Competitive e-cycling lets you be a champion from your apartment

Later next month, Maeghan Easler will have a box fan propped in the window, blowing cold February air into her apartment in Des Moines, Iowa. She’ll have cooling packs—tights filled with ice cubes—stuffed into her cycling kit.

And she’ll be pedaling like crazy. 

Easler will compete with dozens of other e-cyclists from around the globe in the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships on February 26. It will be the second such contest ever—the first was held in 2020—and will take place entirely in a video-game-like environment, representing a futuristic Manhattan, on the e-cycling platform Zwift. A total of 100 female and 100 male competitors will join the races remotely, pedaling hard on a stationary bike as their onscreen avatars follow the twists and turns of the specially designed track.

Easler, a lab technician by day, is among the best e-cyclists in America and recently qualified online for USA Cycling’s world championship team. She hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll invite any friends and family over to cheer her on during the race.

“It might just be me by myself in my apartment,” she says, “just going really hard.”

Lockdowns and travel restrictions have boosted e-cycling’s popularity during the pandemic. Fitness platforms such as Peloton and Wahoo have reported a big spike in users, and Zwift is no exception. The firm keeps its current active user count a secret but says that, to date, it has clocked the activation of roughly 4 million Zwift accounts in total. Its user base more than doubled last year, it claims. 

To support MIT Technology Review’s journalism, please consider becoming a subscriber.

Ultimately, Zwift’s founders hope this new form of competitive cycling will one day appear at the Olympics—which could happen if the Olympic cycling body, the UCI, were to lend its backing. Things are arguably moving in this direction already. Last June Zwift made its debut at a new event called the Olympic Virtual Series, which was set up by the International Olympic Committee. And one of the differences between e-cycling and other elite track events is that it’s relatively easy for anyone to take part.

“Anyone, anywhere in the world, from the comfort of their own home, could go through a process of eligibility,” says Zwift’s strategy director, Sean Parry.

Working through the ranks

That’s how Easler made the cut. She was unsuccessful during a qualifying round open to users across the Americas but made it onto the USA’s national team via a separate qualifying process. She’s not a total newbie, having taken part in triathlons as a student. But virtual races are no less exciting than outdoor events. “You feel the adrenaline,” says Easler. “You know you’re up against real-life people who are really strong.” 

Easler and her fellow competitors in the world championships will all receive the same smart trainer—a device that replaces the rear wheel on a stationary bike— so that they can compete on a level virtual playing field. Smart trainers automatically increase or decrease resistance to match the feel of the virtual road surface on a Zwift course. It’s even possible to simulate cobbles.

Data plays a big role on platforms such as Zwift, and riders tend to monitor their performance constantly. Their heart rate, speed, and power output in watts, among other statistics, are visible on screen at all times during a race. Commentators can pick out some of these stats live, to show spectators just how hard an individual competitor is working. 

Easler, for instance, knows that she needs to keep her heart rate (measured in beats per minute) below a certain level in order to avoid crashing out. “I can recover if my heart rate hits 185, but if I hit 195, I can’t,” she says. Tracking her numbers on screen allows her to approach her limit without overstepping it, and it’s something she says she’s grown better at over time.

Real-time data on each rider’s performance will also allow Zwift and UCI officials to spot any possible cheaters at the championships. Unsporting competitors might use a variety of tricks—from lying about their weight, which could give them a power advantage, to trying to rig the game. 

In 2019, one Zwifter was temporarily banned for using a computer program to access a more powerful virtual bike that he then used in races. At the World Championships, riders’ power output will be monitored via the smart trainers and a separate device such as a power meter built into the bike pedals. Any discrepancies should be easy to spot, and competitors’ performance must also be in line with data recorded from previous virtual and outdoor races that they’ve taken part in.

“We have a very accurate understanding of their physical capabilities,” says Zwift spokesman Chris Snook. “Anything outside of that range would be immediately flagged.”

The International Testing Agency, which runs anti-doping programs for the Olympic Games, will also carry out checks on riders during the championships.

