Inside Zwift’s plan to make virtual racing a professional sport
This story appeared in the September print issue of VeloNews Magazine.
Erica Clevenger churns her legs over, powering the pedals of her black Felt bicycle, as the familiar whir of a stationary trainer fills the living room of her apartment.
The television screen in front of Clevenger flashes her statistics: Her power output spikes above 400 watts and her heart rate begins to rise.
Clevenger leans over her bicycle in the familiar attack position, arching her back to engage her gluteal muscles and pour on the power. On the TV screen, Clevenger’s avatar sits attentively at her bicycle.
Clevenger rockets out of the starting gate alongside 40 or so other female racers, all of whom are competing in the London Classic virtual race on the online cycling program Zwift. The women speed under a glowing electronic arch and then bunch up on a pixelated roadway that runs adjacent to a virtual version of Big Ben and the London Eye.
Clevenger is a seasoned professional racer on the Sho Air-Twenty 20 professional squad, a collegiate national road champion, an unquestionably talented endurance athlete. On paper, she should have a major advantage.
Yet virtual racing is vastly different than racing IRL (in real life), and the Zwift system features a menagerie of video game-inspired tricks and quirks, like wattage-boosting “PowerUps”; different settings on the power of drafting; and even an invisibility feature. Riders cannot simply pedal hard, they must also master the video game’s strategies and secrets. In her first race, Clevenger learned an important lesson: Riders increase their wattage in the seconds before the start, so that when the game begins, they are already at top speed.
“If you start pedaling when the race starts you’ll get dropped because everyone is already at full speed,” Clevenger says. “You have to know some of the tricks.”
Clevenger learned another lesson during her first race when she instinctively stopped pedaling on a downhill section, assuming she could coast through the descent. In Zwift, however, riders must maintain power on the pedals at all times—there’s no freewheeling. Clevenger was immediately dropped from the group.
“One second I was in the group, then I was gone,” Clevenger says. “It was frustrating.”
Despite its quirks and non-intuitive format, Zwift racing has become an integral component of Erica Clevenger’s 2019 professional racing campaign. Early this year, Zwift launched KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) Super League, a weekly series of races for UCI professional teams that ran from February through April. Then, Zwift created its Classics series, a collection of six invite-only races for professional riders through the spring and summer.
The Classics and KISS races are broadcast live on Zwift’s Facebook page to a nascent audience of spectators. And the Classics boast a $5,000 prize purse per race—first through 15th place collect cash.
The presence of prize money, spectators, and—most importantly—regular opportunities for fast, flat-out racing has come at a critical moment for Clevenger and her teammates. It’s no secret that the U.S. landscape for professional women’s racing has taken a sizable step backwards in recent years, with popular races and teams disappearing amid a fickle sponsorship market.
Virtual racing, by contrast, overcomes the financial hurdles that limit traditional road events.
There are no expensive fees for road closures and television broadcasts. Nobody crashes or gets hurt. Riders simply plug in their laptop computers and smart trainers at the same time, fill their water bottles, and race.
“For the last few years we’ve seen the racing opportunities dwindle,” says Nicola Cranmer, owner of Sho-Air Twenty20. “Zwift gave the girls the opportunity to make prize money and for strong brand exposure for our sponsors.”
Virtual cycling’s rapid adoption by the professional women’s peloton could be a harbinger for the future of professional cycling across the board. In the last year, Zwift has forged ambitious partnerships with national federations, pro riders, and even grand tour operators, to further its reach within international bicycle racing. The company also raised tens of millions of dollars to spend on building its ambitions. And the company’s founders have a brash agenda to cement virtual racing into the foundation of the sport.
Of course, those ambitious plans depend on professional riders like Clevenger to enjoy a bike race blended with a video game, complete with invisibility cloaks and afterburner-like power boosts. So far, it’s working.
“The video game elements are fun because they’re not trying to make it too close to real racing,” Clevenger says. “I think it’s fun to have Mario Kart on bikes.”
The birth of Zwift racing
PowerUps and prize cash are a relatively new phenomenon for Zwift, which launched in 2015 after two years of beta testing. In fact, Zwift’s founders had no intentions of hosting any form of competitive cycling on the platform; they simply sought to build a virtual training program to help overcome the monotony of training indoors.
