In July 2020, with the world in lockdown, the virtual Tour de France presented an opportunity for the pro women to compete under the Tour de France name – something that is not currently an option on the road.
The race, which took place on Zwift, offered equal courses to the men’s race, and all six stages were broadcast live on Eurosport and other major platforms.
Equally, for the first ever UCI eSports cycling world championships, which took place last December — also on Zwift — the prize money between male and female winners was equal, and, again, both the men and women raced over the same distance (50 km) on the same course with the race also broadcast live.
When live broadcasting for real life women’s races is still a rarity, and prize money is often paltry, Zwift racing has come to represent something that the pro road cycling scene has been struggling to achieve for decades.
Winner of the women’s world Esports title, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, believes that e-racing presents an opportunity for female racers to experience equality that may transcend the virtual world and eventually influence the way real-life road racing events are conducted.
“ASO don’t want to invest in women’s cycling if it doesn’t benefit them in the short term,” she says. “But an event like the Virtual Tour de France forced them to - because Zwift said that they would only hold the event if it was equal for men and women and it was the best platform to hold the event on.”
Moolman Pasio also sees virtual racing as a way to make competing more accessible to those who may not have time to travel around to road races – particularly women who may have commitments such as childcare – by virtue of the fact that it’s as easy as simply getting on a trainer in your own home.
“Even in my own case,” she says. “I’m 35 but I still feel like I’m at the prime of my career, but I want to start a family so my career on the road is limited, but with e-sports my career is just getting started. I could have a baby and still race. I don’t have to train for as many hours and you can race from home so for some people it creates a great opportunity.”
Last month, Movistar announced the launch of their ‘Movistar Team Challenge’ — four qualifying rounds of e-racing to whittle thousands of hopefuls down to just ten riders who will compete at the top level of virtual racing. Crucially, the competition winners would be composed of equal numbers of male and female riders, five of each. That is in keeping with a wider trend towards greater gender equality across e-racing. Those who qualify will benefit from pro-level support from the likes of WorldTour nutritionists and coaches as well as receiving a bike, smart trainer and kit.
The Movistar Team Challenge is something of an inversion of what the Zwift Academy competition has set out to achieve for the past four years. Where the Zwift academy used the platform to identify talent for the real-life Canyon//SRAM and Qhubeka Assos road teams, the Movistar Team Challenge marks a trend towards professional teams taking virtual racing seriously as a new discipline offering burgeoning potential for their sponsors.
The ability to offer equal prizes and live coverage for Zwift racing is in part down to the very nature of the discipline. There are no complicated logistics to organise, no need for vehicles, staff or other outgoings that make road racing an expensive endeavour. That said, it would have been just as easy for e-race organisers to default to the ‘norm’ and make the women’s races shorter. Instead, the new discipline has harnessed the chance to make a change.
One of the main advantages that e-racing has on road racing in this sense is its financial model: IRL (in real life) women’s races don’t tend to make much money which hampers their ability to offer prize money and live tv coverage. Virtual platforms, however, turn profits from user’s monthly memberships (Zwift was recently reported to be valued at over $1 billion) and benefit from free advertising as events are broadcast on platforms such as Eurosport.
Of course, for all that makes Zwift racing accessible, it’s important to address that there are obstacles that make virtual racing on Zwift or other platforms difficult to take part in other ways. Namely that the cost of a smart trainer or power meter (in the region of between £400-£1,000+) and the subscription itself (£13/month for Zwift, £6.99 for competitor RGT) may prove prohibitive for some.
The fact remains, however, that the adaptability afforded to the software developers who can control their own virtual worlds on their respective platforms allows high-level virtual racing to achieve progress that real-life professional road racing has been struggling to reach for years.