Essay: On the Future of Virtual Cycling
Cover photo was lifted from Zwift.com. We do not own the rights to it.
A few weeks ago I was doing my usual rounds of cycling media content when I stumbled upon a completely benign question. I can’t remember who asked it but it featured professional women cyclists warming up for a digital bike race. The team hammered on the virtual cycling platform called Zwift and beat any other global racers who – I would assume – were slaying themselves for their avatar’s right to cross the line first.
There were professional differences though. The pro women were lined up facing huge television screens with the bold orange backdrop Zwift is known for. Riders were kitted up and atop their team bike, which was attached to a smart trainer. And then there was the curious fact that there were people, lots of people, watching this virtual reality race from behind the smart trainers. Fans were smiling and cheering on riders who were in the final virtual meters of a sprint, and for that matter the race, but not before a question was splashed across the scene: “The future of cycling?”
The future of cycling? I scoffed at this suggestion and continued my browsing of cycling media articles. How could a sport that occurs outside be projected indoors? This was a preposterous suggestion. Cycling has always been outside. Maybe indoor riding platforms are great for structured workouts or the time-crunched rider, but cyclists must be found pedaling down farm roads and up punchy climbs of the real world.
I came back to the question a few days ago and it all made sense. Indoor riding, fans and judges included, is nothing new to the cycling world. I remember working at a bike shop that had a pair of solid wood rollers in storage. They were once used in another indoor riding discipline that featured professional riders, judges, and eager fans excited to see head-to-head racing. Perhaps the future of cycling is going back in time and updating the model.
Though the northern hemisphere is entering prime cycling season, there is suggestion that Zwift competitions may expand even into the summer months. While that moves outside of the roller races of a century ago, the idea remains the same: Put riders on a measuring device, tell them how far to race, and stand back. The competitor within each one of them will hammer away whether they are spinning a massive wood roller and clock hand or a smart trainer and digital representation of us.
As the digital platforms roll out newer attractions for their products, it would be a return to the past to have online roller races, complete with dingy nightclubs packed full of participants and fans. That would bring this whole thing full circle. Once that happens we can all move forward with the next phase of riding bikes somewhere other than the road for entertainment purposes. Zwift races might be considered the future of cycling, but we have to look to the past for its probability of success.