Amid pandemic, e-cycling flourishes and gets seriously competitive

By | February 20, 2021

It didn’t take long for Moolman to become a convert. In December, the 35-year-old won the first e-cycling world championships. “Now I’m totally sold on e-cycling,” she says. “It’s exciting and I find the same satisfaction from it as I do racing on the road.”

Like the Peloton at-home studio cycling boom for casual riders, e-cycling as an option for competitive cyclists has taken off in popularity. Created by Zwift, an online platform that serves as an indoor training/virtual community for cyclists around the world, it has grown quickly since hitting the scene in 2014. It added racing in 2018, and when the pandemic hit, interest grew among competitive cyclists along with the opportunity for validating e-cycling as a legitimate category of the sport. While other platforms have gotten into e-cycling, Zwift still attracts the lion’s share of users.

When the first season of the racing league finished in December, over 1,200 teams had taken part, from the amateur level on up to the pro level known as the premier division. In the premier division, teams participate by invitation only — 18 men’s and 18 women’s teams made the cut. Zwift required teams to register 10 cyclists, five of whom they can field per race. Fans were able to follow along via live broadcasts as they would live road cycling events.

Unlike Peloton and similar at-home virtual biking setups, competitive e-cycling involves riders’ own bikes and a bike trainer — a device into which they fasten their rear axles, allowing their rear tire to meet up with a resistance roller. To add in the Zwift application, cyclists usually use a newer, “smart” trainer that pairs with the app, featuring a built-in power meter to measure a biker’s output and to control resistance.

The app then projects a course onto a screen — an iPad or the like — with riders showing up as avatars, and the ride begins in real time just like an outdoor competitive race. There are myriad iterations of courses — including the famous Tour de France route or the Richmond Challenge virtually set on the same course where the UCI World Championships took place in 2015 — along with virtual worlds and roads. An in-game algorithm automatically adjusts the resistance on the synced trainer to match the terrain on the screen. Like live cycling, the game can determine when cyclists are sitting in each other’s slipstream — known as drafting — saving energy.

One of the elements that has helped e-cycling catch fire is that cyclists can join “group rides” virtually with friends or teammates, compete for top marks on particular climbs and earn points to move up levels. It’s all set in a realistic virtual universe, far more riveting than the old days of sitting in the basement on a trainer watching reruns on TV. While the Peloton app and others deliver the group workout camaraderie, they tend to be more akin to an in-studio experience than e-cycling’s realistic and competitive road experience

Legitimate sport?

Amateurs and pros alike have found e-cycling a useful adjunct to regular training, but it wasn’t until the pandemic took hold a year ago that racing took off.

“Normally, March is the month that pros are getting back on the roads in Europe and North America, but then lockdowns hit central Europe, and we saw a huge spike in people coming to the platform,” says Chris Snook, Zwift’s manager of public relations. “We saw as many riders onboard between April and May as we had in the prior six months combined.”

When it became apparent that the pandemic wasn’t ending any time soon, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the Switzerland-based governing board that oversees the rules and regulations of cycling, launched several elite, invitation-only virtual races, including a virtual Tour de France in July (before the traditional one, which occurred in August), and finishing with the World Championships in December.

“Like most sports, cycling was forced to stop its elite and amateur competition calendars,” says Louis Chenaille, UCI media relations officer. “Cycling’s stakeholders were prompt in working together to create a series of virtual events.”

Both races were invitation only. To be eligible to race the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, riders were required to be a part of an anti-doping testing pool registered with their home nation. There were 54 women in the elite field and 78 men. For the Virtual Tour de France, there were 16 professional women’s teams and 23 professional men’s from the UCI World Tour. Teams were able to field four riders per race and could rotate riders for each stage.

In April, Moolman entered her first e-cycling race, the virtual Trofeo Bologna — which was a virtual replica of the “prologue” course to the 2019 Giro d’Italia, probably second in prestige to only the Tour de France. Moolman snagged her first e-cylcing win here.

“The adrenaline rush was just like the real world,” she says.

The style of racing particularly suits Moolman, she says. “Not all road cyclists are good at e-cycling and vice versa,” she says.

Whether e-cycling will gain as much legitimacy as the long-standing road races — and continue on past the pandemic — remains to be seen. One factor will be whether it can attract enough fans. Judging by this summer’s virtual Tour de France, the numbers are encouraging, Snook says.

“Over 40 million watched the event and 140 countries received the broadcast, the same as the real race,” he says.

Endurance sports journalist Brad Culp is more skeptical.

“Anything that gets people riding their bikes is great,” he says. “But as a 25-year fan of real cycling, the idea of someone being awarded rainbow stripes [the world champion jersey] for an e-cycling race seems absurd.”

Female cyclists like the e-cycling category for the parity with male cyclists that it offers. In over 100 years of its existence, the Tour de France has never allowed females to race the same course and distance as male cyclists. While there is no official answer to the reasoning behind this, large TV audiences that draw lucrative ads and sponsorships are part of the equation.

The virtual event, however, put both races on the same course and offered equal prize purses. The same held true for December’s World Championships, where the traditional women’s race is usually shorter and sometimes on a different course than the men’s race. In the esports version, Moolman earned 8,000 British pounds — about $11,000 — just as did the male winner, Germany’s Jason Osborne.

E-cycling also offers female athletes equal exposure as men for sponsorships. “E-cycling attracts a diverse and younger audience, where road cycling generally attracts an older male audience,” Moolman says.

Sponsors, including Toyota and Specialized Bicycle Components, are some of the heavyweights now putting their money behind the niche, sponsoring both male and female e-teams.

Speed bumps

Because it’s just taking off, the UCI and Zwift are still working to develop an official rule book for the e-cycling category, and as future Olympic Games consider ­esports for inclusion, there are still issues to smooth out.

Cheating — long endemic to the sport of cycling — found its way into e-cycling, too. Some riders have tried to beat the system by entering a lower weight, which can help them in the app’s algorithm, and others have resorted to “mechanical doping” where cyclists’ alter their trainers to miscalibrate them for better results.

Zwift says it’s aware of these issues and is determined to address them.

“We’ve learned a lot over the past year and are developing the best ways to police the sport,” Snook says. “There’s a lot of data we can analyze, and we’ve built out tech passports for the pros who take part.”

Moolman acknowledges that not all pros are on board with the new style of racing. But for her, there’s no going back — she will continue to enter e-cycling races as well as traditional road races once the pandemic recedes.

“I do think it is the future,” she says. “I’m proud to be one of the early adopters.”

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