E-racing is playing an increasingly significant role in cycling and, over the past few years, the pandemic has only accelerated its trajectory. With races cancelled and riders locked down, the virtual Tour de France and e-World Championships — which both took place on Zwift — marked a shift in the credibility of and appetite for virtual events.
Prior to 2020, however, Zwift had already been shaping real-world cycling careers in the form of the Zwift Academy, which since 2016 has awarded those who impress on the virtual platform with contracts on teams Canyon//SRAM, Qhubeka ASSOS and Alpecin-Fenix.
Earlier this year, however, the Movistar Team Challenge became the first instance of a WorldTeam offering spots on an exclusively virtual squad. The challenge began in February and consisted of four rounds of racing in order to whittle the teams down to five men and five women — meaning, as is often the case in virtual events, that the challenge offered complete gender parity.
Two people for whom Zwift racing has made a real difference to their athletic careers are Imogen Cotter and Pim van Diemen who each won a spot on the women’s and men’s squads respectively. During the pandemic, Zwift enabled many to continue to stay active alongside a backdrop of uncertainty and various restrictions and each in their own way, it was no different for both Cotter and van Diemen as the pandemic pushed them towards Zwift racing. Image: David Fitzgerald/Getty Images
Cotter has raced on the road since 2018 and was in the process of preparing for the 2021 season when she got ill, “I had just started to get into my harder training building up towards races in January when I got hit with Covid,” she recalls.
After working hard to build up her fitness beforehand, she was cautious in her return to training after getting the virus. “I was kind of easing myself back in really slowly,” she says. “And then my coach at the time said to me to keep yourself focused while you're coming back from Covid why don't you just enter these Zwift races for Movistar.”
The 28-year-old was dubious about her chances at first, knowing that she had been set back fitness-wise by getting Covid. However, she found herself progressing through the four rounds of racing to reach the final. “So that was amazing, I really did not expect that and it's been some of the hardest racing I've ever had to do,” she says.
For Cotter, the self-belief that winning the contract brought was invaluable: “It definitely did bring on my confidence,” she says. “Because I knew that when you're racing on Zwift you're not getting something like that out of pity, you had to work to get it. So that's why it was really great for my confidence.
While Cotter’s entry into the Movistar Team Challenge was through contracting Coronavirus, the only symptom Van Diemen suffered was a lack of motivation after all of his triathlon events were cancelled.
Like Cotter, he had already dabbled in Zwift racing in the past. “I read about Zwift and Zwift racing in a magazine,” he recalls. “They were organising a race and I was like, ‘oh, wow, I don't know anything about Zwift racing but I've been on the home trainer all winter.’” Despite never having heard of it before, Pim underwent an eight-week series of Zwift racing which led him to be invited to a live final at his home city of Amsterdam.
Pim van Diemen joined Movistar's e-racing team earlier this year
“I did that event and I fell in love because it was an amazing experience. And everyone around you was cheering you on,” he says. “And then after that someone came to me and said, 'well, you did pretty well, do you want to race for our team?'”
Van Diemen spent that winter taking part in the top tier of Zwift races, the Premier League, before turning his attention back to the triathlons in which he competes during the summer. Once the pandemic took hold, however, those goals disappeared and he lost motivation. "I was pretty down. All my races got cancelled and I didn't train that much anymore and I was like, I don't have any motivation at all,” he says.
That November, when the Zwift Racing League started, the e-racing team he had previously joined asked him to re-join as a reserve rider. As it happened, injury for one of his teammates meant that Van Diemen was entered into the first race. “I fell in love with the Zwift racing league as well, because it was so hard. And I had to do everything to not get dropped. So I was like, okay, maybe I like this Zwift racing. And then I started to train more and more for it. So during Christmas time I did some very hard training. That was not to prepare for Zwift specifically, but I just got my motivation back.”
By the time February and the Movistar Team Challenge came around, Van Diemen was “really into the Zwift races” and although he hadn’t achieved top-level results his desire for more of it led him to enter. Much like Cotter, Van Diemen says he had “zero expectations.” But once he got to the final, he says, he “prepared like it's a very important race later in the season,” and as a result secured himself a contract with the Movistar e-team.
For both, the resources and support they received through the team have benefitted both their esports and real-world athletic careers.
For Van Diemen, the waning motivation he felt during lockdown has been kept at bay. “You're going to train harder and [be] much more disciplined, but it's also much easier to do so because you have this motivation, you want to make the sponsor proud,” he says.
“And you really feel that they want to support you, they are not pressuring you, but they are really supporting you — they are sending you gifts. I got all kinds of handwritten messages on the packages I was sent, like: 'it's super cool to have you on the team. Enjoy your time. Good luck!' And that really touched me.”
While Van Diemen fits his e-racing and triathlons around a full time job as a web developer, Cotter has taken her road career to the next level and won the Irish national championships in October. She attributes her success to the support and resources she received from Zwift and Movistar. “Having the support of sponsors from Movistar as well was a huge help. All of a sudden, you've got this incredible Canyon bike, you've got helmets from Abus, you've got shoes from Fi'zik, you've got all of that help, and all that equipment that is usually just reserved for the WorldTour. So to be able to have all of that at my fingertips was incredible.”
It wasn’t just the material equipment, however, that she valued. “Even to have the guidance of the guys at Movistar, I knew if I ever had a question about equipment, or if I was in dire need of something from a sponsor, that I could just reach out and know that they would help me if they could,” she says.
Image: David Fitzgerald/Getty Images
“For me, getting that Canyon, it was the biggest gift of all. That was an incredible bike to race on this year and I felt so comfortable on that bike. I think just having all of that help from Movistar in general was brilliant. And then to be able to do those Premier League races that are so difficult, and against some of the best e-racers in the world. That brings you on to another level because the suffering that you have to do is just crazy.”
Cotter has since signed a contract with UCI team Plantur Pura for 2022 and credits her e-racing experiences to her improved performance on the road: “It's really pushed me on so much, it's really made me learn to suffer more so I feel like in that way it's really brought on my road racing,” She says.
Although she is finding success in real life, Cotter is still determined to continue to compete on Zwift: “I've been speaking to Plantur Pura and, we haven't set any solid plans in place, but there are plans for me to do some e-racing,” she says. “Which would be incredible because I do like it as part of my training.”
For Van Diemen, e-racing will continue to play a part in his life as he continues working alongside training for triathlon but he has his sights set on the e-World Championships in February. His main motivation for e-racing, however, is to have fun: “As long as I get my motivation from it, and I like doing what I'm doing, I'm going to continue doing it.”
Rouleur's content is supported by Zwift. Find out more about riding with Zwift this winter here