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Outdoors is free, but is indoors the future?

As the technological revolution gathers momentum within sport, Alexander Michael explores the new world of virtual cycling.

We are now deep into the third industrial revolution – the mechanical is being cast aside in favour of the digital. New technology relentlessly invades and transforms every aspect of our daily lives, reshaping everything from our homes to our cars and even the humble bicycle. Electronic groupsets and the e-bike are just two ways the bike has been thrust into the 21st century, becoming another addition to the list of “must remember to charge” devices in our daily lives.

But there is one development that has taken cycling in an unexpected direction, moving the landscape from outdoors to indoors. The rise of online worlds is inexorable – virtual reality, social media and immersive video games are all drawing the user into an environment often bigger than their own. In cycling, these interactive innovations have all melded in one ever-growing piece of software that, if you believe those involved, could change the shape of the sport in unforeseeable ways.

Zwift, at its core, is an online training platform for cyclists, that links up with your smart turbo trainer to offer structured workouts. Pretty simple right? But where Zwift truly stands out is in its ability to connect users who ride side by side in an ever-growing virtual world. Indoor training has existed for decades, hitting a new phase in the 1980s with the birth of spinning, which continues to be a popular institution of the modern health and fitness industry.

Britain’s first ever Tour de France winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins, recently recalled his 13-year-old self slogging away in his London home using a turbo trainer and listening to a Walkman when his mum wouldn’t let him out to train at night. And now his son Ben is following in his footsteps. “My son, for example, wants to be professional,” Wiggins recently told a gathering of cycle industry bods at the launch of Zwift’s new pro racing league. “He comes home from school and rather than go and play Fortnite until 3 am, he goes on Zwift now. We’re happy because he doesn’t have to go out in the dark. It’s also the connections they make – one of his best mates lives in London and they hook up and meet each other to go riding, which is amazing really.”

The inspiration behind Zwift, as set out by company CEO Eric Min, is something all cyclists can relate to. Speaking at the same event as Wiggins, held in the central London Pinarello store in January, Min said: “It all started in November 2013. I’d been a cyclist for ages and I relocated to London from New York and I just struggled to get outside. What I missed was the social fabric of cycling and the racing scene in New York City where I’m from, so I soldiered on riding indoors, riding a turbo, something I was used to. What I missed was the social element. All the tech was there, whether it was social network, Strava or gaming tech, and I thought, ‘why can’t we try to replicate even 80% of the social elements of riding, whether it’s competition or training or club riding? For it to be successful it had to be at scale. You needed to have an environment where you could have a global community of cyclists. That’s how it all started.”

In many ways, Zwift is the quintessential model of the 21st-century invention – you find a group of people, and you connect them in a way they have never been connected before. In Zwift’s case, you take cyclists who are serious enough to train indoors, but who are missing the social stimulus of riding, and you take them to their own world from the comfort of their sheds, bedrooms and living rooms.

And while it’s possible to see Zwift as just another good idea and nothing more, the reaction of cycling’s biggest institutions has been fascinating. In September 2018 the UCI, cycling’s international governing body, announced it would be laying down the rules for eSport in cycling, including anti-doping regulations. UCI president David Lappartient said: “We’re looking to the future of every aspect of cycling and so were keen to help virtual cycling develop. We want to ensure that happens properly by creating some clear guidelines and rules, including anti-doping.”

Lappartient’s willingness to develop the virtual side of the sport suggests he feels it is more than just a helpful training tool for amateurs – it could play some significant role in the future. He also announced plans for a World Championship of virtual cycling, something likely to frustrate the cycling’s traditionalists who would oppose anything that lessens the glory of the coveted rainbow stripes.

The UCI’s commitment was echoed by British Cycling, the national governing body, who announced its own e-racing championship alongside a long-standing partnership with Zwift that will stretch beyond the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. British Cycling’s commercial director, Jonathan Rigby, said: “The eSports market is particularly exciting for cycling as it enables so many more people to participate and be active. We are thrilled to be exploring this new territory with Zwift, to innovate in cycle sport. Its technology and our cycling expertise will together allow communities of cyclists to get more out of riding bikes for competition and for fun. We are also excited about what this could mean for identifying talent. We are proud to have a wealth of gifted riders competing on the world stage and we are confident that Zwift technology will enable us to unearth more future stars.”

Earlier this year, the British national virtual championships culminated in a live final between the top-ranked winners separated by ages and gender. Riders competed for a national jersey, much like pro riders. Moving forward, British Cycling’s interest in virtual racing will be motivated by two main prongs – participation and the Olympics.

