Indoor cycling, online riding, and e-racing have seen exponential growth year upon year, turbo-charged the past few years by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s an analytic view of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of this new discipline.
The world of cycling science lost one of its big scientific voices with the sudden passing in November of Dr. Louis Passfield from the University of Calgary. Besides his pioneering work in cycling physiology, he was also a strong communicator and popularizer of training science, with frequent appearances on GCN prior to his move to Canada. I first met Dr. Passfield in 2014, when he was at the University of Kent and organized a cycling science conference to coincide with the start of Le Tour in Leeds. He was also the external examiner for our own Toolbox contributor Scott Steele’s M.Sc. in 2021. Let’s take a moment to remember Dr. Passfield by looking at one of his final scientific articles.
The Big Move Indoors
Cycling indoors has been around for decades with rollers. Then in the 1970s came the first stationary trainer – the RacerMate wind trainer. Despite gradual improvements with fluid or magnetic resistance, they had a well-deserved reputation for being mind-bogglingly dull. RacerMate then provided the next big step, with the introduction of their CompuTrainer that permitted control of resistance, then eventually software permitting riding over rudimentary courses. It was a start and hinted at the explosion to come.
Then in the mid-2010s, everything changed with the simultaneous revolution and convergence of direct drive ergometers like the Wahoo Kickr (reviewed on PEZ here), and also the emergence of interactive e-cycling software like Zwift. With the combination of fine control of effort and also much greater entertainment value, there is no doubt that indoor cycling has exploded as a new discipline.
SWOT Analysis of Virtual Cycling?
Dr. Passfield was a co-author on a 2021 review that surveyed the field of virtual cycling (McIlroy et al. 2021), taking a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis approach much like that undertaken by businesses. Note that this paper came out in 2021, after the first COVID winter that saw trainer sales going through the roof and the first UCI-sanctioned e-sports World Championships. This is summarized in Figure 1 from their review, but let’s take a short dive into some of the main points.
Some of the major strengths are readily obvious to the majority of cyclists who have either dabbled or dived fully into virtual cycling. The big elephant in the room is the same trend that has driven the gravel boom – namely safety and getting away from cars. Other aspects of safety include not being limited by darkness or bad weather.
Another strength is that cyclists are able to get into virtual cycling at a variety of sophistication and cost levels. Our own Al Hamilton wrote about going the Cheap-Oh route if you don’t want to splurge for a high-end and “smart” direct drive trainer or “smart” roller system like the TruTrainer that I love.
Of course, an attraction of many virtual cycling platforms is the gamification aspect, where the chance to earn special prizes/framesets/wheels/jerseys can provide the extrinsic motivation to get through one more interval or ride for 15 more minutes. Then there is the social aspect of virtual cycling, riding in groups that enforce accountability and also allow you to ride with friends and strangers from all around the world.
Zwift racing has some ‘inherent weaknesses’
The above strengths are pretty fantastic, but virtual cycling – especially the e-racing side – continues to be plagued by some inherent weaknesses. The most important is likely accuracy and verification of accuracy, leading to the unintended gaining of advantage to outright virtual cheating. This can come through faulty/false input of weight and height for calculating power-weight ratios or aerodynamic drag. It can also come from the poor calibration or different response characteristics of different trainers or power meters.
Of course, the other big difference is that indoor cycling doesn’t demand any of the multitude of skills that go into the making of a successful racer or rider. The drafting is completely different from drafting on the road, there are no cornering or descending skills demanded, and sprinting on a locked-down trainer is completely different from outdoors.
For those of us (like me) who don’t do e-racing and use virtual cycling solely as a means of training, the above racing challenges don’t matter. What may matter more are potential differences in training load and personal fitness zones between indoor and outdoor cycling. This makes it important to test fitness indoors at the start of the main indoor riding season, rather than just directly assume that outdoor fitness directly transfers. The same is true once returning to outdoor riding.
Jay Vine – From Zwift to Vuelta KOM
Aussie cyclist Jay Vine is the poster boy for the biggest opportunity from virtual cycling – enhanced and expanded talent identification. Securing a one-year contract with Alpecin-Fenix after winning the Zwift Cycling Academy series, Vine quickly established himself on the pro scene and has become a certified star with two Vuelta stage wins in 2022 and a big profile move over to UAE-Team Emirates for 2023.
Team managers can now scout for talent beyond just at the local Belgian kermesses or even from reviewing selected power files. Now, the astute talent scout can review vast amounts of data from virtual racing and even view specific races to see racers “live” in action. With lots of athletes from other sports jumping into virtual cycling, this further expands the potential pool of new cycling talent.
Mathieu van der Poel is a keen Zwifter
It is highly likely that virtual cycling will continue to grow, though possibly not at the same rate as over the two previous pandemic years. The ease, gamification, and social nature of virtual cycling are all strong hooks for anyone who has experienced it. It remains to be seen, however, whether the market is saturated and already at its peak.
E-racing itself is likely more at risk for a downturn or a bursting of its bubble. Some evidence for this can be seen in the enthusiasm for the UCI-sanctioned Worlds. It was introduced to huge fanfare in 2020, but who can name the 2021 men’s or women’s World Champion? And as of posting there has been no mention of any 2022 event. At lower levels, however, e-racing likely will continue to have a core demographic, assuming that frustration with potential cheating doesn’t overwhelm it.
I hope that you enjoyed this view of where virtual cycling stands. RIP Louis Passfield and condolences to your family and all who were fortunate to cross paths with you. You will be missed.
McIlroy B, Passfield L, Holmberg H-C, Sperlich B (2021) Virtual Training of Endurance Cycling – A Summary of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Front Sports Act Living 3:631101. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.631101