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How Zwift creates more opportunities for women’s cycling at every level

Zwift is leveling the playing field for women's cycling with equal distances for many events, equal payout for races, and a low-anxiety environment for all.

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Zwift has become more than a household name since the pandemic altered the 2020 pro road season; it’s also served as a more level and equitable playing field for female cyclists.

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The online racing and training platform saw subscriptions soar in 2020, and although numbers of female-identifying users tend to reflect that of most American gravel races — 18 percent of American Zwift users are registered as women — once the racing begins, women have the same opportunities as men.

During the 2020 Tour for All, the women’s field were afforded the same prize money for racing the same distances as the pro men’s field. And at the 2020 virtual Tour de France, 17 pro women’s squads lined up for a three-stage event, also covering the same courses as the men, with the same opportunities for podium payouts.

Throughout the month of March, Zwift is hosting a plethora of women’s only events. Ayesha McGowan —  a satellite rider for Liv Racing — will host rides during the upcoming Thee Abundance conference at the end of March. Apparel manufacturer Machines for Freedom is hosting a series of events on Zwift, and Zwift itself is hosting the Women’s Ride and Run Series (WRRS).

Here’s how Zwift continues to level the field:

Equal distance, equal pay, equal opportunity

Zwift events do not discriminate between men and women when it comes to distance or payout for pro races. Not only does the virtual riding platform push egalitarianism, it fosters more opportunities for women’s racing on the road than in real life. Zwift has done a lot to enhance the experience for female riders, and events like the Rapha Women’s 100 and SRAM Women’s Series are exclusive: only riders who have registered as women when they subscribed to Zwift can sign up for one of the many women’s-only events. And on any given day, there are numerous women’s-only rides and races.

Part of what makes Zwift such a fun and amazing tool for including more women in racing is that it removes barriers to entry and is an encouraging environment for new and experienced riders alike. The virtual environment is without many of the anxieties associated with racing on open roads — jostling of elbows and shoulders, no crashes and no cars.

And these barriers to entry are removed at every level. Not only are new riders able to jump on a trainer and do rides at their own comfortable pace, but seasoned pros can also seize opportunities not previously within their reach.

Christie Tracy, who races for Saris+The Pros Closet team, and finished in 25th place at the 2020 Zwift worlds while representing the United States, said, “When I was trying to go pro I wanted to race the big UCI races I wanted to race against all of these [women], the Lauren Stevenses… like I wanted to get out there and see what I could do against these teams, but finding guest ride spots and not having the connections within the industry [made it really challenging].”

“It was very difficult. With Zwift, I can stalk somebody on Zwiftpower to see what they’ve signed up for. And go find that race sign up and race them,” Tracy said. “And it’s amazing — like the barrier to entry is reduced so significantly, and it’s such a supportive community.”

A talent-id tool

UCI women’s teams have started to embrace the platform as a talent identification tool. Spanish squad Movistar announced that it was using Zwift to find three women to add to its roster through the Movistar Challenge during the month of February. And, since 2016, Canyon-SRAM has identified women for its team through a series of events on Zwift as part of the Zwift Academy.

In 2020, 20,500 women registered for the Zwift Academy. They completed workouts in which their power output was recorded over various durations, among other things. The Zwift Academy coaches examined these riders for power-to-weight output for 10-second, 1-minute, 4-minute, and 10-minute durations. The top riders raced off, and then made their way to an in-person camp. Of all the women registering for rides in Zwift, an overwhelming majority of 57 percent identified as road cyclists.

Cross-discipline exposure

The significance of the availability of Zwift and the adoption of it as a racing platform used by pros was immediately recognized by riders. Elinor Barker, who represented Great Britain at the UCI virtual world championships on Zwift, said Zwift has opened opportunities for her to race against women in other disciplines in which she’d normally never cross paths. Barker primarily races races on the track and occasionally on the road. But Zwift builds a community of racers not separated by real-world barriers or disciplines.

“There’s quite a variety of athletes, so I think it’s the only race in which I’ll ever race an Olympic and world champion on the road, and a multiple world champion on the track, and also multiple Paralympic champion in the same place in the same race,” she said.

Barker (left) says that Zwift is excellent for uniting a community of women from across cycling disciplines. Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

And Saris+TPC’s Tracy recognizes that Zwift only adds to available racing opportunities without taking them away opportunities from pros who are trying to put food on the table.

“I feel like the attitude is a little bit different, even competitors were more supportive of each other, because I’m not competing with you for a spot on a pro team,” Tracy said.

Results that win contracts

Ashleigh Moolman Pasio had been looking for a contract early in 2020 when her then team CCC-Liv announced it was dissolving. According to the South African, her consistently high placings in Zwift turned enough heads to land her a contract with SD Worx through 2022.

Then, confirming her new team’s suspicions, she went on to win the rainbow jersey at the 2020 Zwift worlds.

“I got my contract [offers] because of my results in the virtual world — I got all my contract offers in May, before I had even raced on the road,”  Moolman Pasio said. “In such a strange year, without having raced outside once, I already had my future tied up for the next two years. That was really cool.”

Moolman Pasio became an outspoken proponent for virtual cycling, often repeating the story of her conversion to Zwift racing and the benefits that indoor training had given her on the road.

“I wasn’t a fan of virtual training before the lockdown, and lockdown really converted me, and now to win the virtual world champion’s jersey — I’m really proud,” Moolman Pasio said following her victory at the Zwift worlds.

Ashleigh training indoors
Some pro riders like Ashleigh Moolman Pasio threw themselves into Zwift racing. For the South African it meant a contract for 2021. Photo: Courtesy Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio

“Brands like Specialized are looking for athletes who are diverse and can race in more than one discipline,” Moolman Pasio said. “I think the value of riders who are able to perform in more than one discipline will be bigger and bigger in the years to come. To be able to race road and esports, or road and gravel, or mountain biking — all of these disciplines are now important to brands that are active in these fields.”

“The two-year contract will be the end of my career on the road, but my career in esports has only just started,” Moolman Pasio said. “The reason I would stop racing on the road is I want to be a mother.”

“The beauty of esports is you can race from the home. I do have quite a long future ahead of me in esports.”

Real-world emulating Zwift

While professional cycling has been slow to provide the same opportunities for women as men, Zwift isn’t constrained by or beholden to the same rules or traditions. Last summer’s Tour for All and the virtual Tour de France provided equal opportunities, distances, and prize money, and it felt more normal than not.

Can the opportunities that Zwift provides female cyclists — with its many opportunities to race and ride with other women in a low-stress environment — trickle into real life?

When the pandemic — which surely led to Zwift’s astronomical rise in popularity — finally recedes, Zwift will not, and nor will its effect of more and equal opportunities for women to ride or race on the platform and in real life.