Pictured is “Zwift” the multiplayer cycling video game which can host virtual races in garages, gyms and rumpus rooms around the world, the racers started pedaling furiously on carbon fiber road bikes bolted into stationary trainers. (TNS)

Pictured is “Zwift” the multiplayer cycling video game which can host virtual races in garages, gyms and rumpus rooms around the world, the racers started pedaling furiously on carbon fiber road bikes bolted into stationary trainers. (TNS)

A new path to glory: Could virtual bicycle racing revitalize an old sport?

Zwift sells itself to cyclists as a way to reduce the tedium of training indoors.

By Sam Dean / Los Angeles Times

Fifty-two cyclists assembled at the starting line for a 40-kilometer road race under a perfect blue sky. In the distance, beyond an Italian village loomed the active volcano they would climb in the brutal mountain-top finish.

Forty-four of the competitors were professional racers on teams like Cofidis and Hagens Berman Axeon, certified by the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s 118-year-old governing body.

The remaining eight racers were just really good at “Zwift” — the multiplayer cycling video game hosting this virtual race.

In garages, gyms and rumpus rooms around the world, the racers started pedaling furiously on carbon fiber road bikes bolted into stationary trainers. Team Wiggins Le Col set up in a high-end bike shop in London, clad in skin-tight Lycra even though aerodynamics are of little import when pedaling in place.

On screens beyond their handlebars and in a web stream available around the world, the racers’ avatars launched off the line and formed a tight group — the classic peloton formation of road racing. What might be the world’s first esports competition featuring professional athletes was underway.

The starting pace was punishing, with the pros pumping out a steady 500 watts as they zipped by palm trees at a digitally approximated 60 kilometers per hour. The avatars surged forward to match the force behind each rider’s pedal stroke, which is transmitted to Zwift’s servers by the web-connected trainers.

Zwift sells itself to cyclists as a way to reduce the tedium of training indoors — a necessary evil when it’s too rainy, dark or dangerous to hit the tarmac. Instead of staring at a wall, users stare at a screen, sharing the animated course with online buddies in dozens of daily events, ranging from friendly group rides to full-gas competitions.

The Long Beach, Calif., company says it has persuaded hundreds of thousands of cyclists to sign up for $14.99 monthly subscriptions. Flush with a recent $125-million round of venture capital cash, Zwift is now looking to expand into the burgeoning world of esports.

The company frames it as a savvy evolution of its business; but for a sport steeped in history that has struggled to attract new fans and racers, online racing could change the game.

“We should be able to take the best cyclists in the world and put them head to head in an arena and actually sell tickets,” said Eric Min, Zwift’s chief executive and co-founder.

Watching cycling has remained stubbornly free from the sport’s inception — anyone can line up along the Tour de France route and cheer as the maillot jaune whizzes by. And for the moment, anyone can watch a stream of a Zwift race for free.

“In terms of how we can commercialize a sport and make it more sustainable, I think what we have to offer is super interesting,” said Min, an avid indoor cyclist who rides outdoors only for “special experiences.”

Players have been racing on Zwift since it launched in beta in 2014, with only a simple three-mile circuit around a tropical island. With no official events, users would coordinate on forums to meet up at the circuit’s starting flag at a certain time to compete.

Soon, though, a whole ecosystem emerged. An independent site, Zwift Power, started pulling data from the game and creating rankings. Leagues like KISS, with which Zwift partnered to launch its first-ever pro series this week, coordinated stage races. Users started logging sections of Zwift courses on Strava, the fitness app that lets users track their times on sections of road.

Players even created their own regulatory body, the Zwift Anti-Doping Agency, to keep the virtual racers honest. (While it’s impossible to rule out performance-enhancing drug use, doping in the Zwift context typically refers to players under-reporting their weight in the game, which can increase speed on climbs.)

The eight non-professional players in Wednesday’s match are among the champions of this ad hoc system.

Pro riders have turned to the platform as well. Former Australian pro Mathew Hayman famously used Zwift to keep fit after breaking his arm, and returned to win the storied Paris-Roubaix classic in his first race back. But few have raced under the colors of their official team, and never have digital races been part of the pro calendar.

Axel Merckx, the directeur sportif (bike-speak for coach) of Hagens Berman Axeo, a retired pro and son of cycling legend Eddie Merckx, said that Zwift’s proposition for a pro league was immediately appealing.

