The rapid rise of bicycle racing in virtual environments has led us to an interesting moment in time, where we are witness to the real-time emergence of an entirely new sport, a sport that will increasingly face the need to develop a set of systems and practices that reflect its unique identity, distinct from the pavement and trails of its roots.
Consider the importance of the wattage to mass equation in E-cycling. It has become readily apparent that this simple supply/demand calculus is of supreme importance in these events, in a way that it simply is not in more traditional cycling activities. While always a contributing factor in “real world” success, it has also always been true that a rider less gifted in the composition of their w/kg could balance that out using skill, position on the bike, and race craft.
In e-racing the likes found on Zwift, RGT, Rouvy, Bkool and FulGaz, these other contributors to overall performance are significantly diminished, to the point that it seems quite fair to suggest that e-racing is largely a watts per kilogram contest, played out over varied time domains.
It is readily apparent to anyone participating in casual virtual cycling events that a huge number of people are “gaming” the system. The performances on display simply do not square with the known “real world” performance standards of the participating population. A significant percentage of this “gaming” is almost certainly being done on the mass side of the equation. Lots of folks are just flat-out lying about their weight.
Competitors have realized that the results of such a watt/kilogram (w/kg) contest can be influenced not simply by raising the wattage numbers they can produce, but by lowering the mass at which they compete. Or are considered to be competing at.
“Considered to be competing at” is an important thing to take note of. As there is no real-time capture of a competitor’s mass in any of these competitions, they all rely upon a declaration of mass, which is then considered to be a fixed variable in the equation that ultimately determines performance in the virtual environment. The “weigh-in best practice” at the current time seems to be a requirement that competitors produce video footage of an actual real-world weigh in to verify that a competitor can – or did – actually weigh the amount that is input to the system. The inevitable result of this is that competitors are – or will – resort to weight cutting in order to give them a more favorable w/kg equation, and better their chances of success.
This is different from people simply fabricating their weight numbers. This is not cheating, it is instead the inevitable evolution of the sport, as athletes adapt to the rules of play, and attempt to give themselves the best chance of success under these rules.
Or is it?
This is a new sport, and the ethos of this new sport is in its nascency. The opportunity – perhaps even the necessity – is there to fix in place codes of conduct and behavior that will inform competitors behavior above and beyond what is strictly codified in the rules, and these early norms will likely persist well into the future of the sport.
What will this future look like? Will we eventually see MMA-style live weigh-ins for professional virtual cycling events, and perhaps even a classification system analogous to the weight classes in combat sports that somehow attempts to categorize athletes by some measure of output, demand, or both. Will real-time capture of mass metrics by the “bicycles” that riders use, and better metrics to assess and individuate other factors like aerodynamic drag and pack tactics obviate this aspect entirely? Will we wind up with something in between?
None of this is clear. What is clear is that we should at least be talking about it.
Read Part 2, Performance Improvement and Pitfalls in Weight Cutting for Virtual eRacing, and Part 3, Weight Cutting for Cycling E-Racing.
About the Author: As a coach and trainer, Matthew’s client list includes multiple National Champions, a World Champion, and many successful local racers, fondo and recreational riders, and entry-level enthusiasts. At the 2015 Cyclocross National Championships, ¾ of his clients placed in the top ten of their respective events, with two reaching the podium, including 3rd place in the Elite Men’s category for long-time client Zach McDonald. Athletes who first learned the basics of Cyclocross from him have gone on to win National Championships and international distinction, and to podium placings at the World Cup and World Championship level. Head coach for the Marymoor Velodrome Cyclocross practice sessions, Matthew has taught cyclocross fundamentals to thousands of cyclists over his more than a decade at the helm. Riders at all levels of the performance spectrum can and do call on Matthew for his skills instruction, including professional teams who have been known to send new recruits to him for skills assessment and old hands to him for refresher courses and refinement. Learn more about Matt.