Passion personified, Dave shares his earliest cycling experience, the pivot to virtual cycling, and how he fell in love with bike racing.
Dave Towle has weaved himself into the fabric of U.S. road racing during his announcing career spanning three decades. His booming voice and quintessential Davisms are synonymous with the grassroots passion and blue-collar mentality that makes cycling, as Dave describes, “The most beautiful sport in the World.”
Dave’s karmic evolution from a wide-eyed fan of the Red Zinger Classics (better known as the Coors Classic later on) in 1979 to one of the most recognizable voices in esports has been a colorful and fulfilling journey not without its rollers along the way.
There is a good chance that if you’ve had the pleasure of hearing Dave’s voice describing a race, you’ve witnessed one of the most important events in cycling history. You can rest assured you’ve listened to the voice of one of the most enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and sincere fans of esports.
An interview with Dave Towle!
What is your first memory of cycling? When did it click in your head that the passionate pursuit of cycling would be a significant part of your life?
I was lucky to grow up in Boulder, Colorado, during the Red Zinger Classics run, so that was where I became aware of bike racing as a cool sport, and that combined with the release of the movie Breaking Away back in 1979, I fell completely in love with the sport.
Were you a racer or mainly a fan of racing? What was it about the cycling competition that appealed to you at a young age?
I raced as a junior with limited success but really became fascinated with the complete sport, from mechanics to race promotion and everything in between. I grew up in the same neighborhood as the race office for the organization of the Red Zinger, which became the Coors Classic in the 80s.
As a kid, I spent a lot of my time there, almost all of it really. In a lot of ways, it was my version of the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers and how some people find their path through total immersion at the highest level of sport, music, art, or whatever it might be.
The international element of the sport and the people that make up the tapestry of cycling’s history was just as important to me as the speed, flashy equipment, and crowds. I honestly just loved every element of what the sport was about. Bike racing is the most beautiful sport in the world, once you see the light.
What inspired you to give it a go as an announcer? Tell us a bit about the first event you announced. When was the event, and what lasting memory do you have of the experience?
The short answer is that I felt like I was born for the job, honestly. I have so much passion for cycling, people living their dreams, entertainment, and humor. It was honestly something I knew I’d love to do and be a part of.
It had been a few years of thinking, “this is something I would love to do,” before the opportunity arose. I worked for the Saturn Cycling team, doing the OG virtual racing (we even went on the Today Show with Greg Lemond) called Saturn CyberBike. It was basically a souped-up version of CompuTrainer, a predecessor of Zwift.
Saturn (the now-shuttered GM auto brand) sponsored one of the biggest one-day races in US cycling history called the Saturn Cycling Classic. The announcer scheduled to work the finish was unable to make it on race day, and I was there and put my hand up if they needed an emergency replacement on the spot.
I got the job, and the rest is history. That day was a turning point in my life for many reasons. I had a long way to go, but my foot was firmly in the door. The following spring, I was asked to do the first edition of the Tour de Georgi in 2003, and that was the launchpad for announcing every edition of the Tour de Georgia, Amgen Tour of California, Tour of Utah, Tour of Ireland, to name a few!
Throughout your illustrious and fabled career, what event or experience stands out the most? On the flip side, when was your darkest time, and what is your secret to success for getting through?
Announcing the Ghent 6 Day in Belgium and the World Championships in Richmond were the top of the proverbial mountain as far as high profile events go, on the positive side.
The rest of this one is hard to answer. There have been some bleak days on this journey as well. The only advice I have is like racing itself, if you’re going through hell, keep going.
Was virtual cycling or esports on your radar at that time? What would you have said to the person who told you announcing video game bike races was in your future?
I first heard about Zwift in 2015, and I saw the potential to race on the platform within the first 3 seconds. It seemed genius to me and still does. To be honest, in early 2016, Charlie Issendorf was hard at work on the project, and Nathan Guerra was already showing up to do renegade races on Jarvis, or Beta.
