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Q&A: RGT Cycling’s James Vickers on virtual cycling experience

RGT isn't trying to beat Zwift. Instead, the platform is chasing customization of roads and routes, a new style of training, and a different type of social integration inside the game.

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Indoor racing and riding is booming. Zwift users are in the seven-figure range, a source told VeloNews, and single events on that platform can top 20,000 during the Northern hemisphere winter peak. But while the majority of cyclists riding inside are on Zwift, there are other options for indoor racing and training, including RGT Cycling.

RGT Cycling chose to head in a different direction than a massive number of concurrent users. The platform, which has hosted the esports national cycling championships for several countries including the United States, wants athletes an experience that approximates real-life racing. Of course, this is aspirational but the company’s four core values — accessibility, empowerment, realism, and entertainment — drive the decisions made about what users experience, and it’s quite a different experience than Zwift.

Also read: Zwift plugs cheating hole that allowed in-game height and weight adjustment

VeloNews discussed these values and how they shape where the virtual cycling environment is headed, users’ experiences, and more with James Vickers, RGT Cycling’s head of brand and marketing.

VeloNews: Jumping right in, are the physics different from Zwift in how drag and friction are modeled? What is RGT doing differently?

James Vickers: So that the whole concept of racing on RGT is different for two reasons. One, because we do the physics and the positioning on our servers and we give everyone the same view but also because our physics are different. Because of what that server-side rendering enables, it makes it so drafting and collision avoidance are actually meaningful.

Our approach to CdA, the coefficient of drag, is very similar to Zwift’s approach. We made the decision not to include rider height. We’re not ready. It couldn’t just be height, it needed to be body shape and composition. And at that point, it gets too complicated.

We worked with leading physicists in e-cycling sports for how our physics should be modeled. And that gave us that coefficient. We have our own research and development into our physics. We spent so much time trying to get that and drag factor right and trying to reduce the drag when you’re sat on the wheel by the same amount as it happens in the real world at the same speeds.

VN: Let’s talk about fairness. It’s a big deal in esports, and Zwift has taken cheating — and “game exploits” — seriously. What is RGT Cycling doing to prevent cheating and catch cheaters?

JV: Although we don’t have ZADA, we do have systems in place. And we do take some decisions based on feedback that we get from the community directly as well. We don’t like doing it but when it’s obvious that something is happening isn’t fair. We’ll take action. [eBiopassport is a third-party performance data verification service used frequently by RGT event organizers. -Ed]

We’re providing the organizer with the tools that they to create that transparency, to create that assurance, and to create that proof of performance. It becomes a peer-led peer reviews transparency system, so there’s no cheating in it.

RGT Cycling hosts the virtual Redlands Classic.

VN: So RGT strayed away from providing performance data verification as a core part of the game, and leave this to the event organizers?

JV: We made a decision very early on that RGT wasn’t an event organizer. RGT didn’t have the required experience to create a virtual anti-doping product or platform, and it would be a distraction for us. We wouldn’t give it the focus that it needed.

This empowers event organizers with the ability to choose what level of data verification can be used for their events.

So although we don’t have ZADA we do have systems in place. And we do take some decisions based on feedback that we get from the community directly as well. We don’t like doing it but when it’s obvious that something is happening isn’t fair. We’ll take action.

We wanted this to be as open as possible. It’s easy for us to say that. I recognize that because we aren’t the incumbent or the gorilla in the room. But I still think we’d feel the same if we were we have a different approach to the way our content is great. We don’t own anything.

VN: Looking at RGT Cycling side-by-side with Zwift, there are noticeable differences in the game experience with regards to drafting, tactics, group dynamics.

JV: We can only have 200 people in a row at one time because we’ve made this decision. So large-scale, participatory events aren’t possible. But on what planet are you ever going to ride with 20,000 people on the same 20 kilometers at the same time?

That’s obviously a decision we made and we continue to optimize around that. Obviously, technology moves very quickly.

VN: Are there plans to allow more competitors in a single event?