“We can’t take credit for it,” says Eric Min, who co-founded Zwift. “The community started to organize races themselves on our original loop.”
Zwift’s original three-mile loop, called Watopia, allowed riders from across the globe to spin unlimited laps on the hilly circuit for a $10 monthly fee.
Retired pro Charlie Issendorf, a longtime race promoter in the New York City amateur racing scene, was an early hire in Zwift’s marketing department. Issendorf said he noticed a phenomenon within the company’s first months of business. Riders would log in and then wait under the illuminated Zwift arch on Watopia. When a collection of riders amassed at the area, they would then strike out in an organized group ride. Like all group rides, the tempo would go up and up, and riders would attack and sprint for arbitrary points along the course.
Issendorf said Zwift users even began to post the unofficial results of these group rides on Facebook groups.
“There was no start line or event functionality—they’d create groups on Facebook and say, ‘Let’s meet at 8’ or whatever,” Issendorf says. “The community was going to have these group rides whether we liked it or not.”
Zwift’s programmers responded to the demands of the users. They built a virtual starting grid on the Watopia course, which served as the starting point for organized races. Then, they created a function that allowed riders to opt in and be teleported to the starting area for the race.
“That was really the start of Zwift racing,” Issendorf says. “We responded to what they wanted, and it took off.”
Those simple tweaks unleashed a flurry of racing activity on Zwift. Group rides turned into races, and ordinary users evolved into race promoters and league operators. Over the course of a few months, daily races sprung up on the platform. One of the earliest leagues to form was the KISS league.
Another organized ride, called Sunday Spin, was launched by Arizona software engineer Frank Garcia, who in 2015 became the first person to ever pedal the vertical height of Mt. Everest on Zwift. Garcia created a yearlong racing league around Zwift, which he named Cycligent Virtual Ranking, or CVR, which awarded points totals for top finishes and maintained a constant ranking system.
Ever the entrepreneur, Garcia watched his teenage son’s interest in live video game competition. What if he could blend the dramatics of Zwift racing with the glitz of pro video gaming? Garcia’s idea was to stage invite-only CVR races in public arenas—he called them World Cups—throughout the year and broadcast the races online.
In 2017 he launched his self-funded venture, and titled it “Physical Esports” (i.e. e-sports).
Garcia held live World Cup events in Paris, London, and Las Vegas, and put thousands of dollars of his own money up for the winners.
More than 3,000 fans tuned in online to watch the Las Vegas race.
“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 [other non-physical] Esports in the Olympics, and we think we’d be a better fit.”
Garcia’s venture marked a turning point for Zwift’s founders. Over the course of 18 months, Zwift racing had blossomed from ad-hoc group rides into a spectator sport, complete with cash prizes, televised action, and professional participation. By early 2018, Zwift users were organizing 300 organized races and rides per day on the platform.
Min and his co-founders watched the speedy evolution in awe. By their estimation, at least 25 percent of all Zwift users—which totaled in the hundreds of thousands—were regularly racing on the site.
“I would be lying to you if I originally thought the community would have had such an influence on how we developed our products,” Min says. “I was blown away.”
Reshaping women’s cycling
The yellow Post-It note stuck to Erica Clevenger’s television screen contains the day’s strategic plan for the Sho-Air riders: “19.4 kilometers ATTACK.” The distance mark corresponds with the base of the course’s long climb, where the Sho-Air team will try to split up the group.
The organized attack is the product of several months of trial and error by Sho-Air Twenty20 riders. In the early KISS races, the team won with Chloe Dygert Owen and Simone Boilard, and regularly landed on the podium. However, the team’s results paled in comparison to the Zwift All Stars team—a composite team composed of riders who focus predominantly on virtual races.
“I had never heard of these women, and they were really good,” Clevenger says. “They really knew how to play the game.”
The Sho-Air team’s adoption of Zwift started in late 2018 when Issendorf reached out to Cranmer with an invitation to the 2019 Super League and Classics series. Cranmer, a 15-year veteran of the North American road scene, was initially skeptical. But Issendorf offered to provide the team with everything it would need to compete: Wahoo stationary trainers, heart-rate monitors, and even television screens for some of the athletes.
