assist and grow the sport both in SA and on a global scale. Our team, Toyota CRYO RDT, has the backing of Toyota—that’s huge and something I personally worked on for months to secure. Toyota South Africa sponsored the inaugural 2020 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, and the company is all about developing the sport from a grass-roots level.

Toyota SA also sponsors a professional mountain bike team—Toyota-Specialized—and is also the official vehicle partner of the Cape Epic. To have Toyota’s financial backing and support is massive and pretty big for the sport as a whole. Hopefully, we will see more automotive companies get involved at the Zwift Grand Prix level to grow the professionalism of the sport.

elite cycists aaron borrill and james barnes
Aaron and James Joseph "Barney" Barnes climb the real Box Hill!

2020 and 2021 were breakthrough seasons for you on the road and in esports. Tell us about your success and what's made the difference.

Ya, for sure, 2021 and 2022 were big years for me. 2021 was the first year I dabbled in real-life time trials following some successful WTRL TTT with the boys. While I’ve done reasonably well in most cycling disciplines over the years—mountain bike (XCO, XCM), gravel, and road racing—I’ve never really clicked with any of them. And then, time trials came along, and I found my niche. I found my thing. And I wish I had started much earlier as I can see I’ve got a natural talent for it. 

The UK is a global leader when it comes to time trials and the culture surrounding it, and I just love it. My race team GS Mossa has also been very supportive and shared some incredible knowledge with me when it comes to time trials, equipment, and the courses.

I won several low-key regional time trial championships in 2021 and went on to defend them all in 2022. I also finished 5th in my age group at the time trial National Championships, which was big for me—I want to win it in the coming year(s). I managed a 10-mile PB of 19:44 (I want to break 19 minutes next) and secured 18 wins for the season. A big goal is heading back to South Africa and winning the national time trial title in my category—it’s a realistic goal and something I’m going to win. I’m a bit past my sell-by date to compete in the SA time trial elite category against WorldTour and Pro Conti riders. I just need the dates to not conflict with events such as the Esports World Champs.

But while my focus has also been time trial and 20-minute power – even on Zwift – I’ve only recently looked at being more competitive at Zwift points races, something which didn’t interest me and something that probably backfired come the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. While I’ve always had really good sustainable 20-60 minute power (20 min of 5.5 and 60 min of 5.2), the last six months have seen me improve my all-round game and work on my sprint, 1- and 5-minute power, which were my weaknesses and probably still are to a certain extent. Still, I’m definitely able to compete and mix things up this season. My power profile is looking so much better.

The results have been great, and I’m now more competitive. I’ve still got a lot more to learn but the progression has been confidence inspiring, and I feel like I’m headed in the right direction for the 2023 UCI Cycling Eports World Championships. I’m far better prepared and in good shape.

cyclist aaron borrill riding indoors out of the saddle

Where do Zwift and esports fall on that list? What about esports racing appeals to you, fits your cycling skillset, and makes you stand out on the road and at Zwift's highest level?

Zwift has become part of my daily routine. I enjoy it and can spend hours on the platform. I also enjoy collecting in-game caps (don’t ask!) Jan Steinmann from WLC and I have a cap collection competition going. I think he has 17 caps, and I’ve got 14 or so – I try to keep my avatar stylish. Haha

In terms of racing? Well, esports is now more about energy conservation than the all-out watt bomb fest it was two years ago. Nobody cares about the w/kg average – it’s about who wins and how little effort it costs. While it’s harder for me to conserve as much as some of the heavier guys (I’m 61 kg), I’m working on it and getting my gamification skillset in a good place.

I’m still better at TTT than points races, but I think it’s time to roll the dice, get into some breakaways, and use my power profile more effectively. The days of sitting in the pack and hoping for a good finish are over—it’s time to risk it and reap the rewards that come with it. You need to back yourself up and go all in. 

Everybody suffers equally – it’s about managing the pain and showing the others you have more left in the tank. Eventually, the elastic band will snap. It’s about that poker face. It’s the same IRL. You need to visualize the win and go for it. Half the race is won in the preparation; the other half is execution and belief.

cyclist aaron Borrill on bike taken from behind

Your rise through the esports ranks is impressive, yet you'd agree that there is much more for you to achieve. Tell us about where your esports journey began, your goals and idea of virtual cycling at the time, and how your long-term perspective has grown with consistent success. Where do you want esports to take you, and where do you want to take esports?

