When virtual cycling becomes a detection tool

Pedaling in place can go a long way. Boosted by COVID-related lockdowns, virtual cycling is attracting more and more followers to the point of becoming a detection tool for professional teams in real life.

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Riders from the esport cycling team “The Punchers club” train on a rooftop in Paris before taking part in the virtual Tour de France on June 20, 2020.

This weekend, 85 men and 87 women from five continents will compete via screens at the “2023 UCI World Cycling Esports Championships”, organized by the International Cycling Union (UCI) on the Zwift application, the most popular virtual cycling platform.

Contrary to what we can see in classic esport, the discipline is above all physical, and it is real athletes who will be at work: the outgoing winners, the Australian Jay Vine and the Dutch Loes Adegeest, have both won the first race of the season at the World Tour level in Australia, in the real world.

What sets virtual cycling apart is its advanced realism. To move your avatar forward, it is not enough to know how to handle a joystick and push the right buttons, but you have to press hard on the pedals, on a home trainer connected to a screen.

“Above all, you have to be an exceptional athlete”insists to AFP the Australian Michael Rogers, former triple world champion in the time trial who has become responsible for innovation within the UCI.

The illusion is stunning. We progress on fictitious routes or ones inspired by reality, such as Alpe d’Huez. And the difficulties of the route, in particular the slope, are faithfully reproduced, while synchronizing the position of all the users in real time, allowing for example to ride in a peloton.

Jay Vine, the “success story”

This realism has attracted many cyclists who use interactive platforms to train or even as a discipline in their own right. The practice exploded during the health crisis and the confinements which led hundreds of thousands of cyclists to fall back on their living room or their garage to pedal.

Former Australian rider Michael Rogers, now leader of the International Cycling Union (UCI), during the Tour Down Under, January 24, 20215 in Adelaide.

For professional teams, they have become a real tool that offers them a gigantic database to measure in the blink of an eye the physiological potential of thousands of potential recruits. And to prospect at a lower cost in distant places like Australia or Africa.

“In the race, a talent scout can see what a racer is capable of. But if he wants to know his physical abilities, then he will have to ask him to come and test with the team. With Zwift, he can see all data immediately”explains to AFP the spokesperson for the platform, Chris Snook.

More and more teams have thus entered into partnerships with these platforms to offer one-year contracts to the winners of online selections.

Jay Vine –“notre success story”says Snook- had almost given up on a pro career when he won, at 25, the “Zwift Academy” opening the doors to Belgian training Alpecin.

Since then, he has won two stages of the Tour of Spain before being recruited this winter by the UAE team to become the lieutenant of Tadej Pogacar.

“To say Zwift Academy changed my life is an understatement”insists the Australian runner.

“Just Strength”

Loes Adegeest has joined the FDJ-Suez team. As for the UAE team, it has recruited New Zealander Michael Vink on the MyWoosh platform who, at 30, is being offered the chance of his life after falling through the cracks.

These fairy tales, thousands of amateur cyclists dream of – there were 160,000 registered at the Zwift Academy last year.

But data is not everything and it is still a question of testing runners in real life to measure factors such as race intelligence or behavior on the bike.

“These applications are really very well done. But they do not simulate the way of running in a peloton, the art of positioning. It’s just strength, everything is based on watts”explains to AFP the Olympic champion of Rio, Greg van Avermaet, who had won the virtual Tour of Flanders during confinement in 2020.

Selon Michael Rogers, “tactics, wind, group dynamics, turns or descents” are all elements that are not taken into account – for the moment – in virtual cycling. “More, he saidthe applications are becoming more and more realistic and I think that one day they will be able to reproduce these factors there too”.