As the first online race series for pros launches, we look at the emerging discipline
The first ever series of online bike races for professionals has officially launched, as virtual training platform Zwift inaugurated its KISS Super League event with much fanfare on Wednesday night (January 23).
Industry figures and even a few cycling celebrities packed into the Pinarello store in central London to watch the event kick off.
Britain’s first Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins and Dimensions Data’s Steve Cummings were invited along to help launch this latest innovation in a sport so deeply rooted in its own tradition.
The Super League involves 15 teams from around the world, including Pro Continental and Continental outfits, who will battle across 10 rounds in virtual Zwift races.
Four riders from each team must line up in at least eight of the 10 contests, with winners accumulating points for their team that count towards an overall classification.
On Wednesday night, riders from Team Wiggins–Le Col were lined up in the Pinarello store to race, while other pros – from teams including Cofidis, Israel Cycling Academy and Madison-Genesis – loaded up their smart trainers across the world to hit the slopes of Watopia, Zwift’s virtual homeworld.
Zwift CEO Eric Min, speaking to the crowds gathered to watch the opening round, said: “The timing is perfect for us to really get behind racing. To really build the infrastructure that really gives it integrity.
“I think we’ve demonstrated the platform is stable. We have plenty of users in the community.
“In terms of what it can be as an e-sport, I think we have the potential to bring more people into the sport that can go on to become great Olympians or winners of the Tour de France.
“I think e-sports could be a sport in its own right. We’re excited about making the sport more accessible, more affordable, global, and scalable.
“I think it just resonates well with the whole industry and all the partners we work with.”
And so, the first race in a potential new era of racing began – not with a bang but with 500watts straight from the gun.
With traditional peloton tactics essentially removed from the equation – even with the ability to draft behind other riders on Zwift – the hour-long race became a brutal balancing act of power and endurance.
The event was broadcast live around the world via Zwift’s Facebook presence, with commentators and pundits on-hand to talk viewers through the action.
After a blistering start, aided by Irish national Conor Dunne (Israel Cycling Academy) attacking off the front just for the kicks, the racing settled.
But without a breakaway and without the usual cohesion within the peloton, ‘settled’ still saw everyone pushing 400w just to stay in the group.
Team Wiggins’ Jacques Sauvagnargues and Robert Scott were spat out the back before long, leaving team-mates Ollie Robinson and Ben Healy in the bunch.
Watching live in store, it was hard to tell who had been dropped from the group as the peloton was consistently whittled down piece by piece.
But it was clear who remained strong heading into the second half of the race, as the same names appeared at the front of the bunch regularly, including Dunne and Ian Bibby from Madison-Genesis.
Robinson and Healy must also have turned their minds to the final as they held their own – that is until the resistance on Healy’s smart trainer inexplicably dropped to zero.
Mechanicals are of course a regular feature of bike racing, but the relentless nature of this race made any slight mishap a critical moment.
Despite some frantic maintenance work from Zwift staff, Healy was forced to retire.
Speaking after the race, he said: “It was going really well until the turbo broke on me.
“From what I can tell the resistance just went completely, so I couldn’t get any power out. It was the end of my race.”
“But I think it’s a really good idea, getting a lot of strong guys together racing at the start of the season.”
The relentless pressure finally took its toll on the sole Wiggins rider left in contention, Robinson, who was dropped from the front group in the final stages.
Despite the huge wattage he’d held for the duration, he was able to ride solo up the final mountain ascent to finish 22nd.
By this point in the race, Sauvagnargues and Scott had regrouped and joined a larger chasing bunch behind, who came in five minutes down on the winner.
Up at the sharp end, a group of 20 riders approached the line for an uphill sprint finish.
Madison-Genesis’ Tom Moses was the first to kick for the line, setting up a perfect lead-out for team-mate Ian Bibby, who held an enormous 800w to take the win.
But the decisive factor in the final run to the line was not holding the power, as Bibby used an in-game “power-up” that increased his aerodynamics and allowed him to break free.
Watching the race from the comfort of the Pinarello store was actually quite a treat.
While many fans may not see the appeal of watching a virtual race, there was plenty of entertainment watching the Wiggins riders battle to hold position through pure, brute power.
Being able to see the rider numbers – heart rate, cadence, watts – in real time was an added joy for any data obsessed cyclists wanting to see how strong the pros really are.
The final was actually an enthralling sprint, but the real spectacle lies in seeing the riders in the flesh, slogging their way over virtual mountains, rather than just watching animated avatars on screen.
Even the pros enjoyed the exertion.
Robinson said after the race: “I think its really awesome.
“It’s good to get a bit of competition between guys we’re going to race on the road and see how they’re going at the moment.
“I think it’s a lot easier on the road. In these you’re just full gas all the time and there’s no let off. On the road you can sit in and cruise, but here you have to put the power down all the time.”
Of course the nature of bike racing is about the rider’s relationship with our surroundings, to find who is best able to tackle the natural features of the landscape.
While that aspect of cycling is irreplaceable, the first Zwift race for pros shows there is potential for an entirely new discipline to run alongside, as part of the digital evolution of the sport.