Indoor cycling is getting serious in 2019. No longer just a way to bang out a few intervals when it’s dark outside, indoor training has become an activity onto itself and it’s largely due to the rapid growth of Zwift. And now there’s e-racing, the latest step in Zwift’s desire to replicate the success of e-gaming, with the launch of the first league for pro riders, Kiss Super League.
Zwift has grown quickly since we first saw it in 2014, with thousands of cyclists now regularly riding around the different virtual worlds and taking part in solo rides, group workouts and races. It’s the racing aspect that is the most intriguing and exciting and it’s been given a serious injection of publicising with the first pro league which went down last month, with Ian Bibby winning the first round.
It raised a few questions amongst the road.cc tech team so we sat down with Zwift’s PR Manager Chris Snook to find out how it went and what it means for the future of indoor cycling.
Zwift racing just got serious with the first Kiss Super League. Were you pleased or surprised with how it went and the reaction?
We are all really excited to start our esports journey with the KISS Super League - I think it's the first time anyone has brought professional athletes to an esports competition.
We were pleased with how round one went, but this is a demonstration year for Zwift and esports - we are going to learn lessons along the way and improve the journey ahead of our big move in 2020.
I, along with many other at Zwift HQ, had my money on Bibby and he delivered! The thing with Zwift is that it's not just about pure power, you need to know how to 'play the game'. Bibby has been on the platform for a number of years now and regularly races.
He shared this knowledge with his team - how to use PowerUps, what PowerUps you need to save for the finish, positioning in the bunch etc - I think that's why the team won on the night overall. The Zwift Community All Stars team gave a great performance, taking the remaining podium spots and second overall on the night. If you look through the power data after the race, pretty much all the professional riders averaged over 5 watts/kg for the entire race. In contrast, the community riders were in the mid 4s, still impressive, but shows they know how to use the tools provided.
The reaction has been extremely encouraging. There’s been a tonne of interest from media, industry partners and of course, fans. I think there's a huge opportunity for cycling to reach an entirely new audience through Zwift - a much younger generation. We hope that Zwift eRacing will help make bike racing more sustainable in the years to come.
How big is the potential for Zwift indoor racing to get?
The beauty with dealing with a virtual platform is the sky is limit! We have the ability to do things that are impossible in the real world - PowerUps are just the beginning. If you take a look at how other sports are experimenting with fan engagement, there is a lot of potential - Formula E for example offers fans the ability to give drivers a power boost. Wouldn't that be cool for cycling?
We are hosting the very first officially sanctioned British Cycling eRacing National Championships in March this year which is a huge step forward. I think this is just the beginning, and its' very possible we will see other federations following. Imagine having a World Championships or Olympic race on Zwift!
Are we looking at professionals specialising in indoor racing and turning their backs on traditional road races?
I don't think so. Zwift is a fantastic tool for professional riders to train and this is why we've been able to bring them to the platform for the KISS Super League. I think what Zwift offers is just another cycling discipline, and one that has the potential to bring them closer to the fans and hopefully one day provide an additional revenue stream.
It's important to remember that Zwift's mission is to make more people more active - not to make them more active indoors. We at Zwift love riding our bikes outdoors as well (believe it or not!) - it's an enabler and work hand in hand with outdoor cycling and racing.
Do you have plans to partner with race organisers to collaborate on races that could be run both in the real world and virtually perhaps?
It's entirely possible in the future. We are at the very beginning of our journey in racing, but we have a much longer history in Fondo's. We have a number of partnerships there with Maratona, L'Etape du Tour and RideLondon. These are all there to provide a different experience and to enable people to have a taste of something they would otherwise be able to try.
Will there be a world tour type calendar of events that people watch on TV?
I think Zwift races will continue to be streamed rather than broadcast on TV - this is the way people are consuming most of their media now.
The KISS Super League is streamed across a number of platforms including Facebook, YouTube, Mixer and Twitch. The Men's series run for 10 weeks taking place each Wednesday at 7pm GMT. The Women's series will start in Feb and will run on Tuesday evenings at 7pm GMT, so there's already a calendar in place.
We have already announced that we will unveil our big plans for 2020 later this year, so watch this space.
Calibration, accuracy and doping are key issues and concerns. Is Zwift looking at steps to ensure there’s no potential for cheating ie weight doping to make sure it’s a level playing field?
It's a common question. The KISS Super League is an exhibition league based on simple rules (Keep It Simple Stupid) and is designed around pure entertainment. That said, we have rules in place with how riders can connect and all weights are being made public - we can track a lot behind the scenes.
Moving forward, we are bringing tools in house to combat cheating in the game. We will have a robust structure in place for the British Cycling National Championships, and we will also have a real life element to crown the winner, so we are able to control all aspect from weight, power sources, trainers and even the internet.
For community races, it's important that racing remains fun. In order for it to be fun it needs to remain accessible, but we also need the rules in place to allow for fair play, and this is exactly what we are doing. I don't think any sport is able to categorically say there won't ever be cheating, but like all other sports we can put the best systems in place to deliver a fair competition space.
How do you ensure all power meters are accurately calibrated? A couple of percent difference between trainers and setups could surely impact the outcome of a race?
For KISS Super League, we know what trainers all the teams are using. Currently, all teams must calibrate trainers before the event (where applicable) and use these trainers as the power source.
In my opinion, I feel there is an interest in variations. Power meters we know have fluctuations, and just like in real sports there are nuances between different types of equipment. I raced at Madison Genesis when we were on steel bikes - the bikes were a bit heavier, but this didn't mean we couldn't be competitive. The bikes had different characteristics - they were incredibly stiff. Equally, on the road, some bikes are aero while others are lightweight. It makes sport interesting.
As I say, 2019 is a demonstration year for Zwift. Our full offering will be launched in 2020, but I think like we have done with the KISS Super League, where we have a list of approved trainers the teams must use, we will also look to have a list of approved equipment for esports competition in the future.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into Zwift racing?
Get a good warm up! Zwift races start incredibly fast - you will be in the red for the first few minutes, but you really need to hold a position in the front at the start as the pace will slow. Top tip - if you enter your event early and warm up in the start pen, you will start further up in the bunch - late joiners go to the back!
Experiment with different PowerUps and make use of them. Think about the terrain - if the finish is flat then you really want to try and save that Aero PowerUp for the end.
Lastly, don't be put off. There are many different categories, so you should find a category that suits - you will get the hang of things and can look to progress. Just like racing on the road.
Finally, will you release a Yorkshire world champs course this year?
We have a good history with the World Championships at Zwift don't we?
Thanks to Chris for taking the time to speak to us. What do you think of the new KISS league? Have you been watching it? Do you race on Zwift regularly. Let's hear from you in the comments section below.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.