The State of Zwift Racing – Part I

The past year has been a big one for Zwift and the community – in many positive ways and many not-so-positive ways – so there’s a lot to consider about the issues facing the sport now, the company’s plans for the future, and all the disparate opinions in the community on where the sport should go. As Zwift gets more popular with everyday cyclists and the company pushes to expand and regulate events for the top-end riders, it’s inevitable that there are more controversies, issues, and opinions brought to light pertaining to the development of the sport.

I’m going to try to breakdown what feels like a flood of information to better understand:

  1. What were the biggest events, issues, and successes for Zwift and e-racing over the past year?
  2. What is the state of racing like right now, given these changes? Where is the company looking at taking it in the future? Where does the community want it to go?
  3. Some changes and recommendations that I’ve thought of and heard on how to resolve these issues and how to get the most out of the sport.

As the title suggests, I intend to do this over a few posts. I’m originally planning for three parts (hence the three topics), but that is still subject to my whims if I feel changes are necessary.

I’ll warn you in advance though that a lot of this post and the subsequent posts may come off as whinging (some of it definitely is) or nagging, but, at the end of the day, I still get on my trainer nearly every day and happily load up Zwift. I might complain a lot, but I still love this platform and the community it brings together. Let’s just say my whinging comes from a place of caring about the sport and wanting to see the best possible development for it.

Without further ado, let’s get into the wild year that it’s been for this peculiar sport!

KSL and KCL

First, let’s go back all the way to the start of this blog. Back in the early winter of 2019, Zwift kicked off the first “pro” race series, the KISS Super League (KSL). Alongside Super League was it’s baby brother, the KISS Community League (KCL). While the series was officially endorsed by Zwift – they put on live events, setup the broadcasting of the event, and marketed it as if it were their own – the series was actually administrated and arbitrated by the community race group KISS. This partnership seemed a little odd, because when it came to controversies in the series, it appeared that KISS was the one to make decisions for an official Zwift event. It’s not the only – or the biggest – instance of Zwift relying on a community group, but that’s a whole other can of worms which we’ll get into later.

Overall, I’d call both series successful. On the pro side, the community teams put up a good fight and showed that there’s more to e-racing than just who can put out the most watts. The individual and team crowns ended up going to the pro riders who were already well-versed in Zwift racing (so they had pro-level power combined with the skill and tactics of the community riders). Aside from some lazy pro riders that didn’t even bother trying, there really weren’t any controversies or issues in this league. The same can’t be said for the Community League.

KCL was a great race series. It concentrated the best-of-the-best of the community riders (except for those in the pro race) into one race and introduced a new team dynamic that helped add another level to the racing and saw the birth of my team, the Power Dropouts. The main controversy came in Round 2 on the infamously brutal Richmond UCI Worlds course. I’ve covered this before so I’ll be brief here. Along with some ever-present wattage restrictions, Zwift has hardcoded in various checks to catch people who appear to be cheating. One of these checks is anyone who sets a lap time of under 20min on the Richmond Worlds course.

In a race that draws a large number of the strongest riders on Zwift, it’s inevitable that the competition is high and lap times are low. On the first go-around on this course, the leading 15 riders all received a “Cone” (the warning sign and the below message) and were promptly booted from the race. This, in itself, looks poorly on Zwift – especially after they remembered to disable this check for the pro-race the day before – but the real issue came from the fallout.

KCL_week2_cones
Cones for everyone!

For a league seemingly formally endorsed by Zwift, they appeared completely hands-off in the debate on what to do in this situation as they couldn’t just ignore the fact that the strongest riders would now have one fewer result than everyone else. Instead, the hard decisions were left to the few community members that ran KISS. The details of this decision are of little importance here (they added a 9th race and made it a best-6-of-9). However, the fact that a decision about an official race series had people descend into squabbling on Facebook for several weeks before, finally, some highly-pressured volunteers not officially associated with Zwift came up with a solution, makes the league and event look like the unloved, neglected child compared to the glamorous KSL. It made a big show of “You can race the same courses just like the pros” to draw more community people in then at the slightest sign of controversy the level-headed wisdom of the neutral company was nowhere to be seen. There are probably some details to this situation I’m not privy to, but from the average riders perspective, it really made it look like Zwift only cared about capturing the outside attention that the pro names garnered.

This behaviour, in hindsight, wasn’t the first or only instance of Zwift seeking big time publicity while neglecting the details.

The British Cycling eRacing Nationals

For the past few years, Zwift has organized virtual national championships – both men’s and women’s events – for the 10-15 most well-represented countries on the platform. Previously, it’s been a one-off race with all of the countries events staggered throughout one day and with the live broadcast hopping between them. It’s typically been a challenging longer-format race where, at the end of it, the first person across the line gets all the glory, bragging rights, and a virtual national champs jersey to wear for the year. In 2019, however, they did something different.

national_champs
Who wouldn’t want to win one of those swanky jerseys (photo from Zwift)

Almost all the countries continued with the same National Championships format (you can read what happened in the Canadian one here), except for the UK race where it was just a qualifying event. Zwift partnered up with British Cycling (the cycling regulatory body there) and BT Sport (a sports TV channel) to turn it into a “real” event. The top 10 finishers of the regularly scheduled event would go on to race a live, televised series of Zwift races over the course of a day – the result of those races determining who would walk away with the virtual UK champs jersey. Ignoring the obvious mismatch in effort required to win the UK champs over that of any other country, it was still a pretty cool idea to get some publicity and screen time for the sport.

