Pro cycling’s virtual revolution

Someday in the not-too-distant future, the world’s premier cycling races are held inside arenas packed with screaming fans. The cyclists do not travel an inch on their bicycles — instead, they pedal invisible miles on a stationary trainer. The attacks, counter-attacks, and strategic drama play out in the virtual world on a computer screen. Across the globe, hundreds of thousands of fans tune in to watch.

This is Frank Garcia’s vision.

Garcia, 53, is a software engineer and entrepreneur from Tucson, Arizona. A longtime cyclist and masters racer, Garcia was an early adopter of the virtual training platform Zwift. Garcia’s passion for Zwift racing was so strong that in 2015 he rode the entire elevation of Mt. Everest in the virtual world, pedaling 165 miles on his stationary trainer over the course of 17 hours.

Over the past year, Garcia has bankrolled a series of virtual races on Zwift, called Cycligent Virtual Ranking, or CVR. In 2017, he held live CVR World Cup tournaments in Las Vegas, Paris, and London; each event was broadcast across the globe via a webcast that included live commentary, racing metrics such as power output, and even athlete interviews. CVR’s next event is the March 25 World Cup race at the VELO Sports Center velodrome at the StubHub Center in Los Angeles. CVR will award $100,000 in cash and prizes to its competitors this winter.

Garcia hopes to meld the drama of bicycle racing with the viewing experience of professional video gaming (called “Esports”) and to market his creation to fans and sponsors.

“We think physical Esports has the potential to be very large. I think this has a bigger future than most of the things I see in cycling today,” Garcia told VeloNews. “There’s talk of putting Esports in the Olympics, and we think we’d be a better fit.”

“There’s talk of putting Esports in the Olympics, and we think we’d be a better fit.”
– Frank Garcia

Does competitive cycling’s future lie in indoor video game-style tournaments? Is Garcia’s vision far-fetched? Perhaps. Yet changing dynamics within spectator sports culture, as well as global participant cycling, point to the possibility for CVR’s long-term success. In recent years, Esports tournaments around popular games like “League of Legends” and “Call of Duty” have generated massive viewership, both live and online.

The 2017 “League of Legends” World Championship tournament alone boasted 100 million total online viewers. It also packed arenas in four Chinese cities.

Similarly, virtual cycling is soaring in popularity, with digital platforms like Zwift, Rouvy, Bkool, and TrainerRoad attracting hundreds of thousands of users. Zwift does not publish its subscription numbers, but the company states that nearly 600,000 riders have used Zwift since its launch in 2015. According to the company’s 2017 annual report, users pedaled 125 million miles in aggregate for the year. And Zwift boasts more than 50 different racing communities similar to CVR.

The third CVR World Cup event was held at the National Velodrome in Paris. Photo courtesy CVR

Charlie Issendorf, vice president of events at Zwift, said the community of cyclists who race on the virtual platform is in the minority. However these riders are some of the more frequent users.

“It’s an enthusiastic community,” Issendorf said “They take virtual racing extremely seriously, just as riders do in the real world.”

Garcia says he saw the growth of live video gaming and virtual cycling and saw the opportunity for a confluence. In early 2017, Garcia created the CVR ranking system for Zwift racers, based on each racer’s results in organized weekly races. At the same time, Garcia became interested in the world of professional video game playing after his son, Frank Jr., competed in tournaments for the popular video game Dota.

Garcia watched pro Dota tournaments, which placed a video camera on each participant. Could a similar concept work with Zwift racers?

“In [road] cycling you see the riders go and they’re gone. It lasts just a flash of a second,” Garcia said. “What if you could watch them the whole time? You can see them suffer and really exert themselves. I wanted to put the people front and center.”

Garcia launched the league in April, opting to pay for the project out of his own pocket. Garcia is founder and CEO of Improvement Interactive, which produces custom business software for major companies such as Wolfgang Puck and foodservice giant Compass Group. According to Garcia, his company has processed $28 billion in transactions throughout its 25-year history.

According to Garcia, he has already spent “several hundred thousand” dollars on the CVR project.

“[CVR] was something new and fun where I could leverage my software skills and organization,” Garcia said.

In April he held an invite-only tournament in Las Vegas at an arena owned by video game company Millennial ESports with 20 riders. In June, he held another CVR tournament at an event space in London, with two five-person teams competing. CVR held a tournament on Zwift prior to the event, with the winners earning an all-expenses-paid trip to compete in the London race.

In September, Garcia held his third race at the National Velodrome in Paris. The tournament featured a prize purse of $44,735, paid in part by Garcia and through donations — fans that tuned into the broadcast submitted cash through online transactions to boost the prize pot. Similar to the previous competitions, every athlete had a camera pointed at them throughout the racing.

