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New Opportunities in The Age of Virtual Competition

By Megan Flottorp

There was already a lot of chatter happening around e-sports, the changing role of Zwift, and the future of virtual cycling before the pandemic hit, and now – it’s an even more pertinent topic. Undoubtedly, among the biggest cycling innovations to happen within the last decade, there’s no arguing with the crucial role these digital platforms are currently playing. At this point, pretty much every serious cyclist knows what it is like to sit on a stationary bike and power his or her digital cycling persona over a simulated racecourse.

What was initially presented as an attempt to improve indoor riding and make it more social, the founders of Zwift could have had no idea the role their innovation would come to play. Now offering hundreds of miles of courses all over the world, including routes in London, New York, Innsbruck, and even the 2019 UCI World Championship course in Yorkshire, England, cyclists can ride the chosen route on demand or can participate in any of the many races hosted throughout the day.

Yet while digital riding platforms have continued to grow their user bases over the last couple of years, their acceptance in the cycling community has been a bit hot and cold, with many riders shunning them completely. These days, that’s not so much the case. The consensus is pretty standard across the board that these tools are indispensable.

Along with alternatives like Rouvy, Training Peaks, Zwift and others, these apps have been a lifesaver, not only for riders but for the sport of cycling itself. Although most pros can now train outdoors, in-person competitions remain on hold. So, as virtual cycling platforms have become front and centre, what new opportunities are they creating, and could they perhaps point towards a more diverse and equitable future for professional cycling?

A new kind of world championship

As was reported in September of last year, UCI announced that they would be partnering with Zwift to establish e-sport as a new cycling discipline. The integration of cycling e-sports into the UCI Constitution was made official and thus presented an exciting announcement for many cycling hopefuls who were previously excluded by time or circumstance from participating at the UCI level. It was also an opportunity for the biggest governing body in the sport to make clear what their priorities were going forward.

Zwift maintained that they were committed to having equal competitions for men and women, the same number of races, coverage, and equal prize money. Indeed, the blank slate offered by an entirely new discipline of racing meant that past wrongs could be corrected and that, generally speaking, cycling and the UCI had the chance to be more inclusive and equitable in how they host and promote events. They’re now getting plenty of opportunities to prove that they’re committed to seeing these objectives through to fruition.

Equal coverage for men and women

Speaking of objectives, we’ve already talked a lot about how the need for more television coverage has long been highlighted as one of the key obstacles standing in the way to the realization of gender equality in cycling. Women’s events just haven’t enjoyed the same buzz as the men’s races and the best way to solve this dilemma gets passed back and forth without any real consensus being achieved.

Virtual competition presents an opportunity, though. Take the Tour for All, for example, which was held on Zwift between May 4th-8th. Featuring teams from both the men’s and women’s World Tours, each stage of the event was screened live on all Eurosport platforms and streamed globally on the GCN app. Both men’s and women’s events received two hours of coverage each day, a revelation in terms of equal airtime.

Regarding the 2020 racing calendar, the UCI had committed to providing more coverage for women’s racing before the pandemic altered how the season would unfold. Although there are some adjustments being made to previous agreements and it remains to be seen what will happen when the revised racing season gets underway in August, the precedents currently being set point to good things to come.

More opportunities for emerging riders

Another big way that the current circumstances have changed the role of virtual competition, is that these days – everyone is watching. Team owners, directors, coaches, all the big players are now familiar with these platforms and know what to look for.

Zwift has been offering their Academy program since 2016. It’s an initiative that utilises the platform to test would-be riders for their suitability for professional bicycle racing. The Academy initially centres on an eight-week training program before ten riders are selected for the semi-final stage and then a final three are chosen to compete against each other in real life – an ideal framework for the current situation.

Taking a page from the Zwift Academy playbook, Arkéa Pro Cycling Team recently announced that they’ve set up a competition using Training Peaks that is open to all women cyclists older than 16 years old.  Results of the competition may lead to a professional stagiaire contract or even subsequently to a neo-pro contract.

These are huge opportunities and expand the pool of hopeful professional cyclists exponentially. A fantastic opportunity for the development of the sport – although we’re definitely looking forward to seeing riders return to the road later this summer – for now, we are happy to celebrate how virtual platforms are expanding rapidly and enabling a more diverse set of athletes to train and race on a global stage.