Virtual trainers – the other high-tech cycling revolution

e-Bikes beckon newcomers to get out on bikes and empower people to travel further afield.

They’re driving an incredible surge in bicycle markets around the world – one battery-powered pedal stroke at a time.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s another cycling technology revolution going on behind closed doors, encouraging people to take up cycling or just spend more time on their bikes without leaving the ‘comfort’ of their lounge-rooms, ‘pain cave’, dungeon or wherever they choose to set up their stationary trainer.

The technological innovation of the indoor trainer and virtual cycle apps has provided a platform for many other innovators to help harness the stationary trainer’s potential to make riding more accessible and another source of cycling fun.

eSports Cycle World Championships

Like many online communities, the virtual cycling phenomenon is squirrelling riders away in the physical seclusion of their homes while, at the same time, bringing the global cycling community together like never before.

In a trend accelerated by COVID restrictions around the world, a 24/7 succession of virtual group rides and races is uniting riders around the globe in shared virtual pelotons.

At the top end of cycle sports, the third annual UCI esports world championships were recently run and won – with Aussies dominating the results in the men’s race – and professional road teams have started using virtual races to identify and select their team members.

e-Bikes and virtual cycling are, in some ways, polar opposites in their strengths and the benefits that suggest we’re only just starting to see their potential to take cycling further into the mainstream.

Electric bikes are becoming widely recognised for their capacity to revolutionise how people commute and how they transport goods, while protecting the environment, decongesting roads, addressing noise pollution and generally restoring quality of life.

High-end indoor trainers and apps offer the possibility to make every ride more fun … whether it’s racing against people with similar fitness levels, taking a virtual journey through exotic parts of the work or  – who knows where virtual cycling experiences might digress – tackling a pedal-powered arcade game-style adventure.

That initially might not seem as practical as an e-bike-assisted shift to smarter travel. However, indoor trainers are one way to overcome the safety concerns of riding on the road – or cycling alone. They can make it easier to fit riding around life’s other commitments, not to mention offering a more time-efficient workout. They overcome the geographical challenges of riding with likeminded folk, bring a more affordable way to join group rides and races, and open the door for people limited mobility.

All while overcoming the mental hurdle of working up a sweat while remaining stationary and, usually, within the same four walls. Before the advent of digital trainers, few seasoned cyclists would have described a session on a stationary trainer as fun.

Equally importantly, both e-bikes and virtual trainers are comparatively new and exciting ways to keep people active … while recruiting them to the cycling community.

Cycling eSports

AusCycling held the opening race of its 2022 AusCycling National Club Cycling Esports Series last week, with a total of nearly 150 club riders logging onto the Zwift platform to compete.

Twenty-eight clubs from throughout Australia have signed up to contest the 12 rounds of scratch races around exotic-sounding fictional locations such as Makuri Islands and Watopia.

In February, Australians claimed three of the top four places in the elite men’s race at the UCI esports world championships, with UCI team rider Jay Vine winning ahead of compatriot Freddy Ovett.

Eighty-one elite male riders and 76 elite women raced around a futuristic interpretation of New York’s Central Park, negotiating the added complexities of ‘power-ups’ they could collect around the course.

Zwift races offer riders a range of power-ups, including:

  • Feather – for a 10% weight reduction for 15 seconds to assist on a climb
  • Van – for enhanced draft benefit
  • Aero – for a 25% reduction in drag for 15 seconds
  • Invisibility for 10 seconds to help sneak away from rivals
  • Anvil – a 30-second weight gain for added speed on descents

Only some of the power-ups are available to riders in the world titles and they are not revealed to competitors until shortly before the race.

Competitors are required to measure and report their height and weight on video 72 hours before the race, and all riders are provided with identical trainers for the race.

The titles offered equal prize money for the men’s and women’s races, with €8,000 (A$11,891) for the winner, €4,000 (A$5,945) for second and €2,000 (A$2,973) for third. Both races are conducted on the same course and over an equal distance.

Like all UCI world championships, the victors were also awarded an in-game world champions jersey incorporating the famous rainbow stripes, along with the right to wear a physical jersey during sanctioned esports races and activities they participate in throughout the following year. Cycling esports was approved as an official UCI cycling discipline in 2018, becoming one of the first virtual disciplines to receive official status from its sport’s international federation.

Next Month: Shoes & Pedals

Cyling Shoes and Pedals Annual Guide

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June 2022: Shoes and Pedals
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