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Q&A: Zwift’s race director Charlie Issendorf

Why aren't Zwift races longer? How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted racing? We put these and other questions to Charlie Issendorf, Zwift's VP of events.

Charlie Issendorf has been a  fixture in New York City’s amateur bicycle racing scene for decades, first as an elite racer and then as the promoter of races in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Floyd Bennett Field.

These days Issendorf is also the race director at Zwift, and the director of the recent Zwift Classics series.

VeloNews: Take us through those first few days of the coronavirus shutdown, as more and more pro and amateur races were canceled or postponed. What type of outreach did you get from riders and race promoters?

Charlie Issendorf: We quickly became inundated by requests from race promoters, so much so that we had a blanket story that we cannot take new requests right now. There was a lot of education for the promoters who had stayed away and all of a sudden their events were canceled. Now, they are looking for Plan B. It was like ‘maybe we can move the show over there.’ The requests were all over the place. ‘Can you build my race’s course online? We have this one-mile circuit, can you replicate it?’ It’s like no, we can’t do that. And that answer turned off a lot of promoters who thought that we can just make their racecourse, and maybe that’s not what they were expecting.

VN: What about pro road riders and teams? What type of requests did you receive from them?

CI: The WorldTour teams started contacting us pretty early, just a few days after the global lockdown. We’ve always viewed Zwift as a platform, not as an event organizer, and at that level we never wanted to be an ASO. So, when teams started to reach out to [ask] what can we do, we held their hands. Here are some options, we have a menu of events for you. You can do group rides, races, group workouts, and these are the things that go into each one. Why don’t you tell us what you’re interested in? A group ride is people getting together and not a race; a race is a race; and then group workouts are different.

VN: The Zwift Classics series started just as the shutdown was taking shape and I’m surprised WorldTour riders did not want to participate in it.

CI: The appetite for pros at the WorldTour level was not so much racing, because they were still getting the feel for Zwift. They’ve heard about it and they weren’t about doing the Pro/Am races. So, the teams we had competing in the Zwift Classics were the teams we’ve worked with before. Ribble-Weldtite and Hagens-Berman and some other pro-conti teams said they wanted to dip their feet into racing. They have a bit more appetite than they did before.

VN: Having watched plenty of road pros try out Zwift racing, where do they hold an advantage — and face a disadvantage — in virtual races?

CI: The road pros are the strongest in terms of pure power. They got to be a pro rider for a reason, and they didn’t get there by being lucky, so they know how to race. But of course Zwift racing is so different, as you know the starts are incredibly fast, and that’s a change for them. The Tour of Flanders doesn’t start with everybody sprinting off of the line because it’s a seven-hour race. That’s how a Zwift race starts. The pros often don’t understand the power-ups, and they don’t study the course. You have to really know the courses to win a Zwift race. When Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle won Paris-Roubaix [in 1992] he knew every cobblestone and every inch of the course, and it’s just as valuable to know these courses in Zwift. You go around the corner and what is there? There could be another KOM climb or an arch, and if you’re coming into the race for the first time you’re at a huge disadvantage to somebody who knows the course really well. It’s hard to beat a dog in its own backyard. So, it’s just a general lack of racing knowledge. But once they figure it out, watch out. They will shine.

VN: Why not make the Zwift races longer? It seems like the short format of the events makes them much different from traditional road races.

CI: Because of the intensity of the races — just like in a real-life race — the shorter the race, the more intense it is. Think about cyclocross racing — it’s 60 minutes and there is no such thing as a four-hour cyclocross race because cyclocross racing is too intense for that. In many ways Zwift is like that. We played around with formats for years, and the sweet spot was events under 1 hour. If you think about cyclocross, or velodrome racing, people have an appetite that is shorter. I just don’t think people have the appetite to watch a Zwift race go on for hours and hours. I think you get your fill very quickly with a 45-minute or 60-minute race.

VN: Will the racing shutdown change the Zwift pro/am schedule? Will we see additional series or races pop up?

CI: We’ve been rethinking what the season means. As much as we want to believe that we’re a year-round proposition, the reality is once it gets nice outside, real-life racing comes to the fore, so it won’t make much sense to go up against outdoor road races. But in this crisis period we have seen people coming in who wouldn’t have. So, as we think about what that schedule looks like for the rest of the year, we’re just like everybody else. We’re seeing how things play out. We’re going to have more Pro/Am races, we’re just trying to work out the details of what that means. We’ve barely finished the Zwift Classics and we’re thinking about what’s next. We’re accelerating the plans, and there will be more racing.

VN: What goes into designing a course for pro/am racing?

CI: It’s about building the drama. When choosing the routes and the course I always have that mind. Even the Bologna or the Watopia Cup courses, in both cases it’s a strong chase group right behind, which is awesome and makes it exciting. Even the Crit City race you could see the chase group was only 5 seconds behind, and that makes good bike racing. To see races going down to the wire is something [exciting] rather than someone winning with minutes over the group.

VN: Yes, but the criticism I’ve heard of Zwift racing is that the course and the strong draft make breakaway victories impossible.

CI: The drama of having a solo rider cross the line is cool, whether in the virtual world or in IRL. But if you think about IRL racing, how many people are really winning solo? At the end of the day it’s usually a small group. When the Classics riders come across, you think about Roubaix or Flanders, it’s an attrition race that starts with 200 riders and then gets down to 10 and then 5, and usually it’s only a handful at the end battling for the line. That’s how Zwift racing usually is. You’ve seen it in the Zwift Classics with a small sprint coming at the end, and even a few solo riders. At the end of the day it’s about the motivation of the riders and the course.