The State of Zwift Racing – Part III

Now comes the fun part. Since I covered the biggest events in the past year for Zwift (Part I) and the current issues facing the sport (Part II), now I get to do some back-seat driving by making suggestions and speculations on where Zwift racing will go in the following year. I’ll try to keep my wishful thinking separate from realistic predictions, but there’s no guarantees.

Types of Events

The trend towards more broadcasted, short, invite-only races will continue. We saw the coverage increase this season with official race series like the Tour of Zwift Pro-Am, as well as picking up unofficial race series like the Lampchop (though this was open to anyone and the race format encouraged people of all categories to join). We also saw the introduction of a race series bringing in outside sponsorship in the FIETs Magazine series.

Considering that as of late February (2020) when I write this, there still is not an announcement for Zwift Nationals, I suspect they have something different in the works. They certainly can’t afford to take a step back from last year, so I’d expect the UK nationals to go through the same qualifier/live event process. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the other well-represented countries try to do something similar. Maybe even the US or Canada, but the cost of flying people to a central location would be significant compared to the UK.

The make-it-or-break-it event for this sport now is the World Championships supposedly coming this Fall. If Zwift can follow through with the event happening, it is sure to cause a spike in attention, one way or another. If they can work out the bugs and pull off an entertaining and believable live event, the draw to the platform will never be greater. If it goes the way of 2019’s UK National Champs then, well, it’ll be quite the embarrassment and the sport will stay the current weirdos who actually enjoy riding inside and staring at the wall. I think they have a successful event in them, though it will definitely take a lot of criticism for not being a “real” cycling discipline and for trying to portray itself as an equal to the outdoor World Champs happening around the same time.

Data Verification

This topic is wildly varying day-to-day so making any solid predictions will be tricky. The current steps for proving you’re legitimate are: verify your weight, share comparable power numbers from outdoor rides, and ride with at least two power sources. With these measures in place, it’s hard to imagine what else people could do just to prove their innocence. But something else is necessary. Even performing all these steps, the current top 2 ranked riders (Stefan Kirchmair and Sam Brannlund) are being heavily questioned by the community and even handed some DQs for questionable performances.

The best solution I can think of here is twofold. First, on the technological side, I’d like to see a power meter (or trainer) built with virtual racing as it’s main use-case. It would be verified and officially endorsed by Zwift. Unlike other power meters, you couldn’t adjust the power scaling factor, so the numbers it read were the numbers you got in-game. End of story. If enough people were using this power meter/trainer then the absolute power numbers don’t really matter anymore. As everyone uses the same measurement device, it only matters how you read relative to them. Being within the +/- 1% accuracy that most high-end power meters claim would be a substantial reduction in variability compared to how the accuracy (or inaccuracy) stacks up when there are multiple different power measurement devices being used each at +/- 1%.

The second part of the solution is a mindset shift. Some would still debate whether road cycling is “clean” now, but there is no doubting that it at least underwent a massive mindset shift following Festina, Armstrong, and the likes. There was a hugely outspoken part of the peloton that drove doping from being “well everyone else is doing it so I need to do it too” to being quite taboo and something for which you would be publicly shamed. There is a large outspoken part of the virtual peloton that pushes for more transparency and clean racing, but a similar mindset still exists. Because you see so many other people that could be cheating, you start to feel as if you need to do it too, or at least that there would be no harm in doing it. Additionally, the feeling that no one is physically watching you so you can get away with whatever you want is still very much present, even not at the pointy end of the race.

We need a whole mindset shift to one that promotes pro-transparency actions and denounces data-altering. Part of this can and should come from people taking the sport more seriously. Especially in the mid-categories, a common excuse when questioned on suspicious data or sandbagging is “oh I’m just using this for my workout, I’m not hurting anyone by doing this”. If people took the racing a little more seriously and gave their fellow riders a little more respect, they wouldn’t be so inclined to race with the watts-per-kilo of a pro rider that cut off a limb. When people actually start being able to believe all of the results they see, the results and rankings only become more important.

Race Results

As I discussed earlier, there are both benefits and drawbacks to having a third-party be in charge of the unofficial official results; it becomes a careful balancing act to try to improve on this situation. If the scales are tipped too far one way or the other then the end result is only worse. I take this a sign that, all in all, what we have now is actually pretty good. To make it even better requires a little more involvement from Zwift, though that can go a few ways.

In the worst case scenario, they try to build up their own full ranking site and system. Even if it is passable, it will surely be the unloved side-project at Zwift compared to working on the actual product. It would also then be in direct competition with zwiftpower which would likely drive zwiftpower to shut down since it can’t compete with Zwift’s resources. We’re then left with a mediocre ranking system that doesn’t receive nearly the attention it should.

In a slightly better situation, Zwift tries to bring zwiftpower in-house. In doing so, what makes it so great – the independence, a lot of the features they’ve developed that are improved versions of Zwift’s own – is lost as it gets swallowed up in all the other projects Zwift has on the go. Like before, it likely ends up unloved and neglected by people who would rather work on the virtual world.

What seems to me like the best and most likely way forward is that Zwift recognizes the value of this independent service and provides them the support and freedom to grow¬† and improve as they see fit. It doesn’t have to remain completely independent of Zwift – some help in arbitrating controversial results would be hugely beneficial – but they do need to be allowed to control the site in a way that isn’t blatantly in Zwift’s best interest.

Le fin

And that about wraps it up for this series. Hopefully you’ve been able to take something away from all these ramblings. If nothing else, it’s rather amusing to sit back and watch the drama unfold. While it’s sure to be another exciting year for Zwift with big events planned and an ever-growing number of riders, I’m really just itching to ride outside at this point. Next time I’ll try to think up some non-Zwift content to write about. In the meantime…

 

Cheers and Ride On!
-Evan

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