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Racing on Zwift: Turbo training as computer game

Myles Warwood
8 Apr 2020

Getting to grips with racing on Zwift, 'the fitness company born from gaming'

When I started trying different cycling disciplines a few months back, I had no idea of Covid-19 and little did I know when I was planning out my months that, in the month of March, talking about indoor bike racing on Zwift would be what all the pros are up to.

Anyway, here we are, socially-distancing ourselves to the Nth degree and not only riding our bikes alone but riding our bikes alone, indoors.

I have to say that I’ve been an advocate of Zwift ever since my first ride on it. It suits my lifestyle, being a dad of two kids under the age of four, days out on the country roads without anything else to do are rose tinted moments of the past. However, doing 45 minutes on a turbo trainer a few evenings a week is much more manageable.

It’s since having kids that I imagined Zwift was founded by parents who wanted to ride a bike but didn’t have the time to get out and in part, it was! Jon Mayfield is one of the co-founders of Zwift and back in 2010 had kids and came up with the idea of developing a cycling game.

That year, Jon used his skills as a computer game designer to create a game to help keep him engaged while indoor riding. Fellow co-founder Eric Min came across Jon on an online forum, sent him a message and the next day flew out to meet Jon and the idea was born.

Zwift has grown exponentially from 2010, in just 10 years it’s possibly one of the biggest sports simulators on the market and with people being forced to stay indoors, its numbers have boomed. However, Zwift identifies as the niche category of a fitness company born from gaming.

Zwift is so easy to use: you need a static bike - something like a Wattbike, or a smart turbo trainer which you can connect to your laptop via Bluetooth. Personally, I have the Wahoo Kickr Snap smart turbo trainer and I’ve never had an issue with it.

Competitive fitness

So, you want to build your fitness but want some sort of competitive edge? Zwift has races and they’re not long, drawn-out all-day affairs – they’re short, sharp, punchy and exhausting. Zwift often hosts its own races and Tours which are held over various stages but there’s also other forms of competition within game.

You can connect via the Companion Zwift app or via the events page if you’re using your laptop. If you need help, look here: zwift.com/starting-your-first-race

Being new to Zwift racing, I was lucky that British National Champion and Canyon ZCC rider James Phillips agreed to tell me how he got in to eRacing and some tips for the future events.

Where did eRacing start for Phillips? 'Way back in March 2016 - long before there were starting pens,' he explains. 'Racing on Zwift was created by the community so the very first ones involved lining up at the agreed start line and trying not to false start.

'I would have a world clock window over the top of Zwift and as soon as the clock hit 21:00 I’d start pedalling as hard as I could. Of course, there were no results in Zwift so you had go on Nathan Guerra’s live commentary and check another website for the final results.

'It was pretty mad and very slapdash, but I was instantly drawn to it.'

It does seem that with these races, there is no way of easing yourself into a rhythm, 'be prepared to sprint straight out of the blocks like in a cyclocross race - otherwise you’ll get dropped straightaway,' Phillips adds. 'We’ve seen a lot of “pro” teams get dropped in the first 1km because they’re not used to racing on Zwift.'

He’s right, too. There is no way you’ll stay anywhere near the front unless you power away from the start and grab a wheel. If you want my advice, make sure your muscles are warm before starting a race, give yourself 20 minutes of warm up before getting to your race because if you try and race cold, you’ll be spat out the back in no time - just like real-world racing.

Race locations

But all this racing, where are you actually doing it and do the in-game visuals help? I believe they do; I don’t think I’d be able to do it if I were riding just staring at a wall. However, having my little avatar pedalling away, with this virtual world around it -  sometimes replicating the real world, like Alpe d’Huez, London, New York (with a lot of creative licence) and Innsbruck - the virtual world is there to encourage and inspire you to work harder.

However, what inspires these worlds and how are they made? 'Watopia, being our own fantasy world, gives us the most flexibility when it comes to course design,' explains Zwift co-founder Eric Min.

'We can take Zwifters through the middle of volcanoes, or up our replica of Alpe d’Huez - Alpe du Zwift. We benefit from a lot of user information, and can use this to better inform what types of course we think our users will enjoy. One of our most recent expansions, Fuego Flats, was created to fuel the appetite for flat courses as an example.

'Once we’ve decided the sort of course we want, the game and art team start to build out all the assets. Everything is custom built from the leaves that go on the trees, to the animations of the animals you see when riding through Watopia.

'We also have a number of guest worlds based on real world locations. Some of these are based on UCI Road World Championship courses, like the 2019 Harrogate circuit. Others have connections to other races like the Giro d’Italia or Prudential RideLondon. These are designed to help try and bring fans closer to the action by allowing them to ride the course from the comfort of their own homes.

'To get the visuals right, we will typically travel to the location and film the course with 360 degree cameras and map the rides against GPS location. This gives us a great starting point for the look and feel. For the detail, we also take images and use tools such as Google Maps.

'Typically we will also adopt some creative licence - that’s the beauty of creating a virtual world. For Innsbruck for example, the organisers were keen to bring in other tourist attractions from the region of Innsbruck-Tirol. We brought in some fun features like the Swarovski Crystal giant,' Min adds.

The racing and the races are on very well crafted routes, not just something slapped together to give you no hope of reaching the top of a climb, but instead give you a realistic chance of pushing yourself as hard as you can against others who want to do that too.

Fair's fair?

In the back of your mind though, even if you are racing as fairly as you possibly can by having the correct weight entered into your profile and the correct wheel size, you do wonder if everyone else is playing fair too. I’ve seen people put out colossal figures for a very long time and just don’t know how they do it.

Cameron Jeffers got caught out by gaining an in-game incentive by obtaining the ‘Tron bike’, how does James Phillips see this?

'I personally don’t have it [the Tron bike] - I still have another 17,000m left to climb to unlock it. Many of the team do have it though and of course, they got it "legally".

'I mean, there is no crime being committed in using a bot but seeing as the Tron bike is not even the best bike to race on, it seems a bit pointless. And of course, now you can get a DQ for doing so. That whole situation could have been avoided if everyone was able to race qualifiers and finals using any in-game equipment they wanted.

'In the end, the Tron bike is not even on our list of major concerns and it comes down to ensuring riders have properly calibrated equipment. There are still people getting away with dodgy numbers and not enough is being done to tackle this.'

What does Min say about all this? 'We identify as the fitness company born from gaming, and gamification will always remain at the heart of what we do. In-game incentives to level up and unlock new goods is incredibly compelling and helps set Zwift apart.

'Cheating is something that all sports face and it’s an issue that we take incredibly seriously here at Zwift. However, between the rules and regulations associated with traditional sport, and the tools developed to help govern esports, we are in a strong position to be able to ensure fair competition.

'We are still developing the esports offering. At the minute riders can choose from the bikes they have in their garage to race on.

'However, in the future, it might be that we offer a selection of bikes for riders to choose from in order to compete. This might include a lightweight bike, an aero bike or more of an all-rounder for example.'

I don’t know. I enjoy Zwift but maybe, for me, I’ll stick to the challenges in-game rather than putting myself up against people on the internet.

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