Having the deepest talent pool, the UK qualifiers was hotly contested with seven verified riders (think Twitter-verified, but for cyclists) and many more than ten riders capable and deserving of a spot at the live event. After a couple of finishers declined their invitation, the top 10 were set, including two Zwifters “well-known” for putting their races and cycling adventures on YouTube – Cam Jeffers and Ed Laverack,

I won’t get into the details of the races (there were three short, track-like, races) but it ended with Cam Jeffers handily taking down the overall win in the men’s race thanks to some well-timed massive sprints. What is of more importance is the events that happened before, between, and after the races. While I’m surely missing some details, between the information that a live viewer could gather and the accounts of the day posted by Cam and Ed, it’s clear that the day did not go off without issue.

British Cycling Zwift eRacing Championships
With a podium, medals, flowers, and actual jersey the event was starting to look like a legitimate National Championships

There were problems with the rider weigh-ins; having taken place first thing in the morning then the final race not being until later that evening, weights would surely fluctuate in between. There were equipment issues; multiple people experienced signal dropouts then one of  the women’s races had to be cancelled and restarted because of all the technical issues. And, finally, most importantly, there were issues with the in-game gear riders were allowed to use.

As all the in-game bikes and wheels have slightly different stats, there are preferred setups for different types of events. However, most racers choose to race on the Tron (Z-Concept) bike, famous for it’s glowing wheels and futuristic look. It’s not technically the fastest in-game setup, but it’s close enough. As such, Zwift made all of the gear available to all of the riders at the live event so that there were no technological discrepancies between the riders.

It was in this decision, as we found out later, that the real controversy arose.

Following the common practice, most of the racers at the live event in March selected the Tron bike. The races happened, Cam won, people were equally surprised at his performance and the types of races Zwift chose for the event (not at all representative of classic Zwift racing) then…well, then everyone went back to what they were doing – namely waiting for the weather to warm up.

It wasn’t until September 2019 that it was announced that Cam Jeffers was being stripped of his national virtual title by British Cycling. Given cycling’s shady past and the not-entirely-unfounded claims of prevalent cheating on Zwift, our minds immediately turned to the worst. What an embarrassment for the first televised Zwift event to end with the winner being disqualified. But what was Cam’s actual “crime”? Using the Tron bike.

Now, unless you were one of the lucky racers that had the bike unlocked for you at the live event, in order to get the Tron bike you need to rack up a nontrivial 50 000m of elevation gain. Admittedly, Cam didn’t. As he later confirmed, when he started back on Zwift in the Fall of 2018 someone approached him offering him a sneaky method of tricking the game into thinking he was riding so that his avatar could ride the 50 000m without him having to actually pedal. Being just some average Joe on the game who wanted the coolest bike, he agreed.

tron_bike
Easily the coolest looking bike in the game (photo from zwiftinsider.com)

At the point he agreed to this “cheat”, the debate was still going strong whether someone should even bother caring about Zwift races, or just use them as good workouts. No one was even considering televised events or legitimate national titles. In fact, it wasn’t until February when Zwift announced this new UK national champs format that British Cycling actually released it’s first set of eRacing Rules & Regulations – the document they used to indict Cam.

By the start of October, his title was reassigned to the runner-up, he had a 6 month suspension in place preventing him from doing any racing sanctioned by British Cycling (road racing is his primary discipline, Zwift was just for training), and he had been issued a £250 fine. All this for using an illegitimately obtained virtual bike in an event where the other riders were given the same bike.

Do I think that he is blameless? No. He knowingly and unequivocally did violate Zwift’s Terms of Service. That alone makes it entirely reasonable to ban his account or, at the very least, suspend it. But to strip him of a title that he earned fairly (as he would have had access to the Tron bike regardless) is a little harsh, though not entirely unfounded. To ban him from any racing for 6 months is quite extreme, especially considering the rules they claim he violated weren’t even written at the time of his “crime”. I don’t necessarily think Zwift is in the wrong here in pursuing this (and pursuing it aggressively), but the way they pursued it seems quite tactless.

It’s a rather unfortunate outcome for Cam – at least the ban is mostly over his off-season – but, in a way, it dials back the perception that Zwift racing is the wild west where cheating runs rampant and you can get away with anything. It shows that when push comes to shove they’ll enforce the rules, take responsibility for the racing community and behaviour, and try to keep the sport fair….

Or will they?

That’s an issue for the next volume of this deep dive. KSL/KCL and the National Championships were the two largest events on Zwift this past year, though they were by no means the only ones. Even as the everyday races pass by the number of racers grows and the sentiment and mindset of the community changes. With some history in the books now, when we return to this series I’ll look more into the current issues, going-ons, and events in the Zwift Racing World. For now, I applaud those of you that have made it the end of what is, by far, my longest post.

 

Cheers and Ride On!

-Evan

 

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