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Explainer: Everything you need to know about the UCI esports world championships on Zwift

Answers to the most commonly asked questions about the inaugural event.

The inaugural UCI esports world championships on Zwift is coming up on December 9. Yep, Zwift worlds is happening, and it will be streamed live online.

Below are 11 answers to the most common questions I’ve encountered about the event.

Where can I watch it, and when is it going on?

The races start on Wednesday, December 9 at 8: 45 a.m. EST. You can stream it on Zwift’s YouTube channel and on Zwift Live Facebook.

How does the UCI declare a winner?

It’s pretty basic. The first rider across the finish line wins. There are no points, no bonuses, no mathematics involved. It’s a simple scratch race, and first, second, and third are all in the money.

Wait, there’s money involved?

Yeah! The race pays biggish, equal bucks for both the men’s and women’s races. First place gets €8,000, second place gets €4,000, and third place gets €2,000.

Tell me about the course.

 Both men and women will tackle an identical route, which is exactly 50 kilometers in length. The race will take place on Watopia, the original virtual world created for Zwift, and the route is a backward trip on Watopia’s Figure 8 route. The Figure 8 route encompasses Watopia’s hilly and flat routes in both directions, and the race is likely to be comprised of 1 and 2/3 laps of this route. The race then finishes with a climb up a 3.7km corkscrew QOM/KOM that averages 3.2 percent with a maximum pitch of 8.8 percent.

Why is it only 50km?

The UCI and Zwift weighed a number of factors for the length, most notably the duration of a live broadcast, and the excitement factor for the infamously hard and all-out Zwift races. The 50km race will likely take just over an hour to complete. If they made it any longer, fans might not watch, and the riders might fall off of their stationary bikes due to exhaustion.

What type of rider does the course suit?

It depends on who you ask. Climbers point to sprinters, sprinters point to climbers, and everyone seems to think that the route suits someone else. Jacob Fraser, one of the Zwift employees who helped design the route, said the optimal rider is a classics-style rider who has an explosive punch on uphills. So, think Peter Sagan, Greg van Avermaet, or Anna van der Breggen.

Can riders use those power ups I keep hearing about?

Yes, but the use of power ups has been adjusted from what is normally seen in Zwift gameplay. For the esports world championships, only two of the seven power ups are being allowed: the lightweight (feather) and the aero boost (helmet) power ups. The feature reduces a rider’s weight by 10 percent for 15 seconds, so you can expect to see riders use this power up before the long or. medium-sized climbs. The aero helmet power up reduces a rider’s in-game aerodynamic drag by a coefficient of 25 percent for 15 seconds. Expect to see this power up being used in the flats or for the final sprint.

Riders will be given the opportunity to get power ups at 11 points throughout the race, so expect to see riders deploying these power ups with regularity.

Apparently, the use of power ups created some tension between Zwift and the UCI, as the governing body doesn’t have to oversee gamification elements like this during outdoor races. Zwift officials wanted all seven power ups to be available while the UCI wanted none. The compromise: two, giving riders a 50 percent chance of getting either one.

Are there teams?

Yes. Like most UCI elite world championships, the esports worlds will feature national teams competing for the victory. There are 22 nations represented, and the women’s race features 55 riders while the men’s race has 78.

How do we know the winner isn’t just holding a Milwaukee M18 Super Hawg cordless drill up to his smart trainer, or subtracting 50 pounds from his or her weight in the Zwift data page?

Good question. According to the UCI rules, results verification for the event is up to the organizer, so in this case that is Zwift.

Zwift has gone to great lengths to police its participants for nefarious activity, and throughout 2020 the company has increased those efforts around its pro/am series like the Zwift Classics, Tour for All, and Virtual Tour de France. We covered Zwift’s efforts around results verification in-depth on velonews.com.

In short, riders must agree to a long list of rules and regulations before they can start the race. They must agree to film themselves during the event on camera or via their laptop to ensure that no motors or power tools are in use; they must submit a video of them performing a weight check the day of the event; they must all use the same smart trainer for the event, a Tacx Neo 2T; they must use a heart rate monitor and have two independent devices measuring and collecting power data.

Beyond that, Zwift has a plan for the esports world championships that it believes will eliminate cheating. The riders taking part have already raced on Zwift. So, Zwift’s data managers already have power data on these riders from previous races and rides. Why is this important? Let’s say a rider attacks at 11 watts-per-kilogram and holds that power output for 10 minutes. Zwift’s data scientists can examine that rider’s prior Zwift races to see if he or she has recorded such a superhuman power output before. They can also peruse that rider’s Strava data and power data from outdoor rides to see if the rider is capable of the ride.

Who is going to win?

We don’t know! The ongoing debate heading into this and other pro Zwift races focuses on who has the advantage: Pro road riders from the WorldTour or the dedicated indoor racers who compete predominantly on Zwift. The roadies are stronger, but the Zwift veterans know the nuances of virtual cycling better. The starts are intense, the drafting is different, and the tactics are different from what you see in road cycling. My assumption is that the winners will be riders who have the best of both worlds: power and experience. In the women’s race, my money is on Ashleigh Moolman Pasio of South Africa. Picking a men’s winner is anyone’s guess.

Wait, why the heck are they holding a world championships for video game bike racing?

Fair question. Look, I realize that to the uninitiated, Zwift and esports and virtual bike racing seems silly. To those of us who have tried it, watched the races live, or regularly participate in virtual cycling events, esports is an adequate replacement for the 100-proof real stuff. And throughout 2020, we’ve all needed to find a replacement for IRL (in real life) bike racing. It should come as no surprise that participation on Zwift and other virtual platforms skyrocketed this year due to the loss of mass-participant events to the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe Zwift’s users have in total pedaled the equivalent distance from Earth to the outer rings of Saturn since the platform’s 2014 launch. It should also come as no surprise that elite esports took an enormous leap forward this year, with the pro series on Zwift garnering attention and attracting bonafide stars of the sport.

So, my real answer to the naysayers is: Sorry, folks. The virtual cycling genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back inside anytime soon. You can try it, or not. But complaining about the merits of virtual cycling will, at some point, make you the proverbial old man yelling at a cloud.