Zwift needs a do-over. Rewind to the beta days and a bit after and start again. In the mid-2010s, there weren't any Zwift-sanctioned races. One bike is a ride, two are a race, and Zwifters were not immune to the irresistible lure of competition.
The underground virtual races started as a word-of-mouth gentlemen's agreement to meet at a particular place at a specific time on rebel routes, and it was on. There was little organisation and no regulation. It was the wild west, and Zwift actually wanted little to do with it in the beginning.
Cheating was rampant and continued unchecked despite cries from the vocal minority of racers on the platform to reel it in. The racing infrastructure improved organically through community-driven involvement, races became more organised, and Zwift half-heartedly succumbed to the mass effect.
As recently as late 2021, Zwift's head of PR, Chris Snook, explained the platform's position on racing, saying that Zwift as a platform is not competitive esports-focused, and that the majority use the platform solely as a training aid. 80% will explore and free ride, 50% will train or complete a workout, and only 20% will compete. That stance has now changed, and for the better.
Zwift racing evolved to esports, but that cheating stigma remains. Traditional cyclists snub their noses at online racers because they all cheat, so we're told. Zwift e-racers know the blanket statement comes from a place of ignorance; the same is said about traditional road racing by casual outsiders looking in.
Zwift takes racing very seriously now and is fiercely protective of its elite-level competition asset. There is a significant philosophy shift towards embracing competition, and Zwift appears to have backed it up with resources, effort and innovation.
To Zwift racers, the constant talk of foul play is low-hanging fruit worthy of eye-rolls, like when an uneducated naysayer mentions a certain Texan cyclist every time one of the world's most finely-tuned athletes does something remarkable.
Is it fair and justified? Not exactly, according to Snook, talking about the recently banned Eddy Hoole who was caught hacking data during a UCI eSports World Championships qualifier, putting in a seemingly other-worldly performance last month:
"He would have eventually been caught, but this instance was so far in the extreme that the question wasn’t if he was cheating," says Snook.
"All we needed to do at that point was figure out how."
The incident and its repercussions were covered extensively in cycling media, as is the case whenever there's virtual cycling fruit to pick. DC Rainmaker was the first to press with a detailed account and hack theory earlier in December, deftly outlining the banned rider's offence. It attributed it to a well-known hack vector revealed in 2019, stating: "Now, not only are people using it, but someone that had won an automatic ticket to the UCI World Championships used it."
Not so, says Snook.
"Yes, it’s something Zwift’s aware of and monitored for quite some time," he says.
"Zwift has plans and measures to intercept and prevent this from happening. We can’t go into detail about how we observe it because it helps give information to potential cheaters. We don’t want to tell how we make the sausage because it provides information to discover new cheating methods."
Snook wouldn't go into the details, but did explain why it wasn't detected sooner:
"This wasn’t a [cycling tech Youtuber] Keith Wakeham man-in-the-middle hack or one like the other that was exposed. There are multiple ways to hack servers, intercept signals, and manipulate them before they hit Zwift servers or block one signal and send another.
"Ray [DC Rainmaker] latched on to the Keith Wakeham hack because he ran a piece on it in 2019, but it is not that hack."
Like with doping in the pro peloton, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) always has to play catch-up. There’s unlimited potential to create new drugs, use them in an undetectable manner, or mask them, and the cheaters are one step ahead. WADA is constantly finding new testing methods to keep up with the changes and cheating methodology. When the tests are successful, they become a part of the procedures.
Zwift, and its own Zwift Anti-Doping Agency (ZADA) are no different, except for a few key points that distinguish esports, says Snook.
"ZADA's advantage over WADA is that we can retrospectively examine unlimited historical data infinitely. It’s all saved on Zwift servers, and there’s no hiding from that data. A Zwift racer can’t erase what they’ve done.
"A rider outdoors in real life that is doping but isn’t tested can continue to cheat, and there’ll be no record. The racer has gotten away with it, and there’s no way back."
Zwift is currently sifting through the past data of riders currently on its radar; a watch list, so to speak.
ZADA handles all testing, verification, validation, and investigation of elite-level Zwift racing, and Zwift’s Cycling Esports Commission Chair Dr. George Gilbert oversees the findings. ZADA is an independent contractor financed by Zwift and, therefore, ideally free of employee bias.
Dr. Gilbert signs off on all ZADA findings and decisions. If ZADA makes a judgement, he determines what sanction and brings the information to Zwift for enforcement.
Zwift then has policies in place to question the verdict. For instance, will the decision stand up in court? There is an appeals process in place that riders have the right to take advantage of, and Zwift holds the burden of presenting a solid case.
The appeal goes to an independent verification board. Zwift is careful to ensure that its decision will stand up if challenged and takes every step to do so, confirms Snook: "That is key because many people can have suspicions about riders. There is a difference between suspicion and proof. We have the burden of hard evidence and to present without-a-doubt proof that a rider one did cheat and two, deliberately cheated."
The UCI doesn’t have its own form of ZADA, because it relies on Zwift; however, it brings anti-doping controls and the whereabouts programme to the World Championships, creating a hybrid model. The stringent anti-doping protocols and credibility are why Zwift partnered with the UCI.
According to Snook, it adds additional complexity to the decision-making process regarding penalties and the perception of leniency in the case of Hoole.
"The tiered system is in place and includes one, two-year, and lifetime bans," he says.
"Pro cycling doesn’t have automatic lifetime bans on doping violations. There’s no reason Zwift would do that.
"The sport is in its infancy, these are community racers and they aren’t professional athletes, but they are elite. Some are sponsored and might get prize money, but it's not their livelihood. We have to be mindful of that."
The grim reality is that when a Zwift racer receives a ban, it's effectively a life sentence. They don't return because the community reaction is harsh, and few teams are willing to take on a convicted rider.
Zwift looks to its teams to help prevent cheating and ethics violations. Snook says it is a criterion for an invitation to compete at the sport's highest level, The Zwift Grand Prix.
"We wanted teams with the best processes in place—they all sign rules and regulations and codes of conduct. Enforcement is at the individual discretion of the teams. They sign an authorisation before the league begins.
"The teams have their own standards. When Toyota Cryo RDT heard about Eddy, they dropped him from the team."
In addition, within the Esports commission, the race committees and the team managers can share suspicions and complaints. Anything raised must be investigated, including allegations against a racer or a team, and ZADA examines that retrospectively.
Zwift's performance verification is another crucial distinguishing component. Its performance team creates a digital electronic passport for every elite-level rider, says Snook:
"We know precisely what each rider is capable of, their heart rate averages, how they’re progressing in their fitness, how they recover between intervals, the equipment they use, and their typical cadence. We have a helluva lot of data on these riders.
"We do have a digital passport for each of the riders. We have far more information on each rider than in traditional sports and bio passports."
Zwift doesn't only have the data from elite-level esports competitions, but all the rider's data from training, community racing on the platform and outdoor data. Zwift compares a rider's indoor and outdoor performance, as well. Zwift records data parameters for each rider and compares them to what a human is physiologically capable of doing.
While readers will of course draw their own conclusions to answer this question, Zwift appears to be trying to do all it can to legitimise esports and forge a path to create a unique cycling discipline. Snook closes by pointing out the positives in a challenging situation for esports and Zwift:
"We firmly believe that Zwift racing is far cleaner than real-life traditional outdoor racing. We have all the data and information on the riders, the ability to investigate and look back at data retrospectively, and the individual digital passports.
"The only positive you can take out of one of these banning issues is that it shows the system works.
"The easy thing for Zwift to do is not disclose information or even issue bans. We do it because we firmly believe it is the right thing for the sport and the only way to legitimise it as a unique discipline.
"We want to follow established procedures in disclosure, like WADA in traditional racing, and be transparent and open in public disclosure and allow the appeals process to take its course.
"It’s the only positive. It does work. We do take it seriously, and we must be a legitimate sport. It’s important too because it wouldn't be fun if it weren’t fair."
Fair is Fun. That has a nice ring to it...
A physical therapist with over 25 years of experience, Christopher Schwenker is on a journey to give back to the cycling community for rewarding experiences and fulfilling relationships through the pages of his virtual cycling blog, The Zommunique.com. He rode his bike across the US in 2022 to raise awareness of his cycling-related non-profit, The DIRT Dad Fund.