What is the future of Zwift racing?

After the lockdown boom, Zwift has had to adjust to keep its influx of new users happy, both at a professional and amateur racing level

Cycling clothing created specifically for indoor riding; turbo trainers with four-digit price tags; video weigh-ins; high-level e-races requiring two power meters and pre-race power tests. It’s unsurprising that the world sometimes needs reminding that Zwift is, by its own admission, a game.

It’s a murky conundrum that Zwift itself has to navigate on a regular basis. Stringent requirements at the top level of racing are there to make the virtual platform fair, to deter people from inputting data about their weight or height which could give them an unfair advantage. But, they do pose a danger of sucking a little bit of joy out of the whole process.

“We don't want to have multiple hurdles just to get into a race,” explains Zwift’s Events Director Charlie Issendorf. “Nobody wants to sign up with the race starting in five minutes, and they can't do it because they didn't do X, Y, and Z. We definitely don't want that. It shouldn't be brain surgery to race a video game.”

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With this being said, Zwift are treading a fine line between making the races fair, while also keeping them fun. It’s led to various developments in race categorisation recently and there are some big changes still to come on the platform.

Solving sand-bagging

Questions over the fairness of Zwift, at an amateur racing level, come largely from the evolution of ‘sand-baggers’ — those who purposely enter a race category that is below their ability, to ensure that they win or achieve a high placing. While this gives a welcome morale boost to those at the top of the leaderboard, it ruins the events for those racing in the correct category and it can be a pretty crushing experience watching people disappear up the road ahead of you, even if it is just on a computer screen.

It’s a problem that has brought to the attention of Zwift, and one the company has been trying to solve without imposing too many checks on riders who are simply using the platform to race for fun. “The aim is to make the races more fun and fair,” explains Issendorf. “Imagine if you played a video game, and you always lost, there was never a chance to win. All of a sudden, that game gets kind of boring. We want to make our subscribers happy. We want the races to be fair, the feedback from the community is the same, they call us out on it.”

With over 300 employees spanning London, New York, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro, it hasn’t taken Zwift long to begin working out a solution to the problem of sand-baggers. Tested for the first time in the Zwift Classics last year, the virtual platform is slowly introducing ‘auto-cat’ whereby Zwifters are automatically placed into the correct category based on the data Zwift already has on previous race results and FTP.

Related: Zwift's Movistar Challenge – The real-life impact of virtual success

Previously, Zwift had a different solution for sand-bagging. An ‘anti-sandbagging’ feature, used in various amateur races in the past, involved riders being flagged if they exceeded the expected power of their category during a race, getting a green ‘cone of shame’ above their avatar before having their power reduced by the game to a number that fits with the category that they chose to race in.

This solution wasn’t perfect, however, as it applied the punishment retrospectively, rather than dealing with the problem before it occurs, like auto-categorisation will. “Part of the purpose of having an auto-cat is that, way in advance, you know your category. There's no guessing at the last minute,” explains Issendorf. “It's basically a pre-emptive way to get people into the right groups. It’s better just to have somebody in the correct race from the very beginning, instead of a post-mortem, disqualifying somebody later on.”

Currently, Zwift uses auto-categorisation in its weekly Zwift Chase Races, put on in partnership with WTRL. Run in a handicap format, the Chase Races are a perfect way for Zwift to test the system before rolling it out on the whole of the platform. “The way these Chase Races work is that the slowest group starts first and then other groups start behind them and have to catch the group ahead of them,” says Issendorf.

“It only works in a Chase Race if everybody has the same ability because you have to work together. It's the perfect opportunity for us to continue testing auto-cat because you want, say, rider "B" to be with "B riders" so that they can catch the group ahead of them. It doesn't work if riders have different abilities. The testing is going well. And we're just going to continue to tweak it.”

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The end of weight-led data?

While auto-categorisation will undoubtedly resolve the problem of sand-bagging, it does lead to Zwift relying even more on rider data to determine their place in the game. A key metric is the weight of each rider, something that has caused Zwift to come under fire before, with people criticising the focus on body composition in an era where eating disorders are rife, especially within the cycling community.

“People's stats, security and privacy are super important to us, but right now this information does aid us, as the game is based on FTP and weight. The transparency needs to be there, just so that people can identify who's in the correct category,” says Issendorf. “But we're also looking to gamify Zwift racing a little bit more in the future. We don't necessarily want it to always be based solely on weight. Just like any video game isn’t solely based on weight, cycling doesn't necessarily have to be that. It's one of the things that we're exploring, we don’t want to be as heavily reliant on it.”

Related: Zwifting to parity, how e-racing is blazing a trail for gender equality in cycling

Verification will remain crucial at the highest level

Issendorf notes that parallels with Zwift racing can, and should, be drawn with racing in real life. As a rider gets better at Zwift racing, they will progress through the ranks and require far stricter regulations to allow them to compete. Just like you are unlikely to face a doping test if you race in a local crit, but you would do if you were racing in the World Championships. “To go into your average Zwift race, you just have to basically sign up,” Issendorf says. “To race in our Zwift Racing League Premier Division, there's additional verification. To race in the UCI eSports World Championships there's additional verification but again, that's very similar to in real life cycling.”

The verification that Issendorf mentions at the highest level of Zwift racing means that it has become near impossible to cheat the system. Riders are now required to go through a multitude of processes including video weigh-ins, pre-race test verifications and much more, to prove that their data is correct. In races where there are prizes and jerseys up for grabs, the stakes become much higher. “If somebody is trying to tamper with their equipment, the protocols that we put in place pick that up almost immediately, so it's very hard to get away with it,” explains Issendorf.

Like in real life cycling, Zwift has its own anti-doping agency to monitor Premier events. A team of scientists, the ZADA committee combs through data to ensure that riders are being truthful. ZADA has banned multiple riders since its inception for modifying their data to give them an unfair advantage. One area in which Zwift certainly does not want to replicate cycling in real life is with cheating scandals that have been rife in the sport. Being its own platform that has been built from the ground up, it's been imperative that Zwift do things right, avoiding the malpractice and questionable traditions that permeate the real life cycling scene.

Zwifting to equality

This has been prevalent in its approach to gender equality in racing, with Zwift ensuring that there has been equal distances and prize money for men and women in all of its Premier events. “If there is prize money, it's always equal,” says Issendorf. “Going even back to 2020 during lockdown when we had the first Virtual Tour de France, we worked with ASO, organisers of the real Tour de France. When we had negotiations with them we said: there has to be a women's version. It's always been super important. It just makes sense. The times have changed, and this is the right thing to do.”

Unlike in real life, the UCI is yet to impose restrictions on the length of women’s races on Zwift. While currently women can race for a maximum of 8 days and up to 160km per day under UCI regulations on the road (men can race for up to 280km per day and have three week tours), there are no such limits on Zwift. This means race distances are always equal at the top level, and Zwift intends to keep it this way.

“We stand behind our argument that men and women should race the same courses and distance, and the UCI are aligned with that,” says Issendorf.

It's more than racing

Races like the virtual Tour de France in 2020 undoubtedly contributed to the Zwift boom that came from the majority of the world being forced to stay indoors. The virtual platform keeps its number of subscribers under wraps, but Cycling Insight found that Zwift had a 200% increase of miles cycled per day, upwards of 3,000,000 compared to 1,000,000 before lockdown. 

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While most of the press centred around the likes of seasoned road professionals such as Mike Woods and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio taking to their turbo trainers to race for the first time, Issendorf notes that those who compete in professional Zwift racing only make up a small minority of the platform’s total users. Overall, Zwift are looking to improve the racing experience for the majority.  

“Millions of people ride bikes for fun, those are the people we’re targeting. We definitely want to give them a better experience. I think long-term for Zwift racing we want to develop two things at once: making the community racing even bigger and better, and using different things to improve that fairness.”

The question remains, however, did this influx of new users keep using the platform once the world opened up again? With the fresh air and rolling hills calling, was e-racing just a hype that filled a hole which is no longer empty?

“When lockdown started, we saw a dramatic increase of people coming to Zwift. We always used to say that if we could just get people to try Zwift, we think they would really, really like it,” says Issendorf. "When everybody had to do things indoors, people gave Zwift a shot. And, and sure enough, they enjoyed it and, for the most part, they’ve stuck around.”

Issendorf doesn’t put this down to big events like the virtual Tour de France or each rider’s drive to work their way up the Zwift rankings. Instead, he sees it as down to the sense of community that has long underpinned the entire Zwift world. Whatever the future of Zwift racing may be, results will always be secondary to the friendships forged through the platform.

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“In a race, there's only one winner, but why do people just keep showing up to races over and over again? They like racing with their teammates, they like seeing their community and that community now has moved indoors,” says Issendorf.

“It's not just riding alone in your living room, you are literally riding with thousands of people and your teammates who you may not have even met in real life. You race with them every Tuesday in Zwift racing. So it's that bond that keeps people together and keeps them coming back every week.”

Rouleur's content is supported by Zwift. Find out more about riding with Zwift this winter here

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