Cranmer says she was also attracted by the prospect of having more than a dozen additional races on her competition schedule.
“The North American racing calendar has these huge gaps and we need to fill them,” Cranmer says. “A lot of time they stay at home and just do local races.”
Cranmer watched her athletes succeed and struggle in the early KISS races, and the events had a major impact on the riders. Their communication during races improved, she said, and the riders began to ride more as a team even in outdoor events. The short and intense Zwift races also boosted the racing power of Clevenger and others.
“We’ve seen max power numbers from some of our girls during these races,” Cranmer says. “It’s such a focused effort, and there are no concerns about cars or stop signs. It’s this mental focus you can’t get outside.”
The addition of more than 20 races to the team’s calendar did create scheduling headaches, and riders often competed in the Zwift events having just returned from races on the road.
But Cranmer saw her team’s social media engagement spike during and after the races. The team added followers on Instagram and Twitter, thanks to savvy promotion by Zwift’s own social media team. And during some of the KISS races, cameras were placed on the riders themselves, so that live audiences could see each rider react to the increases in pace and power output.
The live showings convinced Cranmer that Zwift racing was more than worth the effort.
“Our races aren’t televised very much, and it’s really hard to connect with fans if they can’t see the races unfold,” Cranmer says. “Now fans can watch our girls race. They’re not wearing helmets or glasses. You can see these powerful, beautiful women and see their suffering—people really liked that.”
The cash to race
Zwift generated mainstream headlines in December 2018 when the company released rare information about its finances. Zwift raised a whopping $120 million in a Series B funding round, led by various institutional investing groups.
The huge cash influx was aimed entirely at one focus: Zwift racing, which the company had rebranded under the term “Esports.”
“We want to create a sport and commercial model that makes the sport sustainable at the highest level as an entertainment experience,” Min says. “We’re just at the beginning of what we think will spur other sports to go digital.”
The funding round backed a flurry of new hires for Zwift, including scores of new programmers, as well as professionals with experience in televised sports, live entertainment, and sports media. Zwift also hired Craig Edmondson, the former marketing director for the Premier League, perhaps the most prestigious soccer league in the world. Taking the title of Esports CEO, Edmondson’s job, in part, is to create alliances with institutions within mainstream cycling—national governing bodies, WorldTour races, and pro teams—to further entrench Zwift racing within the sport.
“We’re going to look at the spring classics and the grand tours and ask ourselves: ‘What’s the Zwift version of that?’” Edmondson says. “We’ve done a lot of good experimentation, and we’re trying to find the right gaming solution that is both fun to play and watch.”
Thus far, Zwift’s ‘experimentation’ has impacted both pro races and riders. In 2017 Zwift held its Zwift Academy talent search, which awarded its winner, Leah Thorvilson, a professional spot on the Canyon-SRAM pro women’s team. Then, Zwift began to hold national championship races in select countries—for 2019 Zwift will hold championship events for 14 different countries.
This past May, Zwift even invited Giro d’Italia riders to compete in the race’s virtual prologue on the eve of the race. Rumors then circulated that the Giro would feature an entire virtual stage to start the race.
The experimentation and multimillion-dollar investments are aimed entirely at one goal.
“Our big aspiration is the 2028 Olympics,” Min says. “The Olympics are so important to me because it would have that trickle-down effect to a younger audience to really make us important.”
In September, Zwift took a major step toward achieving that goal. The company finalized a partnership with the UCI that allows for a series of major sanctioned races in 2020. Zwift will hold 15 national championships, plus continental championship races in North America and Europe. And the company will hold a UCI-approved UCI Cycling Esports World Championships, to crown a men’s and women’s world champion.
In Min’s eyes, an Olympic berth would establish Zwift racing as a mainstream sport, and lead to a professional league, a bevy of national championships, and perhaps even junior and high school leagues.
Zwift still has plenty of ground to cover before it can entertain those thoughts, however, and the rapid growth of competitive Zwift racing has already created plenty of challenges. In the early days of Zwift racing, engineers began to notice a phenomenon that is all too familiar within amateur racing communities across the country. Riders accused each other of cheating in social media forums by lying about their weight—a rider’s speed on Zwift is based on his or her power-to-weight ratio, which is calculated using a rider’s weight—or even lying about their gender.