Last summer, the International Olympic Committee met with representatives of the eSports and gaming industries to discuss a potential future platform for eSports to be included in the Olympics. With debate raging about whether traditional video games are too violent to be included in the Olympics, virtual cycling could be the perfect medium between traditional endurance sport and the gaming world. British Cycling would hope to be at the vanguard of any new cycling-related Olympic discipline, in order to capitalise on past two-wheeled glory and do what it does best – deliver excellence.

On the other side of the coin is participation. One of the key facets of British Cycling’s role in this country is to get as many people on bikes as possible, to get them active and keep them healthy. Through a combination of cycling education, mass participation events, advertising campaigns and support for racing, the governing body encouraged almost half a million people to get on a bike in 2017. And in partnership with HSBC, British Cycling is aiming to get two million people to cycle by 2020, so any new approaches will be welcome.

Virtual cycling could be the doorway for thousands of potential cyclists, previously deterred by any number of factors – dangerous roads, time constraints or cycling’s often snobbish reputation. While Zwift is benefitting from the support of cycling’s biggest authorities, it is also looking to expand through its own initiatives.

In December, the company announced it had secured $120 million (£91 million) in Series B investment to further invest in eSports and grow the running aspect of the platform. More than one million people had created accounts on Zwift at that point, with users logging more than 410 million miles. Amongst those million people are some familiar names, like British sprinter Mark Cavendish, the winner of 30 stages of the Tour de France. The Manxman said: “Zwift has transformed the way the professional peloton trains. Before Zwift, there is no way I would have chosen to ride an indoor trainer. Now though, I genuinely enjoy it – it appeals to the gamer in me. Riders like myself are genuinely fitter now, thanks to Zwift.”

Cavendish’s endorsement marks the next step in Zwift’s evolution – the pros. In January, the online training platform launched the KISS Super League, a virtual race series aimed exclusively at professional riders. The ten-round series features 15 teams from the second and third divisions of pro cycling, including more recognisable outfits like Cofidis, Israel Cycling Academy and British domestic outfit Madison Genesis. Drawing in pros is essential for any cycling brand aiming at longevity – where the professionals go, the industry will follow. Just look at heart rate monitors, power meters and electronic groupsets, now widespread in the peloton and in turn filtering out to the mass market.

Zwift is looking to be that next revelation, even bringing in the former head of marketing for the Premier League, Craig Edmondson, to bolster the professional edge. While launching the KISS Super League, Edmond said: “We’re not here to compete against the mighty backdrops of the Monuments and Grand Tours of pro cycling. Our role is to deliver something brand new to cycling. By gamifying racing, we will create entertaining coverage and introduce an added dimension to bike racing. Team-based competition, power-ups, course ‘knowhow’ and the differences in racing physics make Zwift a new battleground for competition. Watts per kilogram is only one of many key factors.”

Min added: “Pro cycling has embraced Zwift as a training platform and Zwift has proven itself as a talent ID platform for pro cycling. Now is the time to push on with eSports and in doing so build value for pro cycling. Our goal is to create a new sport within a sport, celebrated by pro cyclists, amateur cyclists and cycling fans all over the world.” Not only does Zwift hope to be home to a new “sport within a sport”, it has already been the springboard for amateurs to reach the top tier of professional cycling. Launched in 2016 as a talent programme for women, the Zwift Academy gives riders the opportunity to showcase their ability and even achieve contracts with professional teams Dimension Data and Canyon-SRAM.

This programme represents Zwift’s true immersion into the culture of professional cycling. There are of course other training apps catered to pretty much every kind of cyclist there is a market for. Trainer Road, for example, is more finely tuned for riders trying to focus their training and progression, without the need for social stimulus or pretty animation – a pared down experience for those just looking for results. The Sufferfest is another platform carving out its own corner of the indoor training market. With its own bizarre language and titles, Sufferfest has honed in on cycling’s cliquey nature to keep you hooked and offers an extensive four-dimensional power (4DP) test, which aims to go above and beyond the analysis offered by the ubiquitous functional threshold power (FTP).

While these apps have a firm grasp on their own spots in the market, the sheer numbers behind Zwift are what raises it to a higher echelon than the competition. The true nature of cycling is in the relationship between rider and landscape, so there is no chance of Zwift usurping that. But in an era when every entrepreneur is hunting for the next Facebook, in the cycling world, Zwift may have found exactly that.

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