“It’s an old-fashioned sport. In general, there’s not a lot of outside-of-the-box ideas out there,” Merckx said. “When you’re on there and see how many people are actually riding their bikes, it seems like a good place to promote our sponsors and partners and see what kind of response we get.”

Min sees the 10-week professional series, which includes men’s and women’s races, as a first step into a broader future of official Zwift competition.

“To professional teams, we’re not just a game, we’re a real legitimate platform,” Min said. “I think a professional league is inevitable, and I think the Olympics should embrace this kind of sport if they want to innovate and be inclusive and widen the net of athlete participation.”

The game has offered a new path to glory for those who take it seriously. Adam Zimmerman, 35, was a serious road racer but never a top contender at the highest echelons of the sport. The Denver-based cycling coach has transformed himself into the defending U.S. national champion on Zwift, which he views as a sport unto itself.

“I consider it a video game that you just happen to be riding a bicycle on,” Zimmerman said.

Cycling is a tactical team sport, where squads jostle for position, using the windbreak of their massed opponents to draft and save energy until the final stretch. Each member of a team has a specific role to play in delivering the payload — a star sprinter or top climber — to the finish line. One racer will brave the windy front of the pack to protect teammates, another will carry extra water for the rest, and another will use sharp elbows to create an opening for the winning attack.

Zwift, like all video games, simplifies the contours of the real world.

Players cannot steer. (Min insists it’s a feature that’s been on the product roadmap since day one, but that “there’s a time and place to introduce these things.”) Nor can they brake. There’s no risk of a disastrous crash, no scrum of sweaty bodies and handlebars to pen racers in on all sides, no sunburn, no dust, no flat tires.

The only input is pure quad-popping power, calculated as watts per self-reported kilogram of body weight.

Phil Gaimon, a retired pro who lives in Toluca Lake, thinks Zwift undercuts the most basic appeal of getting on a bike and riding.

“One of my sponsors told me ‘Zwift is the future, you should think about growing a platform on there,’” Gaimon said. “If that’s the future, I will go down with the ship of riding a bicycle outside — if the only way for me to make a living in cycling is to do this thing, I would rather get a real job.”

Much like real-life bike racing, Zwift’s system is plagued with inconsistencies that make it difficult to trust that the playing field is level. Different power meters and stationary trainers are known for giving more or less accurate readings. Worse, the absence of official weigh-ins means there’s no way to know if a racer is lowballing his or her weight, giving an unfair advantage.

Min says Zwift can automatically detect egregious offenders by spotting inconsistencies in their data profiles. But ZADA, the player-run anti-doping effort, announced it was shutting down earlier this week, writing in an online forum that “the project simply could not keep up with the growth and was not properly organized to act as a governing body” as Zwift’s pivot to esports puts more pressure on verification.

“With the honor system of inputting your weight and having a calibrated power meter and no drug testing, the idea of it being actually competitive is pretty ludicrous,” Gaimon said. He also questions of the business logic of pursuing esports. “I don’t know why they’d even try, when they should just be going after my mom and not pro cyclists.”

Zwift is not the only start-up trying to broaden the appeal of stationary cycling. Peloton has raised more than $500 million in funding selling indoor bikes and at-home Soul Cycle-style workout classes. TrainerRoad has carved out a niche with app-based structured training for racers.

Zwift is alone in turning indoor bike riding into a game. And as with all games, it takes strategy to win.

Drafting algorithms make it easier for riders in the wake of a leader. Players can deploy power-ups like the feather (to reduce weight on a hill climb) or the aero helmet (to reduce drag on a sprint) at crucial moments.

“It’s not just a power game — if that was the case, any pro could show up and crush us,” Zimmerman said. “It’s about becoming a good tactician.”

That became clear as the racers wound through the Zwift course. The pro athletes from the highest-ranked teams kept attacking, pulling ahead of the pack with huge bursts of power only to get spit out the back.

Many hadn’t ridden in a Zwift race before — or logged into Zwift at all — and seemed unaware of the dynamics of in-game drafting. As in real racing, once they fell behind the peloton, there was no coming back.

With five kilometers to go, only 20 racers were still in contention. Four were from Madison Genesis, a young pro team with Zwift experience. A handful were lonely pros whose teams had long since dropped off. All but one of the amateur Zwift champions were still in the lead group.

The peloton struggled up the volcano’s torturous slope. Meters before the finish line, a flurry of transparent blue aerodynamic helmets popped over some of the riders’ heads.