Over the course of the two-day competition, 3,000 people tuned in to watch the webcast.

“We’re all about this being a broadcast medium,” Garcia said. “It’s where we’re going to get our sponsorship and someday be sustainable.”

Esther Meisel (pictured) said the competition format was different from traditional road racing. Photo courtesy CVR

The push to go mainstream

Esther Meisels participated in the Paris leg of the CVR series after racing for several months in Belgium’s kermesse circuit. Meisels, who races as a Category 2 racer in the United States, said the competition format at CVR favored strong riders with a detailed knowledge of Zwift, rather than a rider with advanced knowledge of road racing strategy.

“In the real world, someone can win and not necessarily be the strongest — you can win by knowing which moves to follow,” Meisels said. “In the [CVR] race I felt like it was all-out racing the entire time.”

The qualification standards for CVR involve an arcane system of points rankings and participation in events during the eight-week period prior to each event. Riders can also qualify by participating in a number of training camps hosted by coach Hunter Allen. Or, riders can simply apply.

“In the real world, someone can win and not necessarily be the strongest. … In the [CVR] race I felt like it was all-out racing the entire time.”
– Esther Meisels

At a tournament, riders participate in a 20-minute time trial to qualify for the final round of each CVR tournament — they either qualify for the “elite” or “performance” finals, based off of their ability. The finals are comprised of three events: a 20-minute hill climb, a 25-minute mass-start road race, and a 20-minute criterium. Points accrued for each race determine the outright winner.

A Zwift novice, Meisels said the CVR format presented multiple challenges. The road race started just several minutes after the end of the hill climb, which gave her little time to recover from the 20-minute effort. In the road race, a group of riders broke away immediately, and Meisels missed the break.

“I thought we’d spin for a while like in a [traditional] road race,” Meisels said. “I didn’t expect the break to go that quickly. That’s not how it works in the real world.”

Zwift’s PowerUps, which grant special speed boosts to riders, created headaches for other riders. Dixie Newsome, a Category 2 racer from Virginia Beach, also participated in the Paris event. In the final meters of the hill climb, Newsome prepared to sprint against a competitor, when the competitor utilized a PowerUp that reduced her weight. The other rider surged past Newsome to win.

The London leg of the CVR World Cup featured competition between national teams. Photo courtesy CVR

“There was a huge learning curve,” Newsome said. “It was more about me not knowing the software.”

Despite their respective gaffes, Newsome and Meisels both said they enjoyed the CVR experience. Meisels plans to compete in the upcoming Los Angeles round.

“I came in with a lot of reservations and I had an amazing time,” Meisels said.

The gap between online racing and traditional road racing could create obstacles for Garcia and his vision. Worldwide attention for virtual racing could largely hinge on Garcia’s ability to lure star athletes to his races. The CVR Paris race was won by rider Ian Bibby, who races for the UCI continental team JLT-Condor. If 3,000 viewers tuned in to watch Esther Meisels and Ian Bibby compete, how many would watch Anna van der Breggen and Peter Sagan?

A hefty prize purse will help lure some pro riders. Yet others may be turned off by gimmicks like PowerUps and the unorthodox racing format. After all, pro road riders train specifically for the nuances of road racing.  A quick poll of 10 North American professional riders produced three “nos,” two “yeses,” and five “maybes.”

“For me, the main point of riding bikes is to get outside and explore new places, so a virtual competition doesn’t immediately appeal to me,” said reigning American cross-country champion Howard Grotts. “I’d consider doing it just for the challenge, I guess.”

“For $100,000, I’ll do any bike race, any format, it’s all suffering one in the same”
– Ben Wolfe

“I don’t really think I’d be into doing that because it’s just so different than racing outside,” said Logan Owen of EF Education First. “It would essentially just turn into the strongest guy winning all the time if it’s just based off power.”

“I think it would be fun, but I would ask what steps they are taking to ensure it is all fair / how are they maintaining the integrity of the results,” said Amber Neben.

“For $100,000, I’ll do any bike race, any format, it’s all suffering one in the same,” said Jelly Belly rider Ben Wolfe.

UCI representatives did not respond to queries about any future relationships with CVR. USA Cycling provided a statement that said any plans between the governing body and Zwift are “still in the early stages.”

“We are exploring engaging new ways to collaborate that offer more value to our core racers as well as bring new riders into the sport,” the statement said.

Garcia believes CVR’s growing popularity will overcome these obstacles. And if the cycling world does not fully embrace his racing format, that’s OK. In his mind, he’s building something completely separate from the type of racing that fans are accustomed to watching. That’s the entire point.

“Even Zwift wants to put Esports into cycling,” Garcia says. “We want to put cycling into Esports.”