After several months of these complaints, Zwift created ways to monitor each rider’s performance. Efforts that surpassed 5.2 watts/kg for 20 minutes or 6.0 watts/kg for five minutes are flagged. Then, an ad-hoc group of volunteers sprung up to monitor the races, calling themselves the Zwift Anti-Doping Agency (ZADA).
When Zwift launched its professional races, all pro riders agreed to submit to official weigh-ins and wear heart-rate monitors to ensure that the performances were, in fact, legitimate. Zwift has the authority to disqualify riders. In fact, Clevenger was disqualified from a Zwift Classics event in August after her heart-rate monitor malfunctioned. The punishment, while harsh, is one more action that is pointed toward the company’s ultimate goal.
“We have to create a robust governing structure to ensure the integrity of the races,” Edmondson says. “We have to stand up to scrutiny.”
The cycling world wasted little time in applying scrutiny to Zwift’s governing structure and racing integrity. On September 19, British Cycling released a public memo stating that the results of the 2019 British eRacing Championships, held in March, had been overturned due to cheating.
The winner of the race, Cameron Jeffers, was disqualified for using a special Zwift Concept Z1 bike—known colloquially as the ‘Tron’ bike—which he had obtained illegally. The Tron bike allegedly gives Zwift racers a slight aerodynamic advantage in the game.
Due to its perceived advantage, the Tron bike is not available to all Zwift players. Riders must first climb 50,000 vertical meters—a task that takes months to accomplish—in order to unlock the special bike. As it tuns out, Jeffers never completed the challenge. Instead, he used an illegal Ant+ simulator program to accrue the climbing meters to obtain the bike. British Cycling banned Jeffers for six months and stripped him of his title.
The news sent shockwaves throughout the pro cycling landscape, as riders, journalists, and pundits weighed in. Zwift racing, it seemed, was just like pro road cycling, where every great result is seemingly placed under scrutiny of cheating. Stories highlighting the bizarre scandal appeared in mainstream publications from Outside to Deadspin, and a new phrase was coined to explain the bizarre cheating method: “Robo Doping.”
The scandal, while embarrassing, taught the company valuable lessons, Edmondson says. Zwift’s reliance on the community to monitor strange performances paid off, as it was a member of the public who tipped British Cycling off to Jeffers’s activity. And the gears of justice eventually worked; they just took several months to rule.
“It did expose a new way in which a competitor might seek to gain an unfair advantage,” Edmondson says. “Following this case, we have been implementing new code in game that detects humanly impossible performances and botting.”
And, perhaps most importantly, the scandal reinforced Zwift’s desire for eSports to attain the same level of trust and believability as mainstream sports, where cheaters are punished. Rather than shy away from the bad press, Zwift instead publicized news of Jeffers’s disqualification on its website and social media feeds.
“In the case against Cameron Jeffers, while far from being the outcome we wished for, it is proof that the tools we have in place are effective for policing the sport, and ensuring fair competition,” Edmondson says.
Pleasure and pain
Clevenger launches into the virtual uphill, and her trainer increases its resistance. She gasps as she strains up the climb—her avatar speeds ahead of the group. Then, near the top of the climb, Clevenger leans over her handlebars and taps her iPhone. The tap unleashes Clevenger’s PowerUp, and she rockets up the hill away from the pack.
Sho-Air’s attack whittles down the front group; however, 11 other riders have made the junction. As Clevenger pedals through the final two laps of the race, the pace intensifies, and her wattage stays near 400 watts.
The pack rumbles into the final kilometer and Clevenger again taps her phone, unleashing a PowerUp that makes her more aerodynamic. She rockets toward the finish line in the final sprint, only to see a handful of riders pass her just before the line. She finishes sixth, and collapses to the floor of her apartment, moaning.
It’s a scene that has played out thousands of times, across the world, at the finish line of traditional bicycle races. Clevenger’s pain—matched with the euphoria of competition—leaves her struggling to find her words.
“You have to put out 400 watts for so long and then somehow keep going,” Clevenger says between gasps. “That hurt so much.”