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Pro Pain Cave: Can anyone beat South Africa's James Barnes on a tech level?

James Barnes
(Image credit: James Barnes )

A mesmerising intro is pinned to the front page of James Barnes' Twitch channel, a page where he regularly streams Zwift rides and races to hundreds of viewers. The South African has won five stages of the Zwift Racing League - Men's Premier Division, while also earning an additional three podiums along the way. In a sport more often determined by fractions of a millisecond, Barnes' success is nothing short of dominant. 

Coached by Alex Coh of Endurance Sport, Barnes has risen to the top of the Zwift racing world in just the past few months. He has become the man to beat in any race that ends in a sprint, and he has helped lead his team, NeXT eSport pb Enshored to complete domination of the last two seasons of the ZRL Premier Division. 

Barnes' streaming habit only began in February 2020 during COVID lockdowns as a way to pass the time on the trainer and maybe help his fellow riders. He had been racing on Zwift since the beta days, but finally made the jump to the NeXT eSport team in August 2021 as a natural progression of his Zwift racing. 

After Season 1 of the ZRL Premier Division 2021-22, Barnes set his sights on the Zwift Africa Continental Qualifiers for the 2022 Cycling eSport World Championships due to holding citizenship in South Africa and currently residing in New Zealand. Despite a dropped chain in the final sprint, Barnes finished second in the Qualifiers and punched his ticket to the UCI Cycling eSports World Championships

A few months on, and Barnes is still racing, winning - and streaming. His pain cave setup is a sight to see, with high-tech gaming equipment, a Zwitch (Twitch + Zwift community) livestream setup, and a few personal touches that make the space his own. You can find Barnes' Twitch channel here

James Barnes' Zwift setup looks modest at first, but the devil is in the detail (Image credit: James Barnes )

Like many indoor racing enthusiasts, Barnes has an entire room dedicated to Zwifting, including a new desk and multiple direct-drive smart trainers. The desk is a recently-upgraded 1.8m piece, with 27in and 23in monitors that Barnes is hoping to enlarge soon. 

Especially in the New Zealand summer, Barnes needs (at least) two fans pointed his way at all times, preferably from multiple angles. 

The South African currently has two Wahoo KICKR V5 turbo trainers, one from NeXT eSport pb Enshored for ZRL Premier Division racing, and one sent directly from Wahoo to be used in the UCI eSport World Championships. Barnes has completely the infamous ZADA test on both trainers, a brutal series of power tests including 1-minute, 4-minute, 7-minute, 12-minute, and two 15-second efforts, all in the same ride. 

Barnes rides a Cabal aero bike with Shimano Ultegra Di2, and often uses sandbags wrapped around the legs of the KICKR to prevent the trainer from bouncing during sprints. Surprisingly, Barnes doesn't use any front wheel holder. 

Easily one of the most technically advanced Zwift setups we've seen (Image credit: James Barnes )

Powering Barnes Zwift and stream setup is a custom-built Ryzen 7 5800x computer with more details than I know how to handle. As a gamer who has always enjoyed tech, I will let Barnes finish describing his custom-built computer: "GSkill HyperX DDR4 3200mhz 32gb, EVGA RTX2060 SC Ultra, NvMe 1tb Samsung Evo 960, Lian Li 360mm AIO Cooler, Gigabyte x570 Aorus Ultra Motherboard - PC Graphics card is next thing on the list to upgrade along with new web camera."

Behind the bike sits a pop-up sponsors banner supplied by his team (Image credit: James Barnes )

Directly behind Barnes is the collapsible banner from NeXT eSport pb Enshored, which covers the background of Barnes' streams and provides plenty of room for sponsors to show off their logos. 

In the corner of the room, Barnes has a backlit shelf that is the most personal and unique feature of this modern pain cave. Upon the shelves sit helmets, memorabilia, storage, and Goodr glasses that have all been part of Barnes' cycling journey. 

Barnes' two monitors are supposedly due an upgrade (Image credit: James Barnes )

Barnes' microphone is a Blue Yeti Snowball, with a sock tightened over the top to help prevent background noise from leaking into the audio. He also uses Nvidia Broadcast to remove excess background noise such as the trainer or fans. In Barnes' words, "this is one of the most impressive," additions to his set-up, and a "game changer for your stream."

The sounds system is a Logitech Z533, with Logitech C920 (Main Front) and Logitech C320 (Trainer/Side Camera) cameras for streaming. 

James Barnes

Barnes in action wearing his national team kit (Image credit: James Barnes )

All put together, Barnes' set-up may not be the most impressive-looking of them all, but it is certainly one of the most personalized, functional and connected. The Twitch streaming has really made an impact on Barnes and the community around him. There is even an integrated text-to-speech function that helps motivate Barnes and keep it fun. He is even able to choose sound clips to play to encapsulate a moment. 

About the Zwitch community, Barnes said, "Everyone is super supportive and helpful towards each other. Motivating each other and being there in each others' streams, often to support but sometimes troll (Ewan and Grubby are Masters). 

"Bikebeast aka Wilson is the main force behind the community and what it has grown into today but not forgetting the other guys GeneralElost, Pookiebutt, Andy, RaySpace, Baardy, Cheerio, Tepi, Haggen, EtchChampion, Mathjazh, Nico, Regi, Kyoshiro, Grubbyalien, Pimp, Ewan, Moallen and a bunch of others who are not listed here (!r pushup if I forgot you)."

In February 2020, Barnes said, "We would average 3-5 viewers a stream and see one maybe two other people streaming Zwift. It is amazing to see how this has grown in the last year with there always being a selection of people streaming Zwift at any given time and I see 100 people tuning in to my ZRL races. This is also no doubt been helped by the work that Nathan Guerra has done with Zwift Live Community and now with the legend himself Dave Towle. What an awesome team."

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Zach is a freelance writer, the head of ZNehr Coaching, and an elite-level rider in road, track, and e-racing. He writes about everything cycling-related, from buyer's guides to product reviews and feature articles to power analyses. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science at Marian University-Indianapolis, Zach discovered a passion for writing that soon turned into a full-fledged career. In between articles, Zach spends his time working with endurance athletes of all abilities and ages at ZNehr Coaching. After entering the sport at age 17, Zach went on to have a wonderful road racing career that included winning the 2017 Collegiate National Time Trial Championships and a 9th place finish at the 2019 US Pro National Time Trial Championships. Nowadays, Zach spends most of his ride time indoors with NeXT eSport.