“The basic design of a bike hasn’t changed for 100 years”. Two wheels, a handlebar and pedals are a good start but thanks to evolving technology we can also change gears (electronically if you wish), there is suspension, disk brakes, carbon fiber frames and all manner of digitalisation. In contrast, evolution in professional cycle racing appeared to be a slow moving beast. For many years it encompassed road racing, track cycling, cross country and indoor cycling disciplines. And then the UCI changed gears and began accelerating their program with Trials (1986), MTB (1990), BMX (1993) and recently Freestyle BMX (2016).
This pace of expanding professional cycle racing is continuing, last month the UCI announced Esports as their newest cycling discipline with the World Championships hosted by Zwift kicking off in 2020.
Indoor Cycle Training has been booming and while there are a few different players in that space, Zwift dominates the software side with their immersive riding environment. Group rides and races with Zwift have been gaining popularity along with new event formats and gamification. The announcement of the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships led to some raised eyebrows and a lot of questions.
While the formats and structure of the UCI Esports Cycling World Championship event are still in planning, Zwift Senior PR manager, Chris Snook has shared his time to answer some questions about the new events with Christopher Jones of Bicycles Network Australia.
Christopher Jones: Zwift recently announced that in 2020, the UCI Cycling Esports World Championship will commence. Is this a continuation of the KISS Super League or will the UCI version have a new or different format?
Chris Snook: The KISS Super League was a stand-alone exhibition series. It was our proper move into the world of esports, and it was the first esports league to bring in professional cycling from the real world sport.
The UCI Cycling Esports World Championships will be the final event in a year long series of qualifying events. National Championship and also Continental Championships events will serve as qualifiers for the finals in the Autumn of 2020. Exact dates and formats are to be announced in the coming months. Unlike the KISS Super League, any Zwifter will be able to compete in their National Championship event, meaning everyone has a shot for qualifying for the first UCI Cycling Esports World Championships final.
Christopher Jones: Can we expect the Zwift Esports World Championships to be team-based or nation-based like the traditional UCI world championships road race?
Exact race formats are still to be decided. However, National Championship races will serve as qualifiers for the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships. You will therefore have Zwift National Champions representing their nations at the finals.
Christopher Jones: Is there an expectation of cross-over with pro-tour riders also competing in the Esports championships or do you anticipate a regulated split without cross-pollination.
Yes, that [cross-over] is the intention. 2020 presents some extra scheduling challenges as it is an Olympic year however, we intend to structure the calendar to complement the existing World Tour season. We hope to attract some of the biggest names to target the first UCI Cycling Esports World Championships.
Christopher Jones: An advantage of riding with Zwift is that it is accessible, the Zwift Academy for example can foster talent and provide an avenue for riders where competitive access may have otherwise been difficult. Would the UCI Esport champions however limit competition just to the pros or to participants selected by national cycling bodies or would it give underdogs an opportunity to qualify?
Inclusion and accessibility is one of the most important principles behind Zwift Esports. The UCI Cycling Esports World Championships is set to be one of the most inclusive competitions – any Zwifter from around the world will have the chance to qualify for the finals next year in either the Zwift National Championships, or the Zwift Continental Championships.
Christopher Jones: A recent controversy in which British Cyclist Cameron Jeffers was stripped of his titles confirms the danger of technical manipulation. In which ways can you manage and eliminate technical breaches or manipulation?
Every sport faces challenges when it comes to cheating, so we are not alone in this fight. We are committed to fair play in competition as we believe that fair competition also makes for fun competition. Fun is at the heart of everything we do. As part of the partnership with the UCI, we will be working together to map out a full governance structure for cycling esports.
In the case of Cameron Jeffers, although this was far from the outcome we would have wished for, there are many positives we can take from this. The first is proof that the system works, and were able to successfully identify the unusual behavior used to unlock the Zwift Concept bike. This behaviour was identified quickly after the event and we were able to work with BC to support their disciplinary process and action.
We have also taken measures to prevent this sort of cheating in the future. We are implementing new code that is able to detect humanly impossible performances. This code is able to flag the behaviour and remove any XP earned from the ride – making it impossible to unlock new equipment in this way.
Christopher Jones: One of the big questions asked by cycling fans is how much bike technology influences performance in traditional cycle racing. With Zwift, there is an opportunity to create a level playing field reliant on individual performance alone. Shouldn’t all athletes have the same setup for fairer competition without modifications such as the ’Tron bike’?
Here, it’s important to note that while there are differences between equipment in-game, those differences are subtle. All equipment in Zwift is unlockable to anyone who puts in the honest work to get it. If you really want to race on a Cervelo S5, you can put the time in, earn drops and purchase the bike in our Drop Shop.
That said, we are experimenting with race formats. This week we are running an exhibition race series at the London Six Day. All competitors in this race will be using the same in-game equipment.
Christopher Jones: Remaining with this theme, is there an approach regarding the brand / model of indoor trainer? On the one hand, riders use different models and specifying just one brand for competition may introduce a competitive disadvantage for other indoor trainer brands who are not represented. On the other hand, data metrics can vary between brands and models of trainers so regulating the same brand makes sense. What is the approach for this?
