An interview with Team Great Britain and Wahoo Le Col’s elite cyclist Zoe Langham.
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.
At the moment, our family consists of Adam (DS of the Wahoo Le Col ladies team), our two cats, Albie and Lottie (named after the great Alberto Contador and Lotte Kopecky, of course), and our seven bikes; Casper (Cannondale synapse—Zwift bike), Liza (Lapierre Xelius), Becky (Boardman), Cassy (Canyon Aeroad), Roxanne (Rondo), Fleur (Factor Ostro) and Lorena (Liv Langma).
We live in Birmingham, and I would probably be lying if I said my life didn’t consist 99% of the time being at work or on my turbo/out on the bike, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
I work as a doctor in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, which is a really tough work-life balance most days and not one that doesn’t come with its struggles. But hey, who doesn’t love a 2 min warm-up in the turbo pen barely out of my scrubs!
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 suppose I officially started cycling when my dad dragged me out on a 70-mile ride through the Yorkshire dales when I was a teenager. I cried for at least 2 hours of it. One of my distinct memories was of him taking me up Boltby bank (if you know, you know). It’s a sustained 25% gradient climb, one I still find challenging to this day. I was still in my trainers and t-shirt, wondering where I had gone wrong.
Something must have stuck with me, though, and much later in my university years, as I struggled with many injuries as a very (very) average runner, I took it up once more and never really looked back. Zwift racing was the first kind of racing I got into, and I have done that for a couple of years now, but I didn’t start IRL racing until mid-way through 2022, joining my Finish Line Racing team.
I’m probably most proud of my stage race at the Ras 2022, where I sat in 3rd for GC over four days of harsh, very extreme road racing conditions. Sadly in the last 20 minutes of the final race, I broke a collarbone and couldn’t finish my race, but it is definitely a big target for 2023!
What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports? What is your most significant accomplishment racing virtually?
Zwift allowed me to race and train around my hectic schedule while I was a medical student at Nottingham University. Being in the middle of the city, it always took me half an hour to get out of the traffic, so short training sessions became frustrating, and Zwift made an hour’s training worth it.
I almost always had to train in the dark after placements, which made it feasible even if the only time I had was 9 pm at night (absolute life of the party- I know!). It was always the source of many jokes in our student house as you heard the vibrations and buzz of my turbo on the kitchen ceiling every evening, which would make any visitor blush.
Luckily, my fellow housemates were all very understanding and would often come and cheer me on as I pedaled away, trying hard not to bash my head on the eaves of my attic room. During my placement, I was often sent to other hospitals far away to gain experience, a problem when your ball and chain is a wahoo V5. So, of course, it had to come with me.
Again, hilarious as I snuck (every week without fail) this 25kg machine into my hospital accommodation broom cupboard of a room. But hey, not the worst thing one can smuggle into a hospital, I’m sure.
In terms of significant accomplishment, it’s probably hard to look past the 2022 esports world championships! It was the first time I targeted a race, I had a lot of people who believed in me, and I couldn’t have been happier or prouder with the result.
Zoe finished third behind Cecilia Hansen and World Champion Loes Adegeest in 2022!
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?
Wahoo Le Col has a really special place in my heart. I was one of their original riders, so I have seen the team from the very start in its first few ZRL races to qualifying for and winning the Premier Division (now called Grand Prix).
I also live with the lady’s DS Adam Thorpe and see the countless hours he pours every week into team selection, helping riders, showing them how to use their skills to win, reccing courses, trying out new tactics, testing powerups, etc.
It’s a really special thing to be a part of. The team also prioritizes its rider’s welfare and having a happy, supportive team environment which I’m sure any of the riders could vouch for and is much of the driving force behind its success. If you love your team and what you do, you can never truly ‘lose’ a race.
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?
15s PB- 650W (13w/kg)
1min PB- 520W (10.4w/kg)
5min PB- 320W (6.4w/kg)
20min PB- 275W (5.5w/kg)
What type of rider are you? Has your riding style evolved as you become more involved and successful in esports?
I think most people would see me as a climber, but I set my strongest power on 1-2 minute climbs, so I suppose I’m more of a punchy rider. I won’t win the sprints, but I also won’t win the really long climbs! Being quite flexible and able to do a bit of both, however, has helped me in eracing as there is almost always a climb you have to get over at some point, narrowing your group to ‘climbers.’ Then, if it comes down to a sprint, it helps not to be a pure climber!
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 am fortunate to be coached by Emma Wilkins at High North Performance, and I mean it when I say I can’t take any of the credit for my performances or training. She tailors my training around the significant fatigue build-up doing the job I do and somehow still gets the best results out of me.
High North Performance also has significant experience in hill climbing and eracing, so understand what training is needed to increase VO2 max necessary for this type of racing. I think it is so important to believe in your coach, and I honestly trust Emma and the process.
Every workout has a rationale and an objective, so I’m never wondering why she sets a particular session. In my house, whenever I’m starting to doubt what I’m capable of or I’m tired, my family always reminds me to trust in her process, and it’s never failed.
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?
Many people probably don’t see the person behind the avatar on the screen. I’m the one who sat in the pen nervous every week, the one wondering if she would be dropped on the climb (still to this day!), the one that never truly believed she could or would win, the one that is just happy to have made the race after a 10-hour shift.
To me, becoming Esports World Champion wouldn’t be about being a successful rider, getting recognized, or being a ‘winner.’ It would be about showing myself that I am capable, and showing everyone else that you don’t need to have all the hours in the world to train, have done it since you left the womb, or give up your life to cycling.
It’s also a way for those struggling to fund professional cycling as a career. I see many riders (myself included) having to go up against full-time athletes, while still having to hold jobs to survive until they make it to a team that will pay them.
