By Sam Dean

Los Angeles Times

Fifty-two cyclists assembled at the starting line for a 40-kilometer road race under a perfect blue sky. In the distance, beyond an Italian village, loomed the active volcano they would climb in the brutal mountaintop finish.

Forty-four of the competitors were professional racers on teams like Cofidis and Hagens Berman Axeon, certified by the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s 118-year-old governing body.

The remaining eight racers were just really good at “Zwift” — the multiplayer cycling video game hosting this virtual race.

In garages, gyms and rumpus rooms around the world, the racers started pedaling furiously on carbon fiber road bikes bolted into stationary trainers. Team Wiggins Le Col set up in a high-end bike shop in London, clad in skintight Lycra even though aerodynamics are of little import when pedaling in place.

On screens beyond their handlebars and in a web stream available around the world, the racers’ avatars launched off the line and formed a tight group — the classic peloton formation of road racing. What might be the world’s first esports competition featuring professional athletes was underway.

The starting pace was punishing, the pros pumping out a steady 500 watts as they zipped by palm trees at a digitally approximated 60 kilometers (37-plus miles) per hour. The avatars surged forward to match the force behind each rider’s pedal stroke, which is transmitted to Zwift’s servers by the web-connected trainers.

Zwift sells itself to cyclists as a way to reduce the tedium of training indoors — a necessary evil when it is too rainy, dark or dangerous to hit the road. Instead of staring at a wall, users stare at a screen, sharing the animated course with online buddies in dozens of daily events, ranging from friendly group rides to full-gas competitions.

The Long Beach, California, company says it has persuaded hundreds of thousands of cyclists to sign up for $14.99 monthly subscriptions. Flush with a recent $125 million round of venture capital cash, Zwift is now looking to expand into the burgeoning world of esports.

The company frames it as a savvy evolution of its business; but for a sport steeped in history that has struggled to attract new fans and racers, online racing could change the game.

“We should be able to take the best cyclists in the world and put them head to head in an arena and actually sell tickets,” said Eric Min, Zwift’s chief executive and co-founder.

Watching cycling has remained stubbornly free from the sport’s inception — anyone can line up along the Tour de France route and cheer as the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) whizzes by. And for the moment, anyone can watch a stream of a Zwift race for free.

“In terms of how we can commercialize a sport and make it more sustainable, I think what we have to offer is super interesting,” said Min, an avid indoor cyclist who rides outdoors only for “special experiences.”

Players have been racing on Zwift since it launched in beta in 2014, with only a simple3-mile circuit around a tropical island. With no official events, users would coordinate on forums to meet up at the circuit’s starting flag at a certain time to compete.

Soon, though, a whole ecosystem emerged. An independent site, Zwift Power, started pulling data from the game and creating rankings. Leagues like KISS, with which Zwift partnered to launch its first-ever pro series this week, coordinated stage races. Users started logging sections of Zwift courses on Strava, the fitness app that lets users track their times on sections of road.

Players even created their own regulatory body, the Zwift Anti-Doping Agency, to keep the virtual racers honest. (While it is impossible to rule out performance-enhancing drug use, doping in the Zwift context typically refers to players under-reporting their weight in the game, which can increase speed on climbs.)

The eight nonprofessional players in Wednesday’s match are among the champions of this ad hoc system.

Pro riders have turned to the platform as well. Former Australian pro Mathew Hayman famously used Zwift to keep fit after breaking an arm, and he returned to win the storied Paris-Roubaix classic in his first race back. But few have raced under the colors of their official team, and never have digital races been part of the pro calendar.

Axel Merckx, the directeur sportif (bikespeak for coach) of Hagens Berman Axeo, a retired pro and son of cycling legend Eddie Merckx, said that Zwift’s proposition for a pro league was immediately appealing.

“It’s an old-fashioned sport. In general, there’s not a lot of outside-of-the-box ideas out there,” Merckx said. “When you’re on there and see how many people are actually riding their bikes, it seems like a good place to promote our sponsors and partners and see what kind of response we get.”

Min sees the 10-week professional series, which includes men’s and women’s races, as a first step into a broader future of official Zwift competition.

