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After all, the founders of Zwift hope that this new form of competitive cycling will one day appear at the Olympics, which might have happened if the Olympic cycling organization, the UCI, had lent their support. Perhaps things are already moving in this direction. Last June, Zwift made its debut at a new event called the Olympic Virtual Series, hosted by the International Olympic Committee. And one of the differences between e-cycling and other elite track events is that it’s relatively easy for anyone to take part in.
“Anyone, anywhere in the world, from the comfort of their own home, can go through the eligibility process,” says Sean Perry, director of strategy at Zwift.
Working through the ranks
Here’s how Isler made the cut. She failed during the qualifying round, open to users from the Americas, but made it to the US national team through a separate qualifying process. She is not entirely a beginner, as she participated in the triathlon as a student. But virtual racing is just as fun as outdoor activities. “You feel the adrenaline,” says Isler. “You know you are confronting real people who are really strong.”
Isler and her fellow World Championship competitors will receive the same Smart Trainer – a device that replaces the rear wheel on an exercise bike – so they can compete on an equal virtual playing field. Smart trainers automatically increase or decrease resistance to match the feel of the virtual road surface on the Zwift track. You can even imitate cobblestones.
Data plays a large role on platforms like Zwift, and riders tend to keep an eye on its performance at all times. Their heart rate, speed and power output in watts, among other statistics, are visible on the screen at any time during the race. Commentators can select some of these live statistics to show viewers how hard an individual contributor is working.
Isler, for example, knows that she needs to keep her heart rate (measured in beats per minute) below a certain level to avoid an accident. “I can recover if my heart rate reaches 185, but if I reach 195, I cannot,” she says. Keeping track of her numbers on screen allows her to get closer to her limit without going beyond it, and she says she’s gotten better over time.
Real-time data on each rider’s performance will also enable Zwift and UCI officials to spot any potential championship cheaters. Unsportsmanlike participants can use a variety of tricks, from lying about their weight, which can give them an advantage in strength, to trying to falsify the game.