You have accomplished so much in esports. What is it that sets you apart from other virtual athletes?
I have an amazing support network of friends and family that are 100% behind my aspirations, and that makes a world of difference. Every ZRL race I do, they sit at home watching, and on those long days where your motivation to train after work is low, you’re tired, and you need that something that keeps you getting back on your bike, they are that.
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?
There is a skill to it, and it’s something Adam could talk about for days! You can go only so far as a strong rider with no Zwift experience and still do well, but you probably won’t win. You will waste a lot of energy in the pack not utilizing the draft to recover, and you will pedal too much on downhills, go too early and lead people out, not use the powerups at the best moments, not slingshot, etc.
It has also evolved as I have been racing, pack dynamics/interactions have now changed, and it’s less geared to w/kg than it used to be. For me, this meant that I was falling off the back of groups, especially on the downhills, as although my w/kg is the same or higher, my raw watts most of the time are lower, resulting in me falling off. It’s something that’s made me adapt.
At the end of the day, the rider that wins the race is not always the one that’s put out the most watts, but the one who has ridden the smartest race—no different to outdoor 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?
There is much more to do to create a level playing field, but sometimes people miss the point. Working as a doctor is nothing, if not sobering, about the general health of our population, and I can only be honest in saying that it’s not great.
For me, if Zwift gets people exercising around busy schedules and racing without needing to go to the gym, pay a membership, buy a race bike, sign up for a race, etc., then it’s done more than enough already. Also, I think many people probably don’t see it as a social sport, but certainly, in my team, it has been anything but. Many of our riders meet up with each other across the globe, and it’s opened a new door of worldwide relationships that would have never come about otherwise.
Tell us about your setup. Where is it located, and what do you use? What steps do you take to verify your accuracy?
I’m currently using the Wahoo Kickr V6 as it’s the one they sent to race the Esports World Championships on, and I dual record with a pair of Favero Assioma duo pedals, a wahoo tickr heart rate monitor, and a Wahoo bolt head unit.
These are all tested before I race through ZADA verification (this is a dual recorded 1-min, 4-min, 7-min, 12-min, and 2x15s sprint efforts test, and it’s gross) and sent in with an extremely long equipment form which must include containing serial numbers and photos of any equipment used.
For the Grand Prix races, I have to weigh in through a strict process 2 hours before the race and send in a dual recording of my race immediately following the race finish, which is then analyzed before the finalized results are official. Most of the time, we race on camera, also.
If there is doubt or discrepancies between the race recordings, the race control disqualifies riders, and sometimes this is a real shame if it’s just equipment failure.
The World Championships takes this process a step further by giving all riders the same turbo, which they must use to race on and they collect after the race for analysis. I was also drug tested after last year’s race in concordance with UCI anti-doping rules.
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?
People will always question anything and everything; as I have said, there is certainly some way to go. For elite-level racing, it will take the form of a venue where everyone has to use the same equipment and control standard racing conditions as much as possible.
Many of your fellow elite eracers have been publicly critical of the lack of standardization in esports. What is your view on the topic?
It’s an evolving picture, really. At the very top level, a lot of analysis goes on in the background in the form of additional testing and providing real-life outdoor effort evidence. There is certainly a way to go, but it is such a new sport that I’m not sure why people are surprised to find obstacles that need to be ironed out and things that will be improved along the way, as there have been in every sport.
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?
It’s been a tough year for cycling in general. Last year I would have liked to say that there would be the development of indoor professional teams, and with progress in standardization, etc., this will still be possible. However, even well-established outdoor teams are struggling for funding after a hard few COVID-dominated years, so that still could be a way off.
What is your opinion of the new race formats being used during the Zwift Grand Prix and the World Championships?
They are so hard! I have honestly never done races harder in my life than these. It’s not uncommon for me to vomit off the side of my bike these days. I have to be honest and say I was quite negative initially. I saw it as hours of prep for only a few minutes of actual racing.
It hasn’t been the case, as you ride in between the multiple races now, so my sessions are similar- it just cuts out the less exciting parts of a race where you are just rolling around in the pack. I think one of the objectives was to stop total team domination, and I believe they’ve achieved it and made it more exciting for the viewer.
I don’t think all the formats are without their faults, but people must remember that this is a work in progress. It’s new and out there for trialing and altering.
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?
It will take time, investment into the bigger picture (the health of our population), and probably a lot of money, hahaha.
Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us something about yourself that none of your fellow racers or fans know about you. Please?!?
It is probably that my partner is the ladies DS of my esports team! I would love to say that gets me special treatment, but he has absolutely no qualms about telling me I won’t race a certain race and yelling at me to push harder if he feels I’m not doing myself justice.
I, of course, in return, have no qualms about telling him where to shove his tactics when I’m entirely in the bin. Also, I wonder what our neighbors think of the numerous ladies’ names he shouts out on Tuesday and Friday evenings.
Jokes aside, though, I completely trust in him, and as I’ve alluded before, he does go above and beyond to make things exciting for everyone involved. He is always there, giving up his evenings without fail. It’s a really special thing we have.
The other thing is that I have Aplastic Anaemia, a very rare form of bone marrow failure. I spent many of my childhood years in more than out of the hospital with countless blood transfusions and a scary hunt for a suitable bone marrow donor.
I was extremely lucky (and am still extremely lucky), and I remind myself of that every day- no day is a guarantee! It’s also why blood and bone marrow donation is extremely close to my heart. I quite literally owe my life to it, so anyone who does donate, thank you, and anyone who thinks about it, please do!
The floor is yours! Is there anything you would like to say?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to do this interview! It’s lovely to talk openly and freely about my life and share it with anyone interested.
Thank you for sharing, Zoe!
Anything to say to Zoe?
Comment below! She’d love to know.
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!