By Gail Kocher
On February 25, 2023, REVO race director Gail Kocher joined fellow Chicagoland virtual cyclists live and in person to compete for the right to be called Illinois Cycling Esports Champion.
My piece published in road.cc on February 17, 2023, entitled, “The virtual journey to the first live UCI Cycling Esports World Championships,” documented the seven-rider British contingent participating in the first-of-its-kind live “In Real Life” physical final.
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and Zwift, along with partners EventScotland, Glasgow Life, and the 2023 UCI Cycling World Championships, hosted athletes from British Cycling as they battled for the Rainbow Stripes. The event took place in The Engine Works, Glasgow, and was an exciting World Championship kick-off for the city, the audience, and the athletes. By all accounts, the event was a big hit!
Live-hosted online events are familiar to the esports world. The April 2018 CVR World Cup in Los Angeles saw cyclists from every corner of the globe rubbing elbows in the city’s Velo Sport center for the chance at a piece of the season’s $100,000 prize purse.
The head-to-head slugfests on identical equipment set a standard for fairness and thrilled onlookers. Commentators Hunter Allen and Dr. Chris Haskell described the action blow by blow while assimilating the hoards of available performance data. CVR set the stage for a new type of cyclist and introduced the world to riders who’ve cemented their legacies as legends of the sport, like Belgium’s Lionel Vujasin.
The increased scrutiny, excitement, and awareness are reasons many believe live audiences for prestigious events are the future of esports.
The UCI told me, “One of the many benefits of cycling esport racing is its accessibility, allowing athletes to participate from anywhere in the world. Rather than transitioning to an entirely live format, hybrid events are a more likely development, with athletes competing from all over the world in different settings.”
Zwift team Revolution Velo Racing’s Gail Kocher is not an esports legend, but she did forge a path as one of the virtual cyclists to compete in the 1st Illinois State Cycling Esports Championship. Here’s her story!
The Virtual Journey to the First Live Illinois State Cycling Esports Championship
By Gail Kocher
I recently did my first virtual race in person, racing against others—live. Given we all ride, train, and race on indoor trainers at home, this was a different experience, especially for someone who has only ever done one race outside in the wild.
My Zwift Cycling Story
I started virtual cycling in early 2019 to “practice” hills for summer fondos on the East Coast since I live in Chicago, which is a lot flatter. I spent most of 2019 working with a women’s cycling coaching group, bike commuting for work, and my three fondos. Fast forward to COVID, and the indoor trainer becomes the way to exercise with gyms closed and not going anywhere, plus the community of friendships expanded as I ventured into more group rides.
I had only ever done one race on Zwift in 2019, but in mid-2020, I had the opportunity to do a women’s three-day stage race and decided to give it a whirl. I learned two things. It turns out I’m a bit of a climber and have the racing bug! Through that experience, I joined an all-female Zwift racing team, Revolution Velo Racing (REVO), and am now the team Race Director.
Kinda an "Indoor Specialist"
It’s still more convenient for me to hop on the trainer than drag my bike to the car and drive somewhere I can get the kinda terrain I need for training. My weekly average of 150 miles is mainly on the trainer. I have a lot of racing opportunities on Zwift, and over the past two years, I’ve also learned I’m a much better time trialist than a scratch racer.
When my coach, friend, and now teammate, Theia Friestedt, saw that Athletes by Design (ABD) was holding a 1st Annual Esports Winter Cycling Series and American Bicycle Racing (ABR) Illinois State Championships, she let me know right away. The format was simple, a series of Esports indoor cycling events throughout January and February, with the first three events contested virtually from participants’ own “pain caves.” The series would finish with an in-person day of esports bike racing at a local-ish—it’s Chicagoland, nothing is truly local—venue.
The 1st Illinois State Cycling Esports Championship—Qualifiers
All events were on RGT, with the time trial using a ~10k TT course built from a popular route in the Chicago suburbs. I’ve never ridden that route, but they offered plenty of practice events to get a feel for the app and the course.
I did a few practice events, mostly free-riding workouts, and then it was here—race day! Good thing I woke up early as the registration website was showing the start time an hour later than it was. I was the only starter in my age group that day but I was happy with my time.
My focus shifted to the state esports championships, but I signed up for the Criterium qualifier to support getting more women into cycling and the event. That day, I triple-check the start, my connections, etc., since I’m not great at mass starts, hoping to make the top ten to qualify for the championships and end up 7/12!
