Virtual reality: how cyclists are pedalling through the pandemic
On the fourth day of March this year, Australian cycling team Mitchelton-Scott became the first member of the World Tour peloton to withdraw from all forthcoming racing as a result of the emerging pandemic. Other teams soon followed, until all races had been suspended indefinitely. For an international sport that sees hundreds of riders and staff crisscross the globe on a weekly basis, Covid-19 posed an existential threat.
But barely two days later, Mitchelton-Scott made another announcement: they were returning to racing. The coronavirus may have forced professional cycling off the road, but it would not keep riders from competition for long. Instead, they would go online and enter the world of esports.
Virtual cycling has been on the rise throughout the latter half of this decade. Market leader Zwift was established in 2014, while an Australian competitor, FulGaz, launched soon afterwards. By 2019, 15% of all rides logged on Strava, an exercise tracking service, were virtual. The pandemic has turbocharged this growth and brought virtual cycling firmly into the mainstream.
“We saw the industry caught by surprise,” admits Wesley Sulzberger, a former professional cyclist and the Australia country manager for Zwift. His company’s platform has seen a 300% year-on-year growth in daily activity during the pandemic, and now claims to have 2.8 million accounts registered across 190 countries.
As the world went into lockdown, the hardware needed for virtual cycling – a smart trainer that connects to a bike and measures power output – was suddenly alongside toilet paper on the hard-to-find list. “Equipment sold out worldwide by May,” says Sulzberger. “Even now, equipment is in short supply.”
In essence, virtual cycling takes a rider’s real-life physical output and converts it to a moving avatar on a computer screen. “It blends the fun of video games with the intensity of serious training,” Sulzberger says. Zwift seeks to be as realistic as possible: users experience the gradient of mountain climbs and the “draft” of other riders, albeit on a virtual route as they interact via the internet rather than over the shoulder.
With the World Tour suspended from mid-March, Zwift races were suddenly the next best thing for elite cyclists. The esports dimension of virtual cycling is not entirely novel; a Zwift world championships had been foreshadowed last September by Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the global governing body. But Covid-19 gave added impetus to these events. Zwift racing, says Sulzberger, “has helped fill the gaps left by traditional sport in this unprecedented year.” The platform even hosted a virtual Tour de France in July, more than a month before a postponed edition of the real thing took place as World Tour cycling returned between the pandemic’s waves.
In mid-December, 12 Australian cyclists contested the inaugural UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. Several riders welcomed Guardian Australia into their homes for the virtual event.
‘I’ll happily drink coffee for Australia’
11.15pm, Bre and Jay Vine’s kitchen
From the outside – on a nondescript street in far-north Canberra – there is nothing to suggest something remarkable is about to happen at the house of Bre and Jay Vine, late on an unseasonably cool summer evening. The same is true from inside their living room; the married couple, both 25, are lounging on the couch next to a Christmas tree, watching television. But in the coming hours, the pair will each represent Australia, albeit from the comfort of their home. “I’m nervous, as always, but super excited,” says Bre. “Hopefully it will all go to plan.”
The Vines have been using Zwift for four years, and racing competitively on the platform for the past two. Jay has just returned from far north New South Wales, where he won two stages during a (non-virtual) National Road Series event. “It is a different feeling,” he says of the comparison with road cycling. “You can feel the anticipation building before the race but there’s no way to release it – there are no other cyclists, no crowds – it’s all just inside you, in your living room.”
The world championships were scheduled on European time: for Australians competitors, the women’s race is first up at 12.40am, followed by the men at 1.45am. All riders are contesting a 50km course in the virtual world of “Watopia”, featuring almost 500m of elevation. Having spent the day napping, and with a long night ahead, the Vines are enjoying their first caffeinated boost of the evening. “It is pretty brutal timing,” says Jay, “but I’ll happily drink coffee for Australia.”
The Vines are both semi-professional cyclists; Jay is eager for a World Tour contract, and the pair are learning Spanish in the hope of joining a European-based team. Their national-team counterparts are a mix of pros and semi-pros. Bre is riding alongside 20-year-old Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB), hailed as Australia’s next big thing, while Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott) and Will Clarke (Trek-Segafredo) are among Jay’s colleagues. They face some big-name competition: two-time Giro Rosa winner Annemiek van Vleuten and dual road-race world champion Anna van der Breggen headline the Dutch squad.