I think there are a number of points to cover on this topic. The first is Community Racing vs Zwift Esports. In this instance, Zwift Esports refers to high level competition – big prize money events, national, continental or world championships events. For Community Racing, I think it’s important that the permissible equipment keeps the sport accessible (to address your earlier point). Performances still must be legitimate and possible to replicate in an outdoor environment. In this instance, variety is good.
For Zwift Esports, there are a few approaches that might be taken. Here, I often liken the hardware choice to motorsport competition. In motorsport, it is possible to have racing using standardised equipment eg Formula Ford. Similarly, you also have classifications that permit a number of types of vehicle – each slightly different, but all complying to a standard of competition – Formula 1 for example. In the former, everything is exactly the same across the board – competitors may have different levels of support from the teams and infrastructure, but the equipment remains identical. In the latter, the equipment is kept regulated by certain rules and regulations however, there may be different characteristics. Taking F1 as an example again, you have cars suited to open circuits with long straights, and cars more agile, suited to tighter circuits. Differing equipment can help support a narrative through competition where differences can help add to the excitement. For Zwift Esports, it will be an important sponsorship mechanism for competing teams. We see this already with the Canyon ZCC professional eRacing team who are sponsored by Wahoo.
Ultimately, Zwift has not settled one way or the other at this point in time, and I think there will be a mix of approaches depending on the series, league or race moving forward. For the British Cycling eRacing National Championships, Wahoo were the official hardware suppliers. For the Six Day in London, we have partnered with Tacx. One thing that Zwift is working towards is developing a hardware certification to mark them suitable for Zwift Esports Competition.
Christopher Jones: Is there already a decision regarding riders using their personal bike? Are the all-inclusive exercise bikes like the customisable WattBike a consideration?
For the majority of love competitions we give riders the option to bring their own bike, or use a standard bike supplied by Zwift. Many choose to use their own bike – they are used to the setup, they are familiar with the gears etc.
As we look to bring in professional cyclists from the World Tour, they will naturally want to use the bikes supplied by their teams and sponsors.
Smart Bikes are a big theme in the indoor cycling space at the minute, and are very well suited to competitions that feature multiple rounds in one night – rather than needing to swap out bikes and adjust trainers to different brake types or gearing, these bikes can be adjusted to rider fit. We ran some exhibition races at our Zwift Draft House during the Yorkshire World Championships and used the new Wahoo bikes for a number of these – including our Yorkshire legends race.
Again, depending on the competition, we will likely see a mix being used.
Christopher Jones: Esports competition would require competitors to convene and compete at a single location. In comparison with traditional televised cycling competition, reaching spectators, remote audiences and television audiences is completely different. The interest and attention span of a remote viewer may be shorter for the 3D stylised world of Zwift compared to real-world cycling. Is the Zwift Esport competition simply for a different audience or do you see approaches to enhance the appeal?
Zwift Esports is being established as a completely new discipline, so the formats of the racing and the duration will be very different. Short format racing is the approach we are taking at the minute. For a live audience, this results in high octane attacking racing that is really compelling to watch as you are able to see the strain and the effort of these riders up close. For the audience at home, it is equally exciting, but suited to audiences with attention spans, as you put it, may be shorter. We have also run competitions with multiple race formats – omnium style – including the British Cycling National Champs.
In terms of target audience, the natural fit is with a cycling audience – this tends to be slightly older and male dominant. Our approach to broadcast at this point reflects that as streams are broadcast to Facebook and we have also been looking at traditional television broadcast – the British Cycling eRacing National Champs were broadcast live on BT Sport.
However, there is also an opportunity to bring in younger audience. Naturally, its this younger audience who are at the top of their game when it comes to racing, and these audiences consume media in a different way, which open up more traditional esports broadcasting channels such as Twitch.
Christopher Jones: For traditional competition, the team strategy is a cornerstone of competition. On Zwift there is more accessible data about the competitors. Can you share any details on how team strategy changes or adapts to the Zwift environment (compared to traditional competition)?
Strategy will remain a cornerstone of Zwift competition. While it’s perhaps more obvious to see the numbers of competitors at the minute on Zwift, I think these days there are fewer secrets – most riders are fully aware of the capabilities of their rivals.
Zwift Esports this year has centred around team competition which has made for some great racing. The KISS Super League was focused on the overall team standing competition with individual winner each night. However, the Zwift Classics, that began this summer, are run as one day races. Here, the winner takes all, but teams work together for the end result. We have also run KOM and Sprint competitions, so there are tactics to be played out on many different fronts.
One of the biggest strategic differences between Zwift racing and real life competition is the in-game PowerUps. Knowing what these are, how and best to use them can have a huge impact on the overall outcome of the race. The Aero PowerUp for example, is one coveted by riders when coming into the finish of races as it can make the difference between winning and second. Do you choose to hold an Aero PowerUp until the finish, or do you gamble and use it to form a breakaway. These are just some of the new strategies that come into play when racing on Zwift.
UCI / Zwift 2020 World Championship Announcement
Photos: Supplied by Zwift