Charlie reached out to do some cross-promotions for Zwift with the Amgen Tour of California, and I hosted some IRL events. It was always a great fit. I have loved the people behind the scenes at Zwift across the board.
It was a huge leap of faith to start doing esports commentary. Some really good folks at Zwift helped me get over the hump, and I was just beginning to work with Nathan when the pandemic hit.
It was bizarre timing, and I do feel incredibly grateful the timing worked out for me, as I really jumped into the deep end of the pool as far as gaming, eSports, and this new world. I’ll be honest, I was nervous, but it’s been one of the best things that have ever happened for me in many ways.
When the pandemic hit the states in 2020, and the bike racing scene screeched to a halt, so did your livelihood. What was going through your mind when contemplating the potentially grim stretch ahead?
I was expecting road racing and the sport of racing to take a huge hit. It did, but as I was saying, I had started my “pivot” just before the pandemic after the 2019 Worlds in Yorkshire, where I had been working with Matt Stephens for Zwift, and they offered me a commentary position.
Do you believe in karma? That said, how did involvement in esports come into view and shine a light on the dire situation?
I firmly believe in karma. It might sound really dramatic, but I feel like esports saved a few people’s lives and, at worst, made a lot of lives a lot more enjoyable. It massively did mine.
We talk a lot about the community in the world of Zwift, and it really proved to be strong, incredibly strong during this period. It remains, and will, a huge part of the secret sauce that made Zwift what it is. That community became one of the best parts of my life.
When did you announce your first esports event, and what struck you at the time? What challenges did you face, how steep was your learning curve transitioning from real-life events, and did that include being convinced that it was real racing?
Wow, it was two years ago, in March of 2020. It was rough, and I had so much to learn. I still do, but I’ve come a long way as well.
There are a lot of upsides to commentary on esports. No travel and being inside are good places to start. The learning curve is steep but not outrageous.
You have to adjust and adapt from IRL events to esports, but it’s all in a day’s work, nothing too crazy to learn or modify, just a few different expectations and realities. It is real racing, so I guess I bought in early on that, which helped.
Early on, were there any unique aspects of virtual cycling and esports that were interesting and appealing and gave you confidence that it would take hold? Was there any doubt that you or the sport had what it takes to succeed?
I have no doubts it will succeed, the sport is in a period of growth, and with things being so early on the timeline still, it has a few things to figure out. These are all good problems to have, and the process is really cool to be involved with. You have to adapt to survive, and I think most folks I work with and around get that loud and clear.
As time passed, and you've evolved to be one of the public voices of esports, how has your impression of the sport changed? Is it the platform or the people that will make esports successful and gain acceptance as a unique discipline of cycling competition? Both, for sure both working together.
The hopes, the dreams, the need to be with others, it’s awesome that humans find ways to overcome, and the only way my impression may have changed is that I now have a much more international view of things, and that is yet another fringe benefit of Zwift, it’s worldwide.
Along those lines, if given the opportunity, where would you advise virtual cycling to invest its time and resources? In the technical aspects of the product or in cultivating personalities?
That’s a tough one. I don’t want to sound like I’m copping out here, but honestly, both matter and need attention and investment. It’s an ecosystem.
Just like racers need races and races need racers, we will continue to find a path to what people want. That’s the bottom line, I guess. People will race where they feel respect, fairness, and fun, and that’s our job to keep finding that place in a changing world.
Does esports need more rivalries? Could virtual cycling learn from professional wrestling in building storylines, developing characters, and tapping into personas to engage with the audience and broaden the appeal? Does it exist now?
I think rivalries are great, as long as it includes respect, and that’s a fine line. I think telling the athletes’ stories is key, and it’s a huge focus for me.
Folks must be entertained, informed, and believe that the avatars are real people somewhere out there, racing their hearts out for the broadcast to be successful. It’s like magic, and you have to get people to believe, and then it’s on!
What's an esports broadcast day in the life of Dave Towle? When do you begin preparing, how does the day progress, and when do you wrap it up? What makes it a good/rewarding day or a bad/challenging one?
