An interview with elite cyclist Ewan Mackie—the NeXT pb Enshored rider shares how he went from obesity (6' 7" and 293lbs.) to an esports monster with the help of Coach Alex Coh.
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’m Ewan, and I live up in the highlands of Scotland. I work in sports/outdoor instruction, video editing, and do some “work” for a friend’s brewery, which mainly consists of drinking up all their produce. Honestly, I don’t know how I’ve managed to pair my three favorite things together: sports, the outdoors, and beer.
I spend most of my free time either training on the bike or hiking, running/trail running. Nestled up here in Pitlochry, it’s only 2 minutes till I reach an 800m hike. I can run up and down, which the coach always loves seeing on Strava when I’m down as a rest day.
What is your cycling story? When did you discover cycling? What was your life like before you began cycling? What challenges have you overcome?
So I have only really gotten into sports relatively recently. Through school, being forced to play either rugby or cricket, I would do anything to get out of training. Looking back, I was pretty unhappy before I found cycling and running as I didn’t have many interests. I would waste my days on the computer eating junk food with little motivation to do anything meaningful with my life. Interesting how I’ve switched to still being on the computer drinking copious amounts of sugar water as I sweat profusely into the floor.
As time went on and my lifestyle remained the same, I found myself accumulating more and more weight. I am 6 feet 7, so I never looked like I was seriously fat, but that’s because I have a tall frame to carry it. At my max, I was edging into the very obese category.
In early 2019, I decided to step on the scales one morning and saw 21 stone/133kg. I honestly don’t know what hit me to even step on the scales, but that struck a chord, and from that day forward, my life and relationship with food and diet changed. I remember I went out for food that same day with family, and much to their surprise, when the waitress came over, I ordered a diet Coke and a salad. 13 months later, of staying in a calorie deficit and exercising for at least 60-90 minutes per day I managed to lose over seven stone/45kg.
Initially, I used the treadmill and rowing machine to lose weight. Once I had lost all the weight, I got seriously into running, doing stupid challenges like 10k+ a day for 30 days with no recovery. It led me to injuries like joint pain and shin splints, so I decided to move to cycling. At the time, I only had the 49cm mountain bike from when I was 14; however, with the seat post miles past the max extension, I could knock out 60,70,80 mile rides multiple times a week. I got a road bike about 13 months into cycling and eventually a Wahoo kickr core smart trainer.
When did you start competing, and what is your racing history? What is your most significant accomplishment racing on the road?
I haven’t done a tremendous amount of racing outside (yet). I ride a lot outside throughout the summer as we are blessed with some incredible roads up here in the highlands of Scotland. I’ve done a few fondos this year, including Marmotte Gran Fondo in Alpe’d’huez, which is 186km with 5500m of climbing, which was incredible.
Ideally, I want and need to get more involved with the outdoor racing scene; however, with the limited calendar of races this year in Scotland and my schedule, things just haven’t lined up as well as I’d initially hoped.
What is your virtual cycling story? How and when did you get involved in esports? What is your most significant accomplishment racing virtually?
I didn’t start racing on Zwift until early 2020, and that mainly consisted of team time trials with Innovation as it was and still is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to push your fitness to new levels. Before then, my riding mainly consisted of doing lots and lots of threshold rides with no structure. I also did my first vEverest, then went on to do a charity Mariana Trench in memory of my Grandad and raised over £3000 for the Marie Curie charity with the help of friends, family, and the incredibly generous Twitch community where I stream all my rides.
Although this style of riding, in the long run, was probably detrimental to my performance and improvement, it did help to build a mental engine and resilience to pain, which helps me massively in my training today.
Then I started to race a lot more and managed to build up my race craft and get stronger. I enjoy racing the ZRL series and have raced for several teams, including Restart and Wahoo le Col. Yes, I have team-hopped quite a bit throughout my time on Zwift, but it’s never been intentional. In this sport, if you have a dream and a passion to push your development as far as possible, sometimes you just have to consider the opportunities given to you.
