Is the Pro Peloton Going Virtual?
I witnessed history, of a sort, from my desk, watching a free livestream of the first-ever virtual race for pro cyclists
As far as covering a bike race goes, the Zwift KISS Super League was pretty chill compared to, say, the Tour de France. No traffic-choked transfers from start to finish, no arguing with gendarmes in Franglais to try to explain that yes, this accreditation really does allow me into the finish area, and no rushing frantically from team bus to team bus trying to buttonhole sweaty, tired riders for a few post-race thoughts.
Hell, I didn’t even have to leave the house.
I witnessed history, of a sort, from the comfort of my own office, watching a free livestream and jotting down notes on the first-ever virtual race for pro cyclists. There were 55 riders across 15 teams, including a couple of UCI Pro Continental teams like longtime French outfit Cofidis, interspersed with (checks notes)…some squads called the Zwift Academy Dream Team and the Zwift All-Stars.
Cofidis, of course, rides in the Tour de France every year. The Dream Team and All-Stars do not. So you’ll forgive me if I idly wondered if the All Stars were the Washington Generals of this setup, a hapless band about to be swiftly dispatched in theatrical style by Sweet Lou Dunbar and the gang.
The virtual race had a physical center, of sorts, at the Pinarello Shop in London, where four riders from the Wiggins-le Col team warmed up on trainers as curious onlookers, um, looked on. Former Tour winner Brad Wiggins himself was allegedly on scene to support his team but never actually made an on-screen appearance. Always on-brand, Wiggo.
Instead, announcer Rebecca Charlton interviewed a somewhat bemused Jacques Sauvagnargues, a 19-year-old aspiring British pro on Wiggins-le Col, about what he expected of the unusual format. Sauvagnargues allowed he didn’t use Zwift much, but he’d gotten some tips from more experienced riders on what to do. The plan for the 25-mile race on the fictional island of Watopia was to use some team tactics to stay together in the pack and give it all on the climb.
As it turned out, that approach wouldn’t work for most of the pro road teams; Zwift is as much video game as bike race, and you have to know the game to win. As you might predict for an event expected to last under an hour, the pace at the start was infernal. The main pack promptly got cut almost in half in the first eight minutes, as a number of IRL pros got dropped. Cofidis’s contingent was down to just a single rider, Damien Touzé. (Did I mention they haven’t actually won a Tour stage in over a decade?) I found myself wondering how Nacer Bouhanni might throw a punch in Zwift.
The on-screen action was dizzying. The busy screen centered on a rapidly shifting array of virtual camera angles of the pack of avatars, screen margins bejeweled with all manner of stats and telemetry. I found myself fascinated by watching the power and heart-rate data of specific riders and ignoring the leaderboard, an incoherent mess of rider names popping up and disappearing in the pack’s natural churn.
Every now and then, a giant, translucent blue hand with an upraised thumb would float into the picture and hover over a rider like some kind of Mario Bros-style Facebook sponsor activation. The disembodied hand is a Ride On, the Zwift version of a like that logged-in spectators could bestow on a rider.
“Possible revenue stream,” I wrote in my notes. “Let spectators purchase first-person shooter capability to shoot down Ride Ons.”
Now and then, the coverage would pop out of Watopia back to meatspace, which made for a jarring shift. Even with 55 riders on course, as the IRL cameras panned over the scene in the London shop, it was just the four Wiggins guys staring into the middle distance, grimacing during their motionless exercise even as, in the game, their avatars rode casually by an erupting volcano shooting red-hot rocks into the sky.
Or we’d get a studio shot of Greg Leo and Nathan Guerra, the race commentators and, to me, the unsung stars of the whole affair. Leo, an assistant professor of economics at Vanderbilt with a specialty in game theory and a committed Zwift enthusiast, excels at explaining the little tactical nuances of virtual racing. Better, his low-key delivery was a perfect foil for Guerra’s, uh, more boisterous, style. Sample:
“Who’s gonna come out of the woodwork here? Not of pro racing, but the woodwork of Zwift racing!”
I don’t know what that means; I just kept hoping Guerra would go full Pepper Brooks: “Welcome to Ouchtown! Population: you, bro!”
Meanwhile, the online action was starting to get spicy. Zwift’s broadcast strategy right now is to basically hit any channel people might watch: Facebook Live, YouTube, Twitch, whatever. Zwift representatives said they logged a total of 40,000 unique viewers across all platforms during the event, and as the race approached the pivotal volcano climb, the YouTube stream I was watching peaked at around 2,600 viewers.
On the climb, the pace kicked up even higher, and Ian Bibby of the Madison Genesis team launched a perfectly timed attack using something called an Aero PowerUp for the win. But despite the obvious intensity of the racing (the average speed was almost 30 miles per hour), the online action felt airless to me. You can certainly chalk some of that up to the fact this is a brand-new format; future rounds will doubtless see improvements and IRL pros will learn more of the nuances of virtual racing. But some hurdles will be harder to surmount. Bike handling plays zero role in virtual racing, for one. Avatars don’t grimace with the effort. And once the race was done, it seemed as though no one quite knew what to do.
The screen view settled on Bibby’s avatar, motionless on the road. There were a few pro forma interviews with the Wiggins guys, but no podium ceremony, no sweeping helicopter shots of a finish town, and no interview with the winner, Bibby. Like 50 other racers in the event, he wasn’t at the bike shop HQ and had raced remotely on a smart trainer from somewhere with broadband Internet. I pictured him in his apartment, toweling off a sweaty face, with perhaps only a housecat to learn how it felt to be the winner of pro cycling’s first-ever virtual race.