Zwift skyrocketed in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, when many of us had little choice other than to train and race indoors, be it due to cancellations of events or government guidelines. While lots of this growth was amongst amateur riders, professional cyclists weren’t immune to the Zwift hype either. Events such as the Esports World Championships and the Zwift Premier League attracted WorldTour level talent, with the likes of Victor Campenaerts, Tom Pidcock, Alberto Bettiol, Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio taking part in the inaugural Esports World Championships in 2020.
In recent years, the world has opened back up and racing and training outside has become accessible again to many. So does this mean Zwift has lost its purpose? Are pro riders still using the platform despite having the chance to cycle again in the great outdoors? We asked the first ever women’s Esports World Champion Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.
“During the COVID pandemic time, I realised Zwift was helping me get better,” says Moolman-Pasio. “By training on it, I was becoming a stronger athlete. The way I explain it is that I see Zwift as almost strength and conditioning work. It's like going to the gym, but it's cycling specific. I'm ticking two boxes or killing two birds with one stone, because I'm getting the strength work out of pushing against the resistance of the indoor trainer, but it's specific to the skills I'm trying to develop on the bike.”
The South African rider, who recently secured her first ever Women’s WorldTour victory at the Tour de Romandie notes that she isn’t stimulated by going to the gym, and indoor training serves as the perfect remedy for this. “I’m specifically building the muscles that I need to be the best cyclist I can possibly be,” she explains.
“I really see a lot of value in that. In the off-season, that will become a really important tool for me. Instead of going to the gym and squatting or lifting weights, I'd rather be doing something specific work on Zwift which is then helping me to get the same response. Even through the season, I continue to try and do at least one session a week on Zwift because I just believe it's that much harder. It's a stimulus which helps me to become a better cyclist.”
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio preparing for a Zwift race as World Champion in 2020 (Image: Sean Hardy)
Moolman-Pasio also notes the diversity of the virtual training platform, explaining that it offers her a solution for a variety of sessions. “My coach has bought into the whole idea, he saw the development during the COVID pandemic, he saw me racing on Zwift so he's actually seen how well I've responded,” she says
“It's not that we specifically plan certain workouts for Zwift; he would just plan the normal workouts that I would be doing, even if I wasn't using Zwift. Then we would just always identify at least one of those sessions a week, which we feel would work well on Zwift. So it ranges from just short sprint training to, probably the longest efforts I do on Zwift are like 15 minutes. I wouldn't usually do anything longer than that in terms of an interval, anything from a sprint to four minutes to 10 minutes, at most a 15 minute effort.”
With no road racing in the winter, it can be easy for athletes to forget the adrenaline and spark that comes from competing with others. It can be hard to push the limits as far when training alone, and going head to head with a rival often makes athletes dig deeper than they ever would normally. Moolman-Pasio notes how Zwift has helped her maintain her sharp and punchy racing technique even in the off-season.
“Preparing for the previous Esports World Championships on Zwift, I was doing interval sessions at the final climb in the New York circuit, going every time for that QOM because I wanted to know that I could go up there the fastest,” she says. “It was definitely motivating me. Last year, I really embraced racing on Zwift and I really believe that it was great preparation for the season. I suppose I treated it a little bit like a cyclocross season. I really felt that it worked really well for me, because it's a fun way of adding in that high intensity work.”
The 36-year-old explains that having her wattage and watts per kilo on the screen in front of her in Zwift is another motivating factor while using the platform. “I'm very much a numbers person or a data person. On Zwift, you're constantly seeing the data and it's what makes the platform work. As you're doing your effort you have, right in front of your eye, the power to weight that you're pushing out. That definitely is a motivator for me.”
Zwift race screen shows various metrics (Image: Allan McKenzie/SWpix)
Interestingly, Moolman-Pasio believes that the benefits to using Zwift go beyond just the physical. She explains that using the platform has encouraged her to create the Rocacorba Collective, a society which gives its members the chance to join Zwift rides and races, have advice from a coach and a newsletter with tips and tricks for riding online. The Team SD Worx rider notes that she’s seen a particular uptake in this offering from women.
“I started to realise the potential of the virtual world for growing female participation and the female fan base. I agreed to host a women's only weekly Zwift ride during the COVID pandemic, and it was eye opening for me. I've always had this ambition to try and grow the female fan base and to interact more closely with female fans. Sometimes it is very intimidating for women to join these kinds of initiatives in real life because of the lack of confidence,” Moolman-Pasio says.
“The immediate thought that comes to some women's minds is I can't keep up or I don't want to embarrass myself, so there was always this massive obstacle. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the virtual world opening up to me, it presented an opportunity where it breaks down the sort of obstacles and women feel a lot more confident in the comfort of their own home.”
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio after winning the 2020 UCI Cycling Esports World Championships on Zwift (Image: SWpix)
Moolman-Pasio was encouraged by the amount of women opting to join these rides, and it gave her the motivation to set up the Rocacorba Collective that we see today. “The interaction was super meaningful, the women were more confident to ask questions they wouldn't usually have asked, like do you use chamois cream or which padding do you use? These more sensitive questions. I made a comment on one of the rides one day saying I was loving the questions, and someone came back and said 'my avatar has no shame.' That's when the penny really dropped for me.”
The South African rider has noticed that more fans have an interest in watching her race in real life if they have been in contact or spoken to her online. She explains Zwift gives amateurs the opportunity to speak to and ride with professional athletes that they wouldn’t normally get in real life.
“When they interact with you as an athlete, they can relate or resonate with you and they are more inclined to make an effort to watch your racing. A virtual community that just makes the world just that much smaller,” says Moolman-Pasio.
With over a decade of experience in the women’s peloton, Moolman-Pasio sees Zwift as a key vehicle to grow participation in cycling among women especially, and build a safe space for riders to get to know their idols and each other.
“It's just been so incredible to see the women that have really engaged in my community, how every single one of them experiences self improvement and growth in confidence,” she says. “That's essentially what we're trying to do: help everyone become the best version of themselves.”
Cover image: Sean Hardy