As I mentioned, I’m only taking the points race side of things seriously now, and my team sees it, too. Before, I’d be lucky to get one Premier Division ride a season, but now I’m a serious consideration and have had some great opportunities at ZGP level this season, which comes from putting in the work day in, day out. I’m a team player, and the guys know that there’s nobody like me on the team when it comes to reliability, motivating others, and ethics. If I’m not riding, I’m DS—firing up the boys and getting the most out of them. I put the team first—always.

In terms of my new goals, improving my ZP ranking is on the list, but the Tiny Races are ruining things and are making a mockery of the ranking system, to be honest. Until that changes and a better system is put in place, I want to win races for Toyota CRYO RDT and not regret anything after a race. If there’s a breakaway opportunity, I’m going to go for it and back myself. 

Toyota CRYO RDT is a great place, and the boys always motivate each other. That’s how we managed to become a force. Every time one of us closes the gap, another rider opens it up again, and this stimulus has created the current environment stronger than ever.

In terms of esports and where I want to take it—well, I want to elevate it as best I can. Both in my capacity as a prominent figure in global cycling journalism and a competitor. That makes my story pretty unique. I want esports to be recognized as a cycling discipline—for real, not just on paper. And I want more South African riders racing at the highest level in ZGP—men and women. 

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio is doing great work on the women’s side with Rocacorba, but we need more South Africans exposed to the highest level. The step up from A1 Community to ZGP is MASSIVE and, unless you’re racing week in week out at this level, you’re not going to improve. 

I’ve also got some ideas around relaunching the South African Zwift National Championship, which will require lots of work and buy-in from sponsors—this, I feel, will give South African riders a taste of elite esports racing, especially when it comes to pre-race protocols, 2-hours weigh-in windows and 100% trainer difficulty racing, and educating the riders on the rules and equipment needed to excel at the highest level.

aaron borrill on time trial bike

It's going to be your second chance at the Rainbow Stripes. Tell us about your 2023 bid to win the Esports World Championships and why you're confident this year will be different. How is your preparation going, and have you encountered any setbacks like last year?

Hahaha, I’m never going to win it. That’s just a fact. For me, lining up and being part of the vibe, the qualification and selection process, and the training leading up to the event is special. Getting the Wahoo equipment is always an awesome treat, too, and it feels like a second Christmas.

Last year, I got a late call-up and had no training planned up until that point – I also had a cold the week before the race, which put me even more on the back foot, but I’m the type of person that hates excuses. It didn’t work out last year, but the team put in a good showing, and Barney and Gary (Muller) were class acts. 

I tried to be as ready as I could but really felt the lack of Premier Division racing at 100% trainer difficulty and struggled with the explosiveness needed for the NYC course—especially up the NYC KOM. My numbers from the race were good enough to finish way up in the top 50, but my race craft and confidence were sorely lacking.

This year is totally different. I’ve been racing ZGP, competed in the Euro Continental Qualifier, and feel very very comfortable at 100% trainer difficulty. My numbers are in a really good place, too, so I’m feeling appreciably confident in my ability. I’m a different rider. I can feel it. I’m healthier, more powerful, and mentally tougher, too. 

Physical and mental ability go hand in hand in esports, and I’ve worked on both. I’m also more confident in the pre-race-day protocol and know exactly what to do in terms of nutrition and training leading up to race day. Of course, nothing is foolproof, and everything needs to fall into place but I’ll give it a proper go and back myself this year.

cyclist aaron Borrill in red jersey

What is your profile looking like leading up to Esports World Championships?

I’m a time trialist, and most of my training throughout the year focuses on steady wattage, which I can sustain for very long (that’s about 310-320w for 60min), so explosivity and short-burst efforts really hurt. However, over the last few months, I’ve sorted that out and worked on my weaker areas. It’s not the best out there, but the improvements look pretty good to me as it stands, and with three weeks to go, I’m hoping to improve them a little more still. 