Castelli pb Elite approached me partway into the last Grand Prix series and asked If I would like to get involved with the elite racing scene on Zwift. Once I joined them, I raced some of the remaining events in the Grand Prix, which was a huge honor. The racing was unlike anything I had experienced before. Unbelievably hard, but it pushed my development and fitness even more.
Then towards the tail end of the Grand Prix season, NeXT pb Enshored contacted me about potentially joining them. At first I was hesitant purely because I was very fond of the guys at Castelli, and they helped me so much getting into the elite side of Zwift. But after much deliberation with Alex Coh, my coach, we decided that NeXT would be a better fit for me and my development as a rider in esports. I left Castelli on good terms when joining NeXT and made sure to get them in contact with a good friend Lucas Versluys, an incredibly strong rider in the space.
Concerning my most significant accomplishment racing virtually, I don’t feel like there’s one that stands out. I have wins and podiums here and there, but until recently, I haven’t focussed on my race craft nearly as much as I should have. For 80% of my racing on Zwift, It’s always been a smash fest, which meant pushing myself as hard as possible in races regardless of position and finishing result.
Tell us about your Coach, Alex Coh. When and how were you introduced to Alex, and why did you choose to work with him?
I learned about Alex Coh 2 years ago through James Barnes “Barney.” James and I stream all our rides on Twitch, and we built a friendship from there. It will go to Barney’s head, so don’t read this, but he has always been an idol for me on the platform. Seeing his development firsthand in the sport has inspired me, and whenever I’d hop in his stream, he’d attribute most of his success to Alex Coh. From then, Barney got me in touch, and the rest is history.
At first, I was hesitant to take on a coach because, until that point, all my riding had been unstructured and sporadic. When Alex got in contact, he said all he needed from me was my 100% commitment to the plan, and he’d make me a monster.
Before I even took Alex on as a coach, he was attentive and knowledgeable about any questions I asked him. At the time, I was doing the pro contender Zwift academy workouts and test rides. Alex gave me free advice on pacing strategies for the Alpe Du Zwift TT, something I’d never considered as the Alpe tends to be an all-out effort. But through different cadences, standing vs. seated, and pacing myself properly, I scored an all-time 40-minute power PB of 420w at the time.
Briefly describe your history as Alex’s athlete. What impact has Alex had on your evolution as an esports cyclist?
Alex has helped me reach fitness and race craft levels I would never have thought possible. In the initial phase of my training with him, I had a couple of rest weeks with very little intensity or volume, which I didn’t receive well at the time as my two favorite things are intensity and volume. After persevering with it, this was one of my most significant wake-up calls.
Doing threshold rides, VO2 max, and long unstructured hours most days per week, I had built up so much fatigue that it took weeks to recover. From then, the intensity and volume increased slowly, and I eventually did 8-12 hours per week.
I didn’t realize the gains I’d made with Alex until a few months or so. We train a lot of tempo, which has massively helped with my Zwift racing. The zone I’m most likely going to be in when racing against other people of a similar fitness level is zone 3, so being able to feel comfortable at that intensity, make efforts above that intensity, and then come back to recover at that intensity is paramount. Being able to work at and above this zone doesn’t necessarily work your race craft specifically, as that’s a mental thing you have to learn. However, being able to relax in a race against other people not used to training in that zone is a huge advantage.
Overall, Alex ensures I’m primed to attack races and use any zone I need to get the best results. Although we have put over 40w on my FTP, that number means nothing if you can’t work all the zones together in a race. A TT-specific rider will never be good at keeping up in a race with short sharp attacks going off the front.
Tell us about your esports team. How were you introduced to the team? What factors did you consider before joining? What impact has being on the team had on your development?
Scott Catanzaro contacted me towards the tail end of the GP to see whether I would be interested in joining NeXT. As I said before, I was initially hesitant as I was already with Castelli, an excellent team in its own right with great people. However, one of the main reasons for switching was I already had a good relationship with a couple of guys on the team.