All of this represents a high level of scrutiny, says Frederik Broché, technical director at Belgian Cycling, which runs the nation’s traditional cycling teams. He and his colleagues recently selected competitors to represent Belgium in the e-cycling world championships after receiving around 50 applications from across the country. 

Roughly half of those applicants are riders who prioritize Zwift over other forms of cycling. It has quickly become a “specialty” sport, he says. The top Zwifters don’t necessarily have a huge amount of experience in traditional outdoor cycling and may well not be very competitive in that arena. Some, for example, aren’t familiar with how to tuck in their arms, hunker down, and generally position their bodies neatly in order to reduce drag. 

“You don’t have wind on the rollers, so your position doesn’t matter at all,” says Broché. “On the road, it matters a lot.”

Besides selecting individuals for the team on the basis of their overall fitness and Zwift stats, Broché is also, naturally, taking a tactical approach. He can comb through riders’ past performance and statistics, and he wants competitors whose experience on the platform suggests that they will tackle the course well.

This year’s world championships will take place on Knickerbocker, one of Zwift’s fantasy New York routes. It’s a vision of the city 100 years from now, with elevated glass cycle-ways snaking past skyscrapers. Competitors will complete two laps of the route, equivalent to just under 55 kilometers of cycling outdoors.

MarioKart plus Peloton

“There are chances to attack everywhere,” says Parry, who adds that Zwift places great emphasis on designing races for their entertainment value. Spectators will be able to watch the peloton of virtual riders sweep along the course but will also get intermittently livestreamed footage of individual participants’ faces from their living room or training center.

The drama is heightened by another possibility. In Zwift, unlike in a traditional cycling race, competitors can briefly improve their performance with power-ups—such as a 15-second aerodynamic improvement or a 30-second increase in virtual weight that allows their cycling avatar to descend a hill faster. Among the features that Zwift is currently developing for the platform are “boost cells” that will offer a power increase for a short period of time. It’s like a mashup of Mario Kart and Peloton.

Despite this, and the fantastical design of the race route, Zwift aims to keep the terrain reasonably realistic as a cycling surface. There are no gradients steeper than 20%, for example. 

As the sport’s popularity grows, regular cycling coaches are also increasingly incorporating e-cycling into their training regimes. And they are finding that some clients want their help in preparing for virtual races as well as outdoor ones. 

Ric Stern, a cycling coach based near Brighton in the south of England, has entered cycling races every year since 1984. He’s also been a professional coach since 1998. E-cycling platforms and cycling simulators such as RGT Cycling make riding indoors a lot more fun than it used to be, he says.

But outdoor cyclists need to develop a certain bravery for tackling corners quickly, or racing close to other cyclists in a peloton, which can be nerve-racking in real life. Zwift doesn’t help people establish that sort of skill, he argues.

Sandra Beaubien, a mountain biker and coach at Ride Ottawa in Canada, enjoys using Zwift as a tool for improving fitness. It’s easy for her and her clients to focus on that without having to watch out for tree branches or stray rocks on a steep hill descent. On the flip side, they lose the experience of steering over undulating, mountainous terrain. That’s something you can only really get outdoors. 

Zwift is currently testing compatibility with the Bluetooth-enabled Elite Sterzo Smart steering plate, a sort of swivelling plinth placed underneath a bike’s front wheel, for capturing steering data that will allow the rider to control their digital avatar more precisely and steer for real during the race. Currently, the world championships are judged on speed and power, with a competitor’s position in the peloton automatically assigned.

Beaubien says she enjoys racing in Zwift but would like to see a greater number of women on the platform so that she could take part in more women-only races.

Still, Easler and other female competitors are on equal ground with men at the world championships. There are the same number of competitors in the men’s and women’s races, they will travel the same distance along the route, and the winners will receive equal prize money: 8,000 euros ($9,000) for first place.

“Going up against the best e-racers in the world, at least as far as Zwift goes—that’s kind of scary,” says Easler, noting that she is happy simply to have qualified. But the possibility of reaching new levels of greatness has undeniably crept closer. And so, like a true competitor she adds, “Top 10 would be great.”