At the time of writing, my current in-game stats (at 61kg) are as follows: 15sec is 13.6w/kg, 1min is 9.5w/kg, 5min is 6.2w/kg, and 20min is 5.4w/kg. A good mix, but I would like to get to 10w for 1min (I’ve done this a few times outside but not in-game) and 6.5 for 5min—those really hurt. I did 5.8w/kg for 15min a few months back, too – so it’s not all that bad for an old-timer.

aaron borrill drinking coffee

South Africa stacked its squad with top-level talent, most notably James Joseph Barnes, among the pre-race favorites. What does it mean to you to be "Captain South Africa," and what is your role on the team?

Hahaha, that’s funny. I was elected captain of the national team by Cycling South Africa, which was humbling and unexpected – something which is probably more to do with my experience, obsessive preparation, and having everything in place in terms of verification and data. Sir Zwift-a-Lot, aka JP Leclerc, picked up on it and called me Captain South Africa on one of his Instagram posts, and it’s stuck. 

Having the likes of Barney, ex-WorldTour Pro and Grand Tour finisher Jacques Janse Van Rensburg, and sprint demon Brad Gouveris on the team is very special. All three of those guys have the potential to win the rainbow jersey—I’m serious. They’re absolutely world-class. 

I honestly don’t think there’s a better sprinter in the game than Brad. He’s 100% legit, no question. He’s proven in real-life racing Pro Conti and proved this many times on Zwift during the early Kiss Super League days and Premier Division qualifier races of 2020. 

Barney needs no introduction, either. He’s a lethal finisher who can go deep even on the climbs. If James gets to race three, he will be a marked man and one of the favorites to nab the title. Jacques is just pure class and experience. He’s definitely a dark horse and someone who will ride under the radar and only make moves when he needs to, just like he did in the Continental Qualifiers.

As for me—well, I think getting to race two would be pretty cool, but just being part of the whole event is special enough for me.

What do you and your fellow Team South Africa mates need to do to bring the Rainbow Stripes to South Africa, and what are your chances?

Ride smart, conserve energy, and pre-empt any moves by responding early and having riders in the right position. It’s all about positioning, but we’ve got some team meetings planned to discuss strategy and roles. The format is very different this year, and it’s more suited to individual racing than teamwork, but we’ll see what plays out. We don’t have numbers like some of the bigger nations, but we do have the talent and hunger, and, in big situations like racing on the world stage, that’s all you need.

aaron borrill on a mountain bike

What are your goals for the future and the vision for esports in South Africa and worldwide?

As I mentioned last year at this time – I want it to go professional, but there’s the other side of the coin that paints what we love in a bad light. That’s a topic for another day, though. As it currently stands, the sport is not big enough to earn a living from—even with massive sponsors. For that to come to fruition, every big race would have to take place in an arena, and the calendar would probably have to be crazy full. And that’s a lot of logistics, flights, and travel.

Teams have some really good backing at the moment. We have Toyota, but you’d need three or four more Toyota-like sponsors before a team could pay out liveable wages. Our riders don’t get paid, but through Toyota and other sponsors, we are a team that can supply our riders with kit/bike parts and, where necessary, smart trainers and other equipment, too. We’re fortunate in that respect.

It’s always going to be hard for a discipline such as cycling eSports to grow in a culturally diverse country like South Africa, where inequality, poverty, and unemployment are rife. The sport is expensive but not inaccessible if the right measures and initiatives are put in place. The Toyota Tour de Virtuale is an initiative and race series ideal for nurturing the next wave of esports riders, not to mention talent scouting—and giving riders of previously disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have. 

I’m all about identifying talent, working with riders currently racing on Zwift, RGT, and MyWhoosh, sharing my experience, knowledge, and passion, and elevating their skill sets to compete at the highest level. If I can help with that, it will make me happy.

elite cyclist Aaron Borrill on cover of Cycling Weekly

The floor is yours. Is there anything else you'd like to say?

As always, I’m grateful for my health and can only thank God for looking after my family and me. My wife Jenna is my biggest supporter, and she lets me chase my dreams—despite me sometimes being very selfish with my training. My national federation South Africa for believing in me. My trade team Toyota CRYO RDT for pushing me and giving me the opportunity to race at the highest level, and my road race team GS Mossa who’ve peer-pressured me back into road racing.

Connect with Captain South Africa!

Through Strava, ZwiftPower, and his socials: Twitter @AaronBorrill and Instagram @aaron.borrill!

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