When it comes to gender parity, visibility, and accessibility, virtual racing is proving to be the great equalizer in the fast-evolving world of professional cycling. If 2020 has brought us anything positive, it has been a series of well-organized virtual cycling events offering equal coverage, sponsorship, and prize money for men’s and women’s teams. Jenn Real is one committed cyclist and advocate contributing to the stunning growth of women’s visibility on the virtual stage. She started with the goal of taking her Zwift training to the next level and has carried that momentum all the way to the helm of the new Saris + The Pro’s Closet women’s elite Zwift team.
Jenn started cycling several years ago when she moved to the Big Island of Hawaii and has been Zwift racing since late 2017 – before there were even women’s only races. In 2019, she was the US Zwift Nationals silver medalist and is now hoping to lead her own squad to the heights of success as team manager. We talked to her about opportunities in eRacing, the thrill of managing a new team, and what her hopes are for the future of women’s cycling.
You’ve been actively involved in Zwift and eRacing for a while, certainly before it got as big as it is now. Beyond just enjoying the sport, when did you start to sense that eSports were really going to take off?
Zwift has been a total game-changer for me, I live on the Big Island of Hawaii where there is literally one bike race a year, so eRacing has allowed me to consistently participate at a high level. I’ve also been aware that the talent on Zwift has been steadily increasing from the beginning. With the development of Zwift Pro-Am racing, I saw the growth in the women’s racing community, the potential of eSports, and started thinking about starting my own eSports team.
I already had a solid group of women that I raced with so I reached out to a few of them about taking things to the next level and getting a little more serious about our racing. We got organized and with the support of Team Fearless and Saris, Team Infinite was born. Everyone got really into it and within months Team Infinite was the second-ranked women’s team on Zwiftpower. With the merger of Saris + The Pro’s Closet, I am incredibly excited to take the team to the next level and to be a part of the shaping of women’s eSports.
A lot has happened really fast in terms of organizing and partnerships. It seems like team managers and organizers have done a good job establishing solid ground rules and equality initiatives. How did these discussions unfold and what were the most important requirements for you as a team manager?
When I felt ready to take the next step, I reached out to Saris. They were super supportive from the beginning and thought starting a women’s program was a great idea. They put me in touch with the men’s team to discuss planning and details. The involvement of The Pro’s Closet emerged as a very welcome surprise. They approached Saris completely on their own initiative — wanting to start a women’s team. The support and enthusiasm from all sides have been really incredible to witness. It is clear that all parties involved really care about providing opportunities for women in cycling.
That is another incredible thing about eSports — it has been equal from the beginning. As soon as they started hosting professional events, Zwift has been committed to offering the same prize money for men and women. You just don’t see this is many other sports. It is really inspiring because they are proving that it is absolutely possible to build a successful system based on gender parity. Seeing this level of equality is also emboldening teams and riders to expect more across all cycling disciplines.
Definitely. Accessibility is also a big factor. How are eSports giving opportunities to riders who might not have had them otherwise?
We’ve got a very diverse set of backgrounds on our team, including some ex pro cyclists and triathletes. I have definitely seen how the simple fact of being on a team and having both the support and knowledge that others are counting on you has helped a lot our riders advance quickly. The results have been huge, and it has been such a pleasure to watch our team members develop as athletes.
Most of our riders have raced in real life before but for many of them, Zwift has provided a new opportunity to engage in an activity that they never lost the passion for but had given up due to outside circumstances. Anna Russell, for example, ended her professional triathlon career five years ago when she became a mom. She discovered Zwift while pregnant with her second son and hasn’t looked back. It’s wonderful because eRacing allows you to compete at a high level without the added commitment of travel and time spent away from home. I think a lot of athletes move away from sports to raise families but you never lose that competitive spirit. It is very cool to so many rediscovering the sport they love in a different format.
How is eRacing changing the visibility of women’s cycling? What does this mean for sponsorship?
It is just so easy to watch and engage with! I’ve heard from several professional teams and riders that their engagement has skyrocketed since becoming more active in eRacing. Fans can pop in and easily follow the action; you just can’t do this with real-life racing. I think it is really expanding the network of fans and introducing many newcomers to the world of pro cycling. The fact that you can demonstrate this engagement in concrete numbers is also helpful for sponsorship, so I’m sure the discipline of virtual racing is only going to keep growing.
How do you hope to see eSports and women’s cycling, in general, evolving over the next 10 years?
Like I said, virtual racing is really emerging as its own independent discipline and will continue to become more professionalized and regulated as it fully comes into its own. The biggest criticisms being levelled against it right now are that it lacks adequate transparency and verification. There is a lot of work being done to remedy that currently, from mandated duel-power recordings to discussion of certified Zwift trainers for racing. It will be interesting to see how everything plays out but I think we can definitely expect to see more pro teams specializing in Zwift in the near future. With the added benefit of gender equality and rising sponsorship, you might even see women leaving the pro peloton to race on Zwift. The sport is still in its infancy so the next few years will undoubtedly be full of developments and big firsts.
It is certainly a very exciting time and we look forward to watching this emerging sport really find its footing and establish itself on the world stage! A big thank you to Jenn Real for giving us an insider look at virtual racing. You can follow her and Team Saris + The Pro’s Closet here.