The Zwift champions and the Madison team had done their homework, deploying a tactic that would never occur to a first-time user. Before the race, they logged onto other maps and picked up the Aero Helmet power-up. Madison’s Ian Bibby eked out a 1-second victory over two Zwift champions.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

FILE - In this Monday, March 23, 2020, file photo, a worker walks near a mural of a Boeing 777 airplane at the company's manufacturing facility in Everett, Wash., north of Seattle. Beginning in 2024, some 737 planes will be built in Everett, the company announced to workers on Monday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
With 747 out, Boeing to open new 737 Max line at Everett’s Paine Field

Since the last 747 rolled out of the factory, speculation has been rife that Boeing might move some 737 Max production to Everett.

IonQ will open a new quantum computing manufacturing and research center at 3755 Monte Villa Parkway in Bothell. (Photo courtesy of IonQ)
Quantum computing firm IonQ to open Bothell R&D center

IonQ says quantum computing systems are key to addressing climate change, energy and transportation.

Nathanael Engen, founder of Black Forest Mushrooms, sits in the lobby of Think Tank Cowork with his 9-year-old dog, Bruce Wayne, on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Growing green mushrooms in downtown Everett

The founder of Black Forest Mushrooms plans to grow gourmet mushrooms locally, reducing their carbon footprint.

Barb Lamoureux, 78, poses for a photo at her office at 1904 Wetmore Ave in Everett, Washington on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Lamoureux, who founded Lamoureux Real Estate in 2004, is retiring after 33 years. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Barb Lamoureux, ‘North Everett’s Real Estate Agent’ retires

A longtime supporter of Housing Hope, Lamoureux helped launch the Windermere Foundation Golf Tournament.

Bothell
AGC Biologics in Bothell to produce new diabetes treatment

The contract drug manufacturer paired with drug developer Provention Bio to bring the new therapy to market.

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, March 11, 2019, rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The number of deaths in major air crashes around the globe fell by more than half in 2019 according to a report released Wednesday Jan. 1, 2020, by the aviation consultancy To70, revealing the worst crash for the year was an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX on March 10 that lost 157 lives. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, FILE)
US board says Boeing Max likely hit a bird before 2019 crash

U.S. accident investigators disagree with Ethiopian authorities over the cause of a 2019 Boeing 737 Max crash.

Store owner Jay Behar, 50, left, and store manager Dan Boston, 60, right, work to help unload a truck of recliners at Behar's Furniture on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. Behar's Furniture on Broadway in Everett is closing up shop after 60 years in business. The family-owned furniture store opened in 1963, when mid-century model styles were all the rage. Second-generation owner, Jay Behar says it's time to move on. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Behar’s Furniture in Everett closing after 60 years

“It’s time to move on.” The small family-owned store opened in 1963 and grew to cover an entire city block.

Katy Woods, a Licensed Coach, Branch Manager, and experienced Banker at Coastal Community Bank.
Coastal Community Bank Offers Classes for Businesses

To support local business owners and their teams, Coastal offers complimentary Money… Continue reading

Innovative Salon Products online fulfillment employees, from left, Stephanie Wallem, Bethany Fulcher, Isela Ramirez and Gretchen House, work to get orders put together on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, at the company’s facility in Monroe, Washington. The company began including pay, benefits and perks to its job listings over a year ago, well ahead of the new statewide mandate to include a pay range on job postings at companies with over 15 employees. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New state law requires employers to give pay range in job postings

Washington’s new pay transparency law aims to narrow wage gaps based on race or gender — though some companies may seek loopholes.

Paddywack co-owner Shane Somerville with the 24-hour pet food pantry built by a local Girl Scout troop outside of her store on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
An out-paw-ring of support: Mill Creek pantry feeds pets, day or night

With help from local Girl Scouts, the Mill Creek pet food store Paddywack is meeting the need for pet supplies in a pinch.

Kelly Cameron is the woodworker behind Clinton-based business Turnco Wood Goods. (David Welton)
Whidbey woodworkers turn local lumber into art

In the “Slab Room” at Madrona Supply Co., customers can find hunks of wood native to the south end of Whidbey Island.

Siblings Barbara Reed and Eric Minnig, who, co-own their parent’s old business Ken’s Camera along with their brother Bryan, stand outside the Evergreen Way location Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, in Everett, Washington. After five decades in business, Ken’s will be closing its last two locations for good at the end of the year. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Print it or lose it: Ken’s Camera closes after decades caught on film

The local legend, processing film photos since 1971, will close its locations in Mount Vernon and Everett at the end of 2022.