JV: We’ve never positioned ourselves as a platform for for mass participation. We’ve not gone after that audience that I’m familiar with. We focus on the huge depth of community.

All of our physics are arranged set aside on the game servers and then pushed down to the individual clients. And we all see the same thing. And that’s been really important.

The physics needed to be rendered — decided and organized on the server — and then the physics would be pushed out to each individual athlete, which would mean everybody saw the same thing. So if we’re riding together, and we’re doing a team time trial and I’m first, you’re second, Sam’s third. That’s how it looks: we all see the same thing if I crossed the line first in a race. I know I crossed the line first in a race.

It’s fundamental: We believe that we need to show everybody the same thing to make esports true and fair, like from the fans’ perspective. If you’re not saying the same thing, how can you respond to an attack?

Zwift riderless bikes
Zwift users in very large, mass-participation events have sometimes experienced unusual in-game issues. (Illustration: Anne Renshaw/Twitter)

VN: What about managing hundreds or thousands of riders interacting in an event?

JV: Our software product that we build in will have moved on to enable us to have that number and it has, so I think we’ll be at 500 people probably by June. So we’ll have doubled our race event capacity by June.

We talked about our social and there’s two things that we talked about in events. One was what’s possible and the ability to chat; and the other was event formats.

We’ve got scratch race, team time trial, time trial, and elimination. But the way in which we produce the platform was to give people the options so we’ve always been about empowerment. So on RGT you can choose what the screen looks like. We don’t tell you what to have on the screen you can turn all of this on and off and change it. You can create your own magic roads, you can create your own events. So we’ve long been about empowerment. [“Magic roads” are routes crated from user-uploaded GPS files. -Ed]

No one’s got social or event formats right yet. I think there’s so much to do with social particularly the concept of having voice in-game, you know? Embedded voice on a platform with the ability to create a voice channel on-the-fly for the breakaway that you’re in, that you can tune in and out of and you can listen to your DS giving you advice from the pack. I think that’s community. That’s social. That’s engaging. That’s communication. That’s where we’re heading. That’s what we’re working on now. That’s what we’re going to have.

VN: Will events scale and still maintain a similar user experience? What about customization for event hosts or brands?

JV: If you can give me a valid new logo and check back in about an hour, I will have the road covered in it and it will be live in the app for people to see. That’s how quickly we can develop that — it’s very quick. For us to change and it was part of our decision early on to incorporate that flexibility into the product. And so accessibility not only for users, but for brands of all levels.

Training is still watching a number and just pedaling and everything else happening around you. Let’s go one step further. Let’s create scenarios where your protocols or your intervals are hit by chasing a group down. Let’s do that because that’s exciting and it goes so much quicker.

We look at your training outcome for that day as a high-intensity session. So we pick something that works we create a scenario around that all on the fly.

VN: So, like Wahoo Systm?

JV: Race radio comes on and says you’re right in the group for the first five minutes. We’re not sure what’s gonna happen in today’s stage. So you’re in the group and that’s your warmup. And then it comes on race radio, right? Now’s your time to get the team on the attack. Two minutes full effort. So you go for gas for two minutes. And you get the gap or you’ve got the gap actually, now right at threshold for 10 minutes.

Spencer Seggebruch’s view of a race in RGT.

VN: Are there any other features or facets of RGT that set it apart from the other virtual cycling platforms?

JV: I’m a huge advocate for both cycling and virtual cycling, the sports products that they create, and the individual health and mental health and wellbeing, the tournaments that they create. But it’s just not in the best interest of the sport for it to be a commercially owned thing. It just won’t work and it shuts competition down as well. And that’s not what we’re about.

We’re a firm believer that esports shouldn’t be owned — it shouldn’t be a commercial proposition. And as such, those need to be that those jerseys should be recognized cross-platform with those. There’s a massive hole there.

We definitely believe that those jerseys should be worn by everybody. So it’s such a hard long job to do actually do something like that, and it should be recognized across the platforms.