Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling, A Year Later—A Letter From Eracer, Tom Gakes

The first in a three-part retrospective exploring the impact, practical application, and future of Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling.
Editor's Note

On March 18, 2021, the Zwift Cycling Esports Commission released an updated version of its ruleset. Two changes were noteworthy for their potential impact on reducing disordered eating