But the Vines say many full-time pros are yet to adapt to Zwift racing. “It is a game,” says Jay, drawing comparisons with Call of Duty. “Like any game, there is a learning curve. It takes 20 or 30 races to start to find the nuances in the game.” Among the “gamified” aspects of the race are power-ups: riders can be awarded “aero” or “lightweight” power-ups at different locations on the course, increasing speed or decreasing weight for 15 seconds at a time. “But once you have learned the game, it is just like any other discipline of cycling,” Jay adds.
Virtual racing also differs from road racing in duration. While a typical road stage might take five or six hours, Zwift races normally last around 60 minutes. “This is just an hour of maximum effort,” says Bre. “Whereas on the road it is all about saving energy.” That makes Zwift races more comparable to a criterium or a time trial than a road race.
The format is another reason professional cyclist have not dominated the discipline since arriving en-masse during lockdown. “The pros really come into their element four or five hours down the road,” says Jay. “Zwift races aren’t long enough for their advantage to be felt.”
A final distinguishing feature of Zwift racing is the relatively level playing field. At world championship road races, each national team is riding for one or at most two riders who might have the ability to win; it is very much a team endeavour, focused around a single protected rider. Zwift is more egalitarian. “We haven’t gone out with a specific leader, we have maybe four riders with the potential to get away,” says Bre. Jay says the men’s team have adopted a similar strategy: “If we all start sprinting at slightly different times at the last climb, one of us will be up there for the win.”
As the race start looms, Bre logs on to Zwift and begins to warm up on her trainer. She joins the team audio channel and chats casually with her teammates. Jay makes Bre a final coffee – with four shots. “It is a bit bitter,” she grimaces. The couple, with their bikes set up parallel in a dedicated training room, wish each other good luck and Bre begins to race. Her virtual avatar sets off in a peloton of 54 riders from 18 countries. Within minutes Bre’s heart rate, displayed prominently on the Zwift display, is above 180 beats per minute.
‘This is supplementing, not replacing’
Two months ago, Donna Rae-Szalinski received an unusual request. A former professional rider and long-time coach, Rae-Szalinski is a popular figure in Australian cycling circles given her friendly demeanour and frequent work coordinating national teams at races across the globe. But stuck in Geelong and with international travel impossible, she did not expect to be managing another national team. That was, at least, until the esports world championships came along.
For Rae-Szalinski, that AusCycling would appoint a team coordinator is proof the peak body is taking this new cycling discipline seriously. The riders have received national team kit, undertaken course reconnaissance rides together and had planning calls to talk through team tactics. “It feels very strange to not have training camps, to not see riders face-to-face,” says Rae-Szalinski. “But otherwise, we have treated this just as we would any other national team.”
In 2020, AusCycling held a virtual National Road Series with Zwift, which saw domestic teams compete across six events between May and July. Last month, the organisation announced an expansion of its partnership with Zwift, with a suite of online racing and recreational events planned for next year.
“We see virtual cycling as a core part of AusCycling,” says Kipp Kaufmann, the peak body’s general manager of events and racing. “On our website we list our disciplines: BMX, mountain bike, cyclo-cross, road cycling, track cycling, para-cycling and esports cycling. We see it as on par with those other disciplines. This is supplementing, not replacing, other forms of cycling.”
Rae-Szalinski is quick to sing the praises of cycling’s newest arrival. “Esports cycling is awesome – it is getting more people on bikes,” she says. “It fits the mould for so many people who love cycling and want to be competitive but don’t have the time to train 25 hours a week. This lets them fit it in with their lifestyle.”
That is certainly true for one member of the Australian team, Vicki Whitelaw. Now 43, the Canberran raced professionally on the road in the late 2000s and represented her country at the UCI road world championships on four consecutive occasion. But after retiring and having children, Whitelaw found Zwift to be the perfect alternative.
“I started e-cycling eight years ago,” says Whitelaw. “I needed sanity after having a couple of babies, but I could not go out and ride for hours. Ecycling enabled me to literally ride in my lounge room while my kids napped.”
Whitelaw is a founding member of Heino Racing Team, a Denmark-registered Zwift team. “We are the best female esports team,” she says proudly. Many Zwift racing series feature not-insignificant prize purses, giving the riders an added incentive. “We meet-up virtually, we recon courses, we plan accordingly – it is very professional, very organised and we are winning a lot of races,” Whitelaw adds.