Two Events to Overthink About
Now, I have two races in person to keep in mind. After mentioning it to my coach, she puts me on a taper leading into the championships. Taper means actual days off the bike and at least one day without workouts, not even my pure barre for core or strength.
For someone who does core or strength 4-5x a week and is on the bike 5-6x a week, that was a huge struggle! Most of all, I missed the social interaction, especially the group rides I do with the same people several times a week. I spent the taper ten days trying to focus on doing what my coach prescribed, getting good rest for a change, and eating as healthy as possible.
It helped balance the questions of whether there will be enough fans, what I wear to ride the trainer with other people around, if I find a trainer tire since the trainers would be wheel-on, and how we would warm up, to name a few. They had large fans (the front row was best for that), a baselayer, no jersey to race, an older tire, not a good outside tire, and borrowed a wheel-on for warm-up.
Catch the action with live coverage and commentary by VCN!
The 1st Illinois State Cycling Esports Championship—Live Race Day!
Finally, it’s race day! Attending an in-person virtual race is as complicated as going out for a day-long IRL ride. Bike, shoes, kit, food, water bottles /hydration, I’m set. I get to the venue, and my friend and teammate, Paige, is already there, which is great because her husband is my bike mechanic for the day.
He gets my tire changed and the warm-up trainer set up for me. We’ve planned out what time to do our warm-up for the TT, so we finish and then have time to move our bikes into the race trainers. We finish and find out the heat before us is delayed by 30 minutes, pushing us back. So not wanting to do another complete warm-up, we keep moving and talking, meet other people we’ve only known virtually, and finally, we get to go in and set up.
I can’t find my heart rate monitor in the list of sensors, so that’s only connected to my bike computer. After disconnecting and reconnecting it with less than 5 min to go, no stress at all!!
Finally, we’re off! “Focus on your own race,” I tell myself. Everything is going well until about 1 mile to go, and my chain drops! Bike mechanic to the rescue!! I manage to hold onto 2nd in my age group.
We’re just over an hour before the crit final, but I torqued my chain. My friend changed out a few links but no additional warm-up time. I got moved over one trainer from before, and of course, it felt a little different because we were racing at 100% difficulty, and I usually run around 30%. As usual in a scratch race, I got dropped pretty quickly and basically ITT’d the crit, finishing 8/9, but hey, I showed up and raced!! See full results here.
Post-Race Impressions and Take Aways
More events like this will help get more people on bikes and try racing. Racing inside takes away the fear of crashing and getting hurt, although there are other considerations when inside, such as overheating. But it’s a great way to give racing a try.
I would likely never have tried an IRL race had I not started racing virtually. Cycling has taken off in the esports world, and having these kinds of events can make it even more appealing for people to get involved. I know it’s not easy to pull off an in-person event like this, but ABD Cycling did a great job! Dane Luhrsen and Suzi Berner put in a lot of time and effort to make the event happen for all of us.
It would be harder to do this on a larger scale, especially when geography comes into play, but I hope organizers explore it further as our esports cycling moves forward. I would watch this in person just as much as an in-person IRL race, and you can see more of the virtual since you don’t have to run around the course to see the racers.
Post-Mortem Personal Reflection
Ultimately, the things I thought I would worry about or be intimidated by were not what got in my head on race day. It was interesting to be near and be able to look at those I was racing against, but I honestly didn’t pay much attention to them either. Some think the in-person virtual race gives you an advantage by seeing your competitors, but I still focused more on the race app and the info there than looking around me.
The people hanging out watching and cheering I didn’t notice while racing. The turnout to watch and support was nice to see. It wasn’t just participants. Family, friends, and people wandered over from the restaurant to check it out. The venue setup made it easy to watch, with an open balcony-style second floor and a giant screen with the race feed.
Everyone I saw was enjoying themselves, watching cycling racing, and hanging out with old and new friends. One of my virtual teammates, whom I had not met in person, showed up to cheer us on, which was awesome! She brought her daughter along to show her what women can do, which was cool to see her excitement.
The event raised a generous amount for Special Olympics, and we had great fun! In the end, it was not as different as I thought it would be. I was on the bike, stretching my comfort zone. Would I do it again? Absolutely!! Especially if I can give other women the confidence to try it also!
Are live events the future of cycling esports?
What do you think? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
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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!