James Barnes is a good mate, and to race and learn from him and his specific racing styles would be a game-changer for me. Pairing that with the rest of the monsters there and learning from them is super beneficial. Another reason is although the guys in Castelli did a great job communicating with me, there was always a language barrier as most of them were Italian, a problem I don’t have with NeXT.
Overall it was a big decision to move, and I didn’t want to cause conflict with Castelli. However, after discussing with my coach Alex, we both decided that as we advance, NeXT was the right choice to push my development as far as it will go.
I joined NeXT this Spring, so we haven’t done much racing yet. However, I have picked up a few wins and podiums from the races we have done together. The guys promised when I joined that they would teach me how to properly fine-tune my race craft, which has helped so much. I’ve been racing with Barney, Brad, and Scott so far, so they’ve taught me to hold myself back more than anything so that when my attack goes, it sticks!
For a frame of reference, how tall are you, and approximately how much do you weigh? What is your indoor PB for Peak Power, 15-second, 1-minute, 5-minutes, and 20-minutes? How does your weight and power metrics compare to before you began working with Alex and before you discovered cycling?
I am 6’7 / 200.6cm, so “a little” taller than your average rider. My race weight varies between 86-87kg.
Peak power – 1830w / 21.2w/kg
15s – 1350w / 15.6w/kg
1min – 840w / 9.8w/kg
3min – 602w / 7w/kg
5min – 528w / 6.1w/kg
20min – 441w / 5.1w/kg
Alex has improved every one of these results. We have put around 40-50w on my FTP since starting, and the 3-5 minute efforts have increased considerably and, more importantly, are repeatable during race efforts.
My sprint has only recently seen more improvement, which is interesting. I haven’t done anything differently in my training to see a change in my sprint. I’m feeling way more explosive, which has helped with peak power and jumping onto a gear quickly when causing or reacting to attacks.
My weight has stayed the same within the two years of being with Alex. We’ve decided that this is the lowest weight I can be at before it becomes detrimental to my performance, at least for now, without any professional or medical advice.
FTP is sitting around 445w at the moment. Alex calculated this from a 30-minute effort. However, we haven’t done testing in a good while now so it could be higher.
What are your short and long-term esport goals? Do they involve becoming the UCI Cycling Esports World or Olympic Champion? What does that mean to you?
I have a lot of ambitions in cycling and would love to do either of these things and much more. I always remember where I came from, though; every little win is a blessing.
My short-term goals are to continue working on my race-craft with NeXT. I’m also switching back to working my high-end for the upcoming Zwift season, as the spring and summer have mostly been endurance focussed in prep for the Marmotte Gran Fondo in Alpe d’huez. I hope to compete in the Zwift Academy this year if training continues well.
Long-term goals include the UCI and Olympic events and racing at the highest level outside. I would also like to finish my accreditation at the Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow so I can get stuck in with the racing in that sector too.
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?
Until recently, I haven’t factored in the gamification side of Zwift. It has mainly been because before I got serious about achieving results, I used Zwift racing to push myself more than in free rides or workouts. It was a mistake. I would never think about energy savings in a group and would only focus on achieving the highest w/kg out of everyone at the end, which thinking about now, makes me cringe.
“Barney” has been one of the primary people that has changed my perspective on how to race to achieve the best possible outcomes. It’s a learning process, and I’m definitely still learning, but Zwift is probably more about learning the “game” than being able to push out massive watts. Being able to rest and draft effectively in a group no matter what level or cat you’re at will help so unbelievably much to get you better results.
I’ll often sit in at the back of the group, sometimes doing 2w/kg less than what people do on the front. It is not a bad thing to do. Anyone doing more than this in a non-competitive area of the race is just wasting energy, period. It means when an attack goes off the front, a hill comes up, or you decide to put in an attack, you’re as fresh as you can possibly be for it, increasing the chances of it sticking and more importantly hurting the group even more!