Well, every day is different. Nathan and I do marathon days on ZRL Community Tuesdays, something like 6 hours of live broadcasts, from around 10 am my time to 9 pm.
Mondays are just one hour of work, but we do a lot of meetings and tests before each ZRL Premier League race, so those days are about 9 am until 2 pm. I love it so much, and I really couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.
Nathan and I will do other projects a couple of days a week, like each Thursday’s WTRL Teams Time Trial that I’ve now done 100 of!
As far as what makes a good day, that is just like any job I think, you just want to crush it every time, and I can’t say it always works out that way, but it’s awesome when it all goes great. You just know you crushed it!
We also do cause-related events on Zwift Community Live, like the Ride to End ALZ. That is maybe the best feeling of all along the lines of what you are talking about. The feeling of positive impact is hard to beat.
How much preparation goes into a successful esports broadcast? What is your process, how much of the information you share is in your show notes, and how much is in your head as a student and fan of the game?
Great question. I’d say honestly both. Your body of knowledge is key, but every race has critical preparation you can’t ignore. A real professional always works on getting info, notes, compelling speaking points, insider info. It’s a massive challenge and immensely fun and a lot of work.
Would you take the offer if you had the opportunity to trade places with the eracers you cover?
The life of a cycling announcer is not always a glamourous one with endless travel, exposure to the harsh elements, and long days. What would you say if someone told you that you would not be able to return to real-life events to continue announcing esports?
My goal is to have the perfect mix of esports and IRL events, but I could live with that news. I’d undoubtedly go with Zwift if I had to choose between one or the other at this point.
I had been saying for years someday technology would come along that would save me from announcing in (many) life-threatening situations. Lightning, out-of-control cars/trucks, food poisoning, electrical shock, being crushed by scaffolding, or the most likely frostbite are all much less of an issue for me now!
What do you think the end-game will be for esports concerning race length, course selection, race series configuration, stage racing, etc., to distinguish itself as a growing independent discipline and a trusted venue to attract elite racers?
Stay tuned, I think we are getting much closer, but some cool race concepts are coming. I like the shorter and more intense races. I think they are, by far, best for broadcasting and make the most entertaining show and experience for spectators and racers alike.
The harder the course, the more exciting it is. Bonus sprints add a lot of action when placed well. There are all kinds of new ideas, though, like the Golden Kilometer concept I’m pushing for (random 1 K segment with three sprints with bonus second of 3, 2, and 1 at the start, 500 meters in and the end of one kilometer). I really think that getting everyone on the same smart trainer will need to happen at some point.
What broadcast features or innovations do you anticipate or would make esports a more compelling and interactive viewer product?
The problem isn’t really ideas. There are a lot of those still in the works. It’s the execution and the buy-in from athletes in many cases. I’d love to see in-game steering become the norm. That’s a good start for the next level we are approaching in esports.
What unique qualities does esport possess that make it more exciting and audience-friendly than real-life racing, and where does it fall short?
The access and relatively low barrier of entry are a huge plus for esports. The ability for people of all levels from around the world to race together is incredible. It’s hard for me to say where it falls short, but I will say that it will always be a work in progress across the board, but what great sport isn’t it?
Promoting pro tour racers who were disinterested and lacked passion for eracing was a swing and a miss and was unproductive for the growth of esports. On the other hand, do you see a day when big-name pros dedicate a portion of their season to virtual racing and take it as seriously as an indoor specialist?
Yes, there will always be some IRL pro riders that see the fun and fitness they can gain from esports. We see that today. I think it’s a much better approach to leave the door open for those that want to participate and let those that don’t want to, well, do their thing.
The greatest thing that ever happened in esports history seems to happen at some point during most, if not every one of your broadcasts. Where does this dialogue fall in the pantheon of interview history?
Ha! That’s a fair comment, I guess I’m always looking for the moment that we will remember and want the riders to know they’re impressive!
As a parting thought, what advice would you give to the next generation of cycling and esports announcers?
Never give up, only you know how much it matters to you, so stay the course, good things happen to those that don’t quit.
Thank you for sharing, David!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!