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Behind the scenes of Moolman Pasio's Esports World Championship victory

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (South Africa)
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (South Africa) (Image credit: Zwift)

Winning a World Championships from the comfort of her own home might not have been something that Ashleigh Moolman Pasio envisaged for herself at the beginning of 2020. A self-proclaimed doubter of digital racing at the beginning of the lockdown, by the end, she was hooked. 

After a road season that was marred by crashes, the South African was thrilled to have another chance to go for a win: "When I saw the announcement of the Esports World Championship on Zwift I was immediately exited," she said. "I was already in, no matter what the course was."

To Moolman Pasio, this was a bona fide world championships, and those who question the validity of a virtual race in comparison to one on the road miss the point: It is an entirely different discipline. 

The fact that the race took place on Zwift does not mean that riders simply woke up (which for the Antipodean competitors meant during the middle of the night) and hopped onto their trainers without a second thought. As with any race, there are still myriad stages of preparation to go through before getting on the bike.

"Road pros that just jump on Zwift and think they can race don't realise that it's just not like that," Moolman Pasio said. "To be competitive on Zwift you have to train on Zwift - or on an indoor trainer. The reality is that it is much harder to get the same numbers that you would usually get on the road on the indoor trainer."

With this in mind, Moolman Pasio set about coordinating her road training with some virtual kilometres: "I committed in the five-week build up after my off season that I would do interval sessions on Zwift and I did at least one session, sometimes even two, a week," she said.

In mid-November, she had the chance to ride on the virtual course, "when I was first riding around it looked good," she said, "with short, punchy climbs. And then when I finished and I realised it finished on top of the steepest side of the KOM climb I was totally sold." After seeing the course, she says, "I believed I stood a chance of winning."

The final climb became the focus of Moolman Pasio's preparation, "Before the event itself I had done a max effort up that QOM climb off the back of an interval session," she said. "I managed to do 1 minute 41 seconds and I was pretty confident with that time because I knew that the men's fastest times were around 90 seconds."

It wasn't only the course, however, that the South African national champion studied, "I also did a bit of research into my competition," she said. "I always knew that Sarah Gigante was going to be my biggest rival because she's performed really well in the virtual racing that we did during the lockdown. I also had a sneaking suspicion that Annika Langvad would be quite a strong competitor.

"I did look a little bit into the training they'd done on Zwift on their activities and what their times were up the climb before the race and the times that they had recorded were slower than my own."

Moolman Pasio knew that her usual rivals on the road might not necessarily pose the biggest threat in the virtual world, "there was a little but of an unknown around Anna [van der Breggen] and especially Annemiek [van Vleuten]," she said. "Anna is my teammate next year so I knew she hadn't really done any specific preparation. But," she added, "I didn't know what to expect from Annemiek because of course we all know that Annemiek is a very competitive person so I don't think of her as someone who just starts for the sake of starting."

It was not only the competitors who were taking the event seriously, the UCI issued a complex technical guide through which the governing body carried it's sock obsession into the virtual world by including a rule stating that socks would be mandatory for athlete's avatars, and a strict policy against branding of any kind featuring in the background of their webcams.

But the regulations were not limited to superficial issues:  "As we looked into it more and more it became apparent that the UCI and Zwift were taking this all very seriously," Moolman Pasio said. "They had detailed a protocol and some measures to make sure they did their absolute best to make sure that it would be a fair competition because that's one of the big criticisms that Zwift and esports have received over the past year."

Those taking part in the event had to be registered on the testing pool to enable the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) to carry out checks - including those who are not professionals on the road. "I can confirm that I was tested twice in the two week lead up to the race," said Moolman Pasio. "First about two weeks before the race and then I got tested the night before the race as well."

In addition, to prevent any 'digital doping'  riders had to undergo a weigh-in within a 24-hour time period before the race. Weight is "one of the biggest ways in which people can cheat on Zwift," says Moolman Pasio.

The weigh-in involved the athletes capturing a video which featured a time and date stamp, in which they were asked to place 10kg weight such as a dumbbell on a set of scales before removing it, showing the reading and proving the scales had zeroed before first standing on them, showing the number and then finally weighing both themselves and the 10kg weight together. "It was quite an intense protocol," she said.

Given the significance of weight in the game - for which a strong power to weight ratio is the greatest advantage - Moolman Pasio acknowledged that: "All of us who wanted to be competitive did have to consider being at race weight."  She added: "That was probably the hardest part of my commitment to the race, because it is the off season and I didn't want to stress myself out too much," but, "I did take it seriously."

It wasn't only weight that was subject to controls, given that different smart trainers and power meters can read varying degrees above or below, each competitor was sent an identical, self-calibrating Tacx smart trainer. "Automatic calibration meant that nobody could manipulate the calibration of the trainer as that's another way in which people can cheat," said Moolman Pasio.

In addition: "We all had to stream a video of us taking part in the event - for broadcast purposes but also to make sure that it's legit and that we're on the trainer and part of the race."

The dynamics of Zwift racing are very different to the road and grasping the gamified aspects of virtual racing is essential to the tactics. Key to this are the 'power-ups' - in-game boosts which are acquired after riding under various archways distributed through the course - depending on which power-up is allocated, they can give you various advantages for up to 30 seconds.

There are nine types of power-ups in Zwift, however, for the World Championships race there were only two types available: The aero boost (which makes the rider more aerodynamic for 15 seconds) and the feather (which lightens the riders weight by 10 per cent for 15 seconds). Moolman Pasio knew exactly which one she wanted: "My tactic was to launch at the bottom of the climb because it was a 900m climb and the first switchback bend was the steepest part and to use the feather power up on that corner."

After getting one on the penultimate archway she decided to keep it to the end rather than risk using it and being stuck with the less effective aero boost at the crucial moment. However, after all the preparation, there was a moment during the race when Moolman Pasio wasn't sure if she could pull it off: "It was going really well and then we hit the slightly longer 2.4km climb," she said. "There was a moment where I doubted myself because I thought 'this pace is so hard'

"That was where a lot of people got dropped like Annemiek and Anna, the peloton was halved on that climb but I hung in there and eventually it did settle down and little bit and I felt confident again," she said.

Her determination allowed her to hold on: "I was so committed to this race and I suppose it helped me dig a little bit deeper," she added.

In the end, Moolman Pasio's plan came together and on the final climb she detonated the watts and the feather power-up at the same time, getting a gap which only Sarah Gigante could follow. "As it flattened off Gigante kept coming," she said. "I had to keep pushing all the way to the finish line."

The race was so close that the gap between Gigante and Moolman Pasio was a mere 0.06 seconds. "It's the same kind of feelings you get after winning any race, there's a real high, an endorphin rush," she said of her win.

However mixed the reception of the event may have been, for Moolman Pasio, becoming the first-ever winner of a virtual cycling world championships meant as much as any title: "I know many will say it's not the real deal because it's not a world championships on the road but it is a new, official discipline and I really believe it's going to become big," she said. "Esports is going to become a popular cycling discipline. I'm pretty proud to be the first ever esports world champion and to be an early adopter."

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