Unpopular opinion, I don’t like Power Ups, but Zwift is a game, not real life, so I have to accept it. I believe that efforts should be similar to outside and there shouldn’t be short advantages to give you a boost on the group. Saying that, when used in the right places with the correct Power Up, they can be incredibly beneficial. I think Zwift should make it so everyone gets the same power-up and each point which will create more fairness around it.
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?
It is a very exciting time to be involved with cycling esports as multiple organizations like the Olympics, and UCI are taking it more seriously. Obviously, there are challenges that it will face to gain popularity as a unique discipline, like the fact that it is a “game” and not a physical sport. Still, I think that’s because not many people know about it or the sheer amount of athleticism and fitness you need to compete at the highest level or any level!
Zwift also needs to be more open to listening to its community. I’m not the only one with this opinion, but the Grand Prix setup was not nearly as well received as the Premier Division stages. The viewing numbers for the Premier Division races were much higher on platforms like Twitch and YouTube as opposed to Grand Prix.
I think this is because there was a certain allure to watching top Zwifters smash out a race on the same course you’ll be riding that day, giving riders in A, B, C, or D cats pointers to achieve the best outcomes in their races.
If Zwift wants to test new racing strategies or formats, they should make community-specific events to get everyone’s opinions rather than going on a whim to see if it works. Ultimately, if we want the sport to progress and attain more fans/viewership, Zwift needs to consider what the viewers want.
Tell us about your setup. Where is it located, and what do you use? What steps do you take to verify your accuracy?
My setup is in the garage, and I run a gaming desktop with two webcams at two different angles for my stream. I’m riding on the Kickr V5 via direct connect, and I have Assioma duo power pedals for dual recording. I also have a third Quarq power meter on the crank of my bike.
I tend to ensure my power meter recordings are within +/- 0.5% by updating the firmware regularly; however, it isn’t always possible to get it that close. I have also recently acquired the Zwift play for handling.
Some cynics and detractors don’t trust the legitimacy of esports. What do you say to those questioning the integrity and ability for a level playing field between competitors? What challenges does esports face in becoming recognized as a trusted competition venue?
We need to continue having IRL events for competitions. Obviously, this costs a lot to put on, but it will bring in more audience to the esport scene, and at least in that setting, you can properly make sure that everyone is racing at the right weight, on the right equipment.
I also don’t know how we will get full transparency for riders at the top level of competition, as people can always tamper with their weights and equipment. Some platforms like indieVelo use dual power systems, so both power meters give information to the same place and can’t be tampered with afterward. Zwift should probably integrate something similar, as other platforms are becoming more trusted for verification.
I think it will be a lot of trial and error to get the best possible scenario for verification, and there’s no overnight fix. Still, more transparency should lead to more legitimacy, in my opinion.
What is your opinion of the race formats being used during the Zwift Grand Prix and the World Championships?
I’m all for innovation and new race formats. However, Zwift needs to test these with the community in an experimental environment. The switch from Premier League to these new and different racing styles has always been a mix of emotions. I’m not too fond of it and prefer the old Premier Division style. Some formats were better than others, but I think further Gran Prix should have some ZRL influence for rider and viewer engagement.
Okay, I need a juicy exclusive. Tell us something about yourself or Coach Coh that none of your fellow racers or fans know about you. Please?!?
Alex is like a cream egg. He may seem cruel, bad-tempered, and cold on the outside, but once you break through the shell, he’s a softie at heart. We don’t have a conventional coach-to-athlete relationship. We’re more like two chickens from a rotten egg.
If someone saw how we communicated, they’d probably run in the opposite direction. But that’s precisely how I like it, Alex motivates me through the struggles he’s dealt with, and I’m pretty sure I do the same for him. It’s much more like having a friend who plans all my training. Yes, I’m paying for that friend, but a friend nonetheless.
Thank you, Ewan!
Anything you’d like to ask or say to Ewan?
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, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!