As Zwift racing becomes increasingly high-profile – and lucrative – it will become even more important to maintain its sporting integrity. Just as doping has plagued road cycling, cheating is beginning to surface in the virtual world. “We have seen some reports around the integrity of esports,” admits AusCycling’s Kaufmann. “We are learning at the same time as we implement. Ensuring integrity will be a key component to growing the discipline.”
To use Zwift, riders enter their weight, which determines the power to weight ratio (watts per kilogram) and hence how fast a rider goes in the virtual world. Submitting a falsely low weight is an easy way to cheat, although Zwift has algorithms to identify suspicious output (such riders are flagged with a “cone of shame” above their avatar). For the esports world championships, participants were required to submit a video demonstrating their height and weight within 24 hours of the race start.
But more sophisticated cheating is also on the horizon; last year Vice profiled a cybersecurity expert who had hacked his smart trainer to manipulate the data flow. To mitigate this risk, the UCI supplied all competitors at the world championships with identical smart trainer systems.
In a post-Covid world, in-person esports competition might be one way to ensure integrity. “Performing on a stage with everyone on the same trainers, with everyone weighed and drug tested beforehand – that would be the ultimate,” says Whitelaw. “But if we had to travel to compete, that would also detract from why we are doing virtual cycling in the first place.”
‘Every day of training has come to this’
1.35am, Ben Hill’s living room
In another Canberra suburb, a small crowd has gathered to cheer on Australian competitor Ben Hill. Despite the time of night, his wife Rebecca Hill (née Wiasak – a former track cycling world champion), the couple’s two-month-old daughter, Ben’s mother, and two friends, have convened in a crowded living room. With 10 minutes until the men’s race starts, Ben is nonchalant. “I wonder if I can still wear the Australian kit on Zwift after Worlds,” he muses. For the first time in his life, Ben is wearing a green and gold outfit, while his avatar is sporting an almost identical virtual garb.
Beck, holding baby Ava, appears somewhat less calm. Cables lie strewn across the floor, connecting Ben’s trainer to the power and internet. If either connection fails during the race, Ben will be eliminated. “There was a power outage here earlier today,” Beck recalls. “I was wondering if I could source a generator!”
The couple are both big Zwift fans. “You can get hit by a car, or swooped by a magpie, there’s been bushfires, and then Covid-19,” explains Beck. “Why face any of that when you can ride online?” Ben has spent recent years riding professionally in Europe with Team Ljubljana Gusto; having now returned to Australia to become a father, Zwift has been an outlet for his competitive streak.
With the men’s racing beginning, the spectators shift attention to a Eurosport feed on their phones as the women’s race reaches its climax. South Africa’s Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, a World Tour rider with CCC Liv, sprints to victory with Australia’s Gigante close behind. “The first-ever world champion in cycling esports,” booms the commentator. Bre Vine finishes 10th. Beck relays the strong results from team Australia to Ben as he pedals.
Despite an early pace among the men’s 78-rider strong peloton, Ben looks untroubled. “Easy-peasy,” he smiles. With Ben surrounded by four whirring fans keeping him cool, the spectators begin to shiver. “It feels like Antarctica here,” quips Ben’s friend, Andrew Flood.
The tempo increases in the final kms, until Ben is at his threshold. The bleary-eyed spectators squint at the television to read the race, while Ben keeps his head down and pedals hard on the final climb. Beck screams: “500m to a rainbow jersey – forever in the history books! 400m – give it everything you have! Every day of training has come to this.”
Ben crosses the line and exhales. “Damnit!” he grimaces, upon seeing his fifth placing. “I thought I was third on the line.” As the footage replays on the screen, he realises the ultimate winner, German’s Jason Osborne, managed a late attack. “I gave it my all, I wouldn’t have been able to do what he did,” Ben concedes. As the clock above him ticks past 3am, Ben and the group conduct an impromptu post-race analysis. “You were up there with the best,” offers Beck. Ben replies: “I know, but I wanted to be the best.”
As he sits on his bike in front of the television screen, Ben looks forlorn. It may have been a virtual race taking place over Zwift, but to the riders, this was a world championships like any other. Welcome to the future of cycling.