“To professional teams, we’re not just a game, we’re a real legitimate platform,” Min said. “I think a professional league is inevitable, and I think the Olympics should embrace this kind of sport if they want to innovate and be inclusive and widen the net of athlete participation.”

The game has offered a new path to glory for those who take it seriously. Adam Zimmerman, 35, was a serious road racer but never a top contender at the highest echelons of the sport. The Denver-based cycling coach has transformed himself into the defending U.S. national champion on Zwift, which he views as a sport unto itself.

“I consider it a video game that you just happen to be riding a bicycle on,” Zimmerman said.

Cycling is a tactical team sport, in which squads jostle for position, using the windbreak of their massed opponents to draft and save energy until the final stretch. Each member of a team has a specific role to play in delivering the payload — a star sprinter or top climber — to the finish line. One racer will brave the windy front of the pack to protect teammates, another will carry extra water for the rest, and another will use sharp elbows to create an opening for the winning attack.

Zwift, like all video games, simplifies the contours of the real world.

Players cannot steer. (Min insists it is a feature that has been on the product road map since day one, but that “there’s a time and place to introduce these things.”) Nor can they brake. There is no risk of a disastrous crash, no scrum of sweaty bodies and handlebars to pen racers in on all sides, no sunburn, no dust, no flat tires.

The only input is pure quad-popping power, calculated as watts per self-reported kilogram of body weight.

Phil Gaimon, a retired pro who lives near Los Angeles, thinks Zwift undercuts the most basic appeal of getting on a bike and riding.

“One of my sponsors told me ‘Zwift is the future, you should think about growing a platform on there,’” Gaimon said. “If that’s the future, I will go down with the ship of riding a bicycle outside — if the only way for me to make a living in cycling is to do this thing, I would rather get a real job.”

Much like real-life bike racing, Zwift’s system is plagued with inconsistencies that make it difficult to trust that the playing field is level. Different power meters and stationary trainers are known for giving more or less accurate readings. Worse, the absence of official weigh-ins means there is no way to know if a racer is lowballing his or her weight, giving an unfair advantage.

Min says Zwift can automatically detect egregious offenders by spotting inconsistencies in their data profiles. But ZADA, the player-run anti-doping effort, announced it was shutting down earlier this week, writing in an online forum that “the project simply could not keep up with the growth and was not properly organized to act as a governing body” as Zwift’s pivot to esports puts more pressure on verification.

“With the honor system of inputting your weight and having a calibrated power meter and no drug testing, the idea of it being actually competitive is pretty ludicrous,” Gaimon said. He also questions the business logic of pursuing esports. “I don’t know why they’d even try, when they should just be going after my mom and not pro cyclists.”

Zwift is not the only startup trying to broaden the appeal of stationary cycling. Peloton has raised more than $500 million in funding selling indoor bikes and at-home Soul Cycle-style workout classes. TrainerRoad has carved out a niche with app-based structured training for racers.

Zwift is alone in turning indoor bike riding into a game. And as with all games, it takes strategy to win.

Drafting algorithms make it easier for riders in the wake of a leader. Players can deploy power-ups like the feather (to reduce weight on a hill climb) or the aero helmet (to reduce drag on a sprint) at crucial moments.

“It’s not just a power game — if that was the case, any pro could show up and crush us,” Zimmerman said. “It’s about becoming a good tactician.”

That became clear as the racers wound through the Zwift course. The pro athletes from the highest-ranked teams kept attacking, pulling ahead of the pack with huge bursts of power only to get spit out the back.

Many had not ridden in a Zwift race before — or logged into Zwift at all — and seemed unaware of the dynamics of in-game drafting. As in real racing, once they fell behind the peloton, there was no coming back.

With 5 kilometers to go, only 20 racers were still in contention. Four were from Madison Genesis, a young pro team with Zwift experience. A few were lonely pros whose teams had long since dropped off. All but one of the amateur Zwift champions were still in the lead group.

The peloton struggled up the volcano’s torturous slope. Meters before the finish line, a flurry of transparent blue aerodynamic helmets popped over some of the riders’ heads.

The Zwift champions and the Madison team had done their homework, deploying a tactic that would never occur to a first-time user. Before the race, they logged onto other maps and picked up the Aero Helmet power-up. Madison’s Ian Bibby eked out a one-second victory over two Zwift champions.

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