2022 Esports Directors
Team USA

Behind The Scenes of Team USA at Esports Worlds

By: Jim Rusnak  February 14, 2022

There's a lot that happens behind the screen of an event that's done completely remote.

Later this month, the athletes representing the United States at the 2022 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships will log on to Zwift and grind it out on the virtual streets of New York City. When they do, they can spin a little more confidently on their smart trainers knowing they have some of the best support in the world in their three race directors, Matt Gardiner, Greg Grosicki and Jennifer Real.

Those three will serve as co-directors for the nine Elite Men and 10 Elite Women competing in this year’s event, which will take place February 26. Their job is to prepare these cyclists for the competition and help them deploy their different strategies on race day.

What They Do

“We interview the riders to kind of see where they’re at, and what their expectations are for this race,” Gardiner said. “We want to know how they see winning the World Championships. Then we want to take all those different strategies and feed it into how we think the race is going to play out.”

On the day of the race, they’ll work together to monitor the vital stats—heart rate, wattage output, etc.—of their racers and those of their competitors. They’ll interpret that data and relay the information in real time to their team via a messaging app. The racers should then have the relevant stats they need to make all the right moves during the race."

“That’s probably the biggest thing we’ll be doing – watching the race,” Gardiner said. “This is a unique sport where you can see your competitors’ exertion, see their heart rates, how much power they’re putting out, and where they’re positioned. We can see all of that very, very quickly—in real time—and make very quick judgement calls on what to do based on how the race is playing out.”

It’s their role to make the lives of each individual athlete on the team easier and give them a competitive edge on race day.

“Ultimately, it’s making sure that our guys and girls get on the starting line in a good head space,” Grosicki said. “I think that’s really the biggest role the director can play—keeping the (racers) calm and keeping them confident. On the day of the race, it’s really just working with the racers to make sure everyone kind of has a plan that we agree on a plan going in.

“As the director, I can look at a rider’s watts and heart rate whenever I want. From a physiological perspective I can know how deep in the well a guy is, and what likelihood there is that he’s going to be able to hold on to that lead. Working in the field of physiology and being able to see the numbers these guys are pushing is pretty darn impressive.”

Real will act as the lead director for the women’s team at Worlds. One of her main duties will be to bring all the women who race for different teams together into one team for Team USA.

“Zwift racing has its own tactics, and you have to really understand the game, you have to understand the speed and the power and how it all works to be successful at it,” Real said. “The role of the director is really to help these women make a plan ahead of time, but also in the midst of the race, we’re always adjusting that plan because things are always happening and things are always changing.

“That is really key to success in Zwift racing at the highest level – to have that kind of team plan and ability to adjust on the fly and just have someone who’s looking at the whole race calmly, collectedly with a low heart rate.”

Why They Play ‘The Game’

While each racer at these World Championships will be competing remotely, they won’t be alone. They’re in great hands with these three co-directors.

Gardiner, 31, of Des Moines, Iowa, works for his family’s audit and tax business. He has been racing for five and a half years on Zwift and founded one of the top teams in the sport of e-racing, Saris/NoPinz.

Over the course of his e-racing career, Gardiner has logged in over 2,700 hours and 67,240 miles on Zwift, which ranks him as one of the top 50 cyclists worldwide on that app. He often refers to the virtual races—including the upcoming World Championships—as “the game.”

“I’m a gamer at heart,” Gardiner said. “That’s kind of how I see it. I didn’t grow up riding bikes. I grew up playing video games. This is just me doing a much healthier version of an addiction from childhood.”

One of the biggest things Gardiner loves about e-racing is the accessibility.

“I can race at 4 in the morning against absolutely crazy-strong people from around the world, and then go wake my son up 20 minutes later.” Gardiner said. “There’s nothing better than that. You couldn’t pay me enough to race on the road, where I’m going to be away from my actual life all the time, just to ride my bike. It’s so nice to be able to do it here.

“Also, I live in Des Moines, Iowa. At local competitions, there’s definitely some strong people here, but I’m not racing World-Tour-level people in Des Moines. But World Tour pros jump into Zwift races pretty regularly.”

Grosicki, 33, of Savannah, Ga., is a professor and research scientist in the field of exercise physiology at Georgia Southern University. A lifelong elite, amateur triathlete, he’s competed in the Iron Man World Championships and ran regularly in the Boston Marathon.

Then he had a child, the pandemic hit, and his access to competition dried up. He found Zwift about two years ago and fell in love with it for the same reasons as Gardiner. That is, he could wake up early, compete in the virtual world, then go about his day without his athletic ambitions interfering with the more important things in life.

He races for Next Esport, which boasts one of the largest contingents of riders at these World Championships.

“I think another thing that has been so rewarding about it is meeting so many like-minded people,” Grosicki said. “They’re competitive and driven in their day jobs—but also on Zwift—to be the best they can be. I’ve met people literally around the world on Zwift that I feel I’ve become friends with. It’s pretty cool.”

Real, Gardiner’s teammate and women’s team manager on Saris/NoPinz, is a doctor living in Fredericksburg, Texas.

She took up sports late in life, buying her first road bike at the age of 37 with the goal of competing in a triathlon by the time she turned 40. She completed six or seven before she hit that milestone. She began racing Zwift in 2017 and won silver at the 2019 Zwift National Championships.

The best thing about virtual racing for Real is the positive and supportive environment, where cyclists from all over the world can get online, have fun and work hard together.

“That was kind of my intro to bike racing, through Zwift, because where I lived in Hawaii at the time, we really didn’t have many bike races,” Real said. “Zwift was kind of that competitive outlet, that positive environment. The other thing I love is how it brings together women from all over the world. I have women I consider very close friends that I’ve never met in person and live thousands and thousands of miles away.”

The Goals and Outlook for the U.S. Team

As the three get closer to the World Championships, they are optimistic about their teams’ potential. The course—three virtual laps around New York City with a challenging stair-step climb thrown in for good measure—plays to the teams’ strengths.

“Our goal is definitely to win,” Gardiner said. “I think we have a real shot. We have a number of racers on our team who are real specialists at this duration of climb. It favors people who can really punch hard repeatedly for three and a half minutes, and we’ve got racers who can do that.

“Our second goal would be—at a minimum—to have someone podium, and I think we can get a few in the top 10. I think we have one of the best men’s and women’s rosters of all the countries, and I think we have the most riders of any country.”

Most importantly, Grosicki said, they have a group of riders willing to work together.

“We’re really lucky in that our athletes in the US are very transparent and honest and open with one another about their unique skills,” Grosicki said. “I think that’s why we’re going to do so well. [They] are 100 percent willing to work for the team. That can be really big in Zwift racing. Sometimes it takes one guy to knowingly sacrifice his race for the good of the team, and I think we have a bunch of guys on the team who are willing to do that.”

Real says the talent on the American women’s side is just incredible and places them in a great position to score a win.

“We have the largest team, the most talented team, and we have the most depth,” Real said. “A win for anyone on the team is a win for the entire team, and it’s going to take an entire team to get that, because there are a lot of strong women in this race.”