When cycling and e-sports collide

by Peter Gray

02 July 2020

Virtual finish line for the Tour de France

Like many industries, sports has been massively disrupted by COVID-19. Events have been cancelled or postponed, athletes are in lockdown, and there is huge uncertainty about when and how sport will return to normal.

One trend has become clear; the acceleration of e-sports into the mainstream. Even prior to COVID-19, e-sports was the fastest growing sports category. With revenues in 2019 of over $1 billion USD, it’s fan base is larger than American football.

In January, NTT announced the creation of a new entity NTT e-Sports to establish and manage Japan’s first multipurpose e-sports facility.

With COVID-19 having created a pause in traditional sports, an increasing number of clubs, event organisers, governing bodies and broadcasters have turned to e-sports to provide content, competition and virtual events to keep fans engaged. IndyCar, Formula 1, NASCAR and European football are just some of the high profile examples. Events are broadcasted to global audiences and bring together professional athletes, e-sports athletes and even celebrities to compete from their lounge rooms.

Cycling has followed a similar path. And, NTT Pro Cycling has been at the forefront of innovation in using virtual platforms for racing, training, fan engagement and talent identification.

Virtual finish line for the Tour de France

 

While there are several online virtual cycling platforms, probably the most popular and well developed is Zwift. Zwift brings together some of the biggest trends in the online digital world: social platforms, online gaming, virtual reality and the internet of everything. It is an online, gamified, indoor training platform allowing cyclists from around the world to connect and ride together in a virtual world using smart indoor trainers. These smart trainers are controlled by the rider’s computer, tablet or phone via a wireless connection, so that the trainer resistance simulates the road they are riding in the virtual world.

The power they push through the pedals is translated into the speed they travel, creating a realistic simulation of the real-world experience of riding a bike. In addition to the simulation, there are added gamification elements such as levels that provide access to new courses and in game equipment such as better bikes and wheels as you progress. There are also “Power ups", which provide a boost on a climb or a sprint, and the ability to customize your bike and avatar in the virtual world.

NTT Pro Cycling has been using Zwift since 2016 as platform for training. It enables the team to connect with fans by creating opportunities to ride together with the professional riders online, hold fundraising events for Qhubeka, and run a program called Zwift Academy. This allows young, under 23 year old riders from around the world to compete for a spot on NTT Pro Cycling’s development team. During the recent global lockdowns, the team has been active on the platform more than ever, so I reached out to Doug Ryder, the team owner and principal to learn more.

NTT Pro Cycling was one of the very early adopters of Zwift, several years ago. What originally lead you down that path?

'Eric Min the Founder and CEO of Zwift contacted us about the platform and his vision, and I was immediately excited about it. I have always been a fan of technology and how it can enable people to do great things, maximize precious time and move forward. The Zwift platform provides all of that. Instead of training alone at home in the early hours of the morning or in the evening when time permits, you can be with other people making it more fun and easier for the motivation.'

The Zwift Academy program has been running now for 3 years. What have been the benefits of that program, and what have you learnt through that process?

'As a team from South Africa and the African continent, we know how hard it is to breakthrough into a very European traditional sport like cycling. In sport, it is often about who you know that gets you into teams and moves you forward. But with the Zwift Academy, you could be anyone from anywhere with a dream and a huge heart, and you could earn a ride in a professional team. Through the virtual platform and the Zwift Academy, this became an opportunity to engage with and find talent which we have with success over the last three years. Zwift is a great way to ride with friends and colleagues and create social, interactive group rides. It is also a remarkably tough platform to compete on, mimicking racing with drafting support and team tactics, and when to use the gamification elements of breakaway burrito etc. as shown in the recent Tour for All races. On top of finding new talent, Zwift has been a huge benefit to our team during the pandemic. It’s a great tool for the professional riders to work on their power, cadence, threshold and accelerations that help on the road. We have learned that riders coming through the academy have the power and mental toughness to participate in the sport, but need time in the peloton for bunch riding skills and hours in the saddle for endurance. We value the Zwift Academy training and race schedule so much we employed one of the coaches that worked on it - he is now working as a coach in our WorldTeam.'

How useful is a platform like Zwift for training for the riders?

'Very useful to sharpen skills and areas of weakness. During the pandemic, we focused on higher threshold, larger anaerobic capacity, coping with lactate, change of rhythm, accelerations and cadence for all riders in different degrees of intensity for continuous improvement. Our riders also use Zwift when the weather is poor in the off season. This helps to get the rhythm back and to keep active, as well as for active rest rides and sometimes, we use Zwift for our time trial warm up protocol at a World Tour event.'

During the lockdown period the team was very active running community rides, workouts and races on Zwift. In fact, one of your recent races we were both participated in had over 1,500 people from around the world taking part! What is the motivation behind that?

'The beautiful thing about cycling is the social connection you have with other riders when going on group rides. Our team has always ridden and engaged with friends, fans, partners, clients on rides when possible and Zwift has created a virtual cycling club that we embraced from the beginning. It is an unbelievable way to stay connected and engage through chat with interested parties that want to know more and engage with the best in the peloton. This is something unique in sport. And, the fact that cycling has a platform to make this engagement happen from anywhere in the world on any time zone is truly an opportunity that we embrace. Our team has always wanted to connect in a personal and intimate way with our supporters as we have such a strong purpose, riding for mobilizing people on bikes in Africa. When we cannot engage physically to bring people into our world then virtually is the next best thing.'

Like many other sports, in this time when traditional racing is on hold, cycling has turned to virtual racing on platforms like Zwift. The recent "Tour for All", held on Zwift, featured some of the world’s best professional teams and riders, broadcast live over five days on Eurosport. NTT Pro Cycling dominated the men’s competition with two stage wins, and the overall team result, winning the Tour outright. Congratulations. Can you please tell us about the team’s experience in e-racing?

'Dominate is a strong word, but what we did was prepare well for the races. Coaches, sports directors, riders and marketing all getting involved to focus on areas that gave the riders the visibility and information to make the best decisions in the short, intense racing that the virtual environment provides.

When you see Carlos Barbero lying on the floor after a 1-hour full out effort and Michael Valgren saying that he went deeper in the final of the Zwift Tour for All stage 2 event than in the final of winning the Amstel Gold race, then you can see how hard it is. We learned that you need to start as hard as you can to make the front split, try and recover a bit and then go even harder for the finish. With such quality riders duking it out against each other, it is totally hell. Many of our riders, in fact almost all that participated in the virtual racing, have now achieved their highest power numbers in 20 and 30 second bursts, as well as in 15 minute, 30 minute and 60 minute efforts. The platform is incredible.'

What do you see the future looking like for virtual cycling once traditional racing re-commences?

'I think virtual riding and racing is here to stay. I look forward to having a virtual race programme alongside our existing race programme. We have connected with a broader audience now in a different way, and we need to continue connecting with them and engaging virtually. It drives health and wellness in the home and will move people to outdoor cycling too. As NTT Pro Cycling, we look forward to getting back outdoors and pinning numbers on our backs. But we also eagerly want to continue to engage and chat with our virtual cycling teammates from around the world.'

A cyclist training indoors with a virtual course

 

So, while providing continuity in training, and opportunities to engage fans, Doug is also clear on the social connection e-cycling is providing. As the father of teenage boys, I can see first-hand the way gaming and e-sports is becoming their playground and their way of connecting and interacting with their friends. Particularly while they can’t engage in their normal team sports of football and hockey.

For my close group of cycling friends, (a classic group of middle-aged men and one brave woman in lycra), cycling together is a way to stay fit. But most importantly, is often our mental health space, chatting about our families, jobs, and anything and everything. Given we cannot ride together at the moment, virtual cycling has become the replacement for our weekend group rides. Who would have thought a group of 40, 50- and 60-year olds, would take up computer games, and gaming platforms such as Twitch and Discord? With Australia heading into winter, I can certainly see us continuing our online alternative. But I also know the allure of fresh air, face to face contact and the all-important coffee stop means cycling in real life will always be number one for us all.

Additional Facts.

  • During the COVID-19 lockdown, there have been regularly 10’s of thousands of concurrent riders on Zwift from around the world at any one point in time. This is the equivalent of the digital audience for many major real-life races.
  • The UCI endorsed cycling e-sports into its constitution in 2018, and multiple countries including UK and Australia have held nation e-racing championships.
  • A recent mass participation event with Team Ineos attracted over 15,000 riders.

Interesting Links

Peter Gray

Peter Gray