Zwift racing – techno trailblazer or homogenising nightmare?

Zwift racing – techno trailblazer or homogenising nightmare?

A recent announcement that Zwift and the UCI are teaming up to host the inaugral E Sports World Championships in 2020 has promoted some interesting discussion on BROL. I found myself disagreeing fundamentally with all the pro Zwifters, so rather than drag that discussion further into an entrenched back and forth, I thought I would confine it to my blog.

I’ll state up front that I do not at all like Zwift or any of the other virtual cycling apps. To me, it represents the antithesis of everything I love about cycling, and one of the main reasons I ride is to get away from pixels and screens with which I spend most of my time during my day job. I did try it out, but I just didn’t enjoy it no matter how hard I tried. I then went on to try FullGaz which felt like a slightly better suspension of disbelief, but the truth is that if I am confined to the trainer in the garage, I much prefer to just open the garage door and stare at the cows in the fields. Or if the weather is bad and the garage door is closed, I prefer to concentrate on pedal technique or something else cycling specific. I am getting to a point that I find any indoor training pretty unappealing though – I’d rather tool up in full winter gear and get out on the trike if that’s what it takes. If I am forced to use an app in the garage, it will be TrainerRoad or TrainingPeaks connected to my Garmin workouts. The raw essentials and nothing more.

However I don’t feel my viewpoint to be superior to anybody else’s and appreciate that others get a lot out of the platform. Particularly in winter, or if you live in a place where all local roads are overrun with maniac cyclist-flattening drivers intent on barging you off the road, Zwifting in your shed may be a much preferred option. It just doesn’t float my boat and I’m lucky enough to be spoiled for quiet road choices all year round (as long as you don’t mind howling wind, rain and mud for 6 months of that year). So I’m not trying to judge those who use Zwift at all. Anything that gets people moving is a good thing.

What I find completely bizarre is the concept of UCI sanctioned virtual races, and I’m puzzled by the enthusiasm of recumbent riders who feel that this is an empowering step forward that is going to potentially remove the bias against recumbents after nearly 100 years of their banning in UCI events. I see the exact opposite happening.

One of the reasons I am so heavily drawn to recumbents is that they have no restriction on their design parameters, and so a plethora of different designs have evolved. The possibility of tinkering with your own bikes to personalise them even further is so much greater than with your standard road bike. My kids laugh at me whenever I go to the garage, they will roll their eyes and say “That’s dad off to do some more bike tinkering”. But the truth is I enjoy all that tinkering and I’m always trying new stuff out. Recumbents mean almost unending choice over every parameter of your bike, its components, its shape and ride characteristics. You can then take those and optimise for your own use case. Some people are capable of incredibly aerodynamic positions on their recumbents, because they have tested everything to destruction and have iterated through a long process of marginal gains to get to an end point of super efficient aero biking.

There’s a perception that Zwift is a great leveler, in that recumbent riders can race against DF riders and the only thing that really matters is your power to weight ratio. This is true, and so for the amateur who wants to log in and do a bit of racing against some other roughly equivalent riders from around the world, it can be a fun and aerobically beneficial thing to do if you like it. And it is also the reason I hate the idea of Zwift as a pro racing platform.

Zwift reduces your ability to win races right down to your weight and power duration curve. Nothing else matters. Your ride position that you spent months tweaking, your clothing, your choice of helmet and most importantly your bike handling skills that allow people like Julian Alaphilipe to destroy the competition on a gnarly descent – all of these go straight out the window. If Zwift was the only reality cyclists had, the great innovators like Graeme Obree would never have risen to prominence.

Rather than freeing recumbent riders and providing them with a level playing field from which to compete, this is a form of racing that is so restrictive that you are giving up the ability to any form of individuality and must ride the exact same physical bikes as the other competitors (I’m not talking about whatever virtual bike you have unlocked here, but the stipulated equipment you must use in an official UCI race), and conform to exactly the same physics model that does not care if you can hold a super aero tuck for 3 hours or completely kill it on a descent. It is simply an extension of the already restrictive dictatorship that the UCI currently operates.

I don’t see why recumbent riders, historically a bunch who triumph individuality and freedom of bike expression, are interested in that at all! It is the logical conclusion of an Orwellian cycling world where nothing is up for debate, and all riders are homogenised into the the Zwift mathematical model of how a cyclist operates. And of course, in the time honoured tradition of big tech versus the man in the street, we pay for the pleasure of having our choices reduced. Yeuch.

Lets now assume that Zwift introduce the concept of a recumbent ‘bike’ that has a variable BB height and seat recline – something that bent riders can use to get an approximation of their fastest position balancing aerodynamics against power production, and Zwift also produces a reasonable mathematical model to incorporate that and allow virtual bents to compete against virtual DFs. This sounds better, but it’s still a paltry second to an actual bike race. Body shape, whether or not you use a headrest, open cockpit vs tiller bars, the size of the bars etc – all play a huge part in the overall aerodynamic package. Also, your power production on a heavily reclined bent on very steep slopes may drop depending on how well you can adapt to such an extreme position. This kind of detail is the meat and potatoes of the argument about which is the better platform (for anybody outside of Florida or the Netherlands at any rate, who don’t really understand what a hill is), so it’s not going to get resolved in a virtual world full of virtual riders all of the same body composition, wearing the same clothes and riding the same bikes, recumbent or otherwise. Again, this, for me at least, goes against the entire ethos of what it is to ride a recumbent.

Lastly, even on a stage of a race like the Tour de France, tuning in for the first two or three hours tends to be a rather drab, uninteresting experience. That’s with a peloton of real riders moving along a real road, looking at real scenery and real beautiful architecture. Who on earth wants to watch a bunch of people in a line on the same bike in some arena pedalling a pixellated character around a screen?

Call me a grumpy old git with no sense of the possible if you like.

I’d rather watch turnips grow.

1 comment so far

tempocyclist.com Posted on9:33 am - Oct 13, 2019

I love Zwift and even do a few races. I tried to watch Zwift racing once and just couldn’t get into it. Watching some cartoon bikes moving around a virtual world was, well, pretty boring! But apparently there are a lot of people who watch it. Okay not a LOT like the numbers that watch video game tournaments, but still enough to provide prize money. I have no issue with that, but an actual UCI World Champs of indoor turbo training? Errrr, no…

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