Racing to the
top in the cellar

Others go into the cellar to get supplies. Or to turn on the washing machine. Christoph Thiem descends into the windowless room to compete with the world’s best. What he needs for this is a laptop, a screen, a bicycle mounted on an indoor bike trainer and a stable internet connection. With these components, the Opel employee has made a name for himself from underground in Mainz – in virtual road bike races under professional conditions.

Update: Congratulations! Christoph Thiem crossed the finish line in 23rd place and Jason Osborne took the bronze medal at the 2022 Esports World Championships (26. 2.). The recording of the race is available on Zwift’s YouTube platform.

He won the German Cycling Academy (GCA) Bundesliga and advanced to the highest class of the “Premier Division”. On February 26, he will take part in the World Championships in New York. In the German national jersey of the German Cycling Federation (BDR). The virtual racecourse of the UCI eSports World Championships 2022 runs through Central Park. “Supplemented by transparent bridges for a good climb,” says the athlete as he warms up during a training session.

In the basement: When all competitions were cancelled in the spring of 2020, Christoph Thiem, like many members of “Team Rheinhessen”, moved their riding training to virtual worlds.
To the top: His career as a virtual rider got rolling when he was spotted by the GCA, the digital offshoot of the German Cycling Federation, and invited to join the “Beastmode” team.

“Cycling is a team sport. You’re there for each other, you’re part of a whole.”


180 der weltbesten Radsport-eSportler gehen bei den UCI Esports World Championships 2022 an den Start. Gefahren werden 54,9 Kilometer, 944 Höhenmeter müssen erklommen werden. Der New Yorker Parcours ist eine 180 of the world’s best cycling eSports athletes will compete in the UCI Esports World Championships 2022. The race will cover 54.9 kilometres and 944 metres of altitude. The New York course is a fantasy world modelled on Central Park from 100 years ago. It is a challenging course with hardly any flat asphalt sections and a mix of hilly and steep terrain. Transparent ramps and bridges have gradients of up to 17 per cent. The virtual race of the International Cycling Union is organised by Zwift. When thousands of races around the world were cancelled due to the pandemic, competitions shifted to the indoor fitness platform.  

The starting field in this type of virtual race is top-class. When the worldwide pandemic hit in spring 2020, not only ambitious amateurs brought their racing bikes into their own four walls, but professionals also removed the rear wheel of their bike and exchanged it for an indoor bike trainer. During Thiem’s training sessions, the avatar of world-class triathlete Jan Frodeno is sometimes on the course, and at the UCI Cycling eSports World Championships this weekend he will be part of Olympian Jason Osbornes team. The silver medallist in rowing (lightweight quadruple sculls) at the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo has since become a professional cyclist. And Osborne will be competing in New York as the defending champion. With the support of his Opel teammate, he wants to claim his second eCycling World Championship title. Thiem: “A lot of people don’t realize that cycling is always a team sport. You are there for each other. You are part of a whole.”

From roller skiing to rowing to cycling

The sweat is pouring, the climb seems never-ending: “You can do it!” Thiem cheers on a rider friend via headset. The neighbours have got used to it by now. When they do their laundry, there’s a battle going on in the next room. Every evening. To prepare for the World Championships, the man from Mainz also spent a week cross-country skiing in the Allgäu. Christoph Thiem, born in 1985, has been an endurance athlete since his youth, he started with roller skiing, later he was a successful rower in the national team. Cycling was actually just a way to work on his fitness, but in the meantime the 36-year-old has turned his back on the water and is completely committed to the racing saddle. In 2019, he competed in a road race for the first time at the Eschborn-Frankfurt cycling classic and promptly finished 20th. Bundesliga races followed and with the onset of the pandemic, the passion quickly became virtual.

The commitment: The elite amateur pedals away every day.
The setting: eCycling is sweaty, fans are a must.

“eCycling is real competitive sport, the physical effort drives avatars, the conditions are fair.”

The Opel engineer had no reservations about taking to the track virtually. “eCycling is real competitive sport, the physical effort drives avatars on the screen, the conditions are fair,” he explains. All riders have the same smart trainers, which react to changes such as virtual gradients and simulate slipstream. He knows only too well what technology can do. Dr Christoph Thiem – his doctorate was on the optimisation of virtual development methods – works in Opel Advanced Development, in the Autonomous Driving group.

Training artificial intelligence

Together with other manufacturers and suppliers, the Opel team ensures that autonomous driving becomes a reality. An important lever here is the quality of the artificial intelligence (AI). It analyses the camera images, controls the car. “Without AI, autonomous driving is not possible. The systems read, calculate and interpret comprehensive data – all at the same time,” says Thiem. “And we basically train the AI systems with data sets towards a goal, such as recognising road signs.” Or pedestrians. And with high precision. Thiem: “The AI has to recognise a pedestrian even if he or she is sitting on a unicycle dressed up as a giraffe.”

Christoph Thiem covered 25,000 km in the saddle last year.

On average, he pedals 350 watts during an eCycling race – that’s enough to light up about 16 energy-saving light bulbs.

There are no brakes, they are deactivated for eCycling.

Experience the race live

For the big race at the UCI eSports World Championships 2022, the Opel analyst will even move his racing bike out of the basement. Together with Jason Osborne, he will pedal the highly demanding course through New York on Saturday, February 26, 2022, in the clubhouse of the Mainz Rowing Club. He is putting himself entirely at the service of the reigning world champion: “If Jason doesn’t need my help, then a finish around 30th place is possible. Maybe, it’s hard to predict.” In any case, we are keeping our fingers crossed!

The race will be broadcast by Eurosport. You can also watch it live on Zwift’s YouTube platform.

February 2022

Text: Tina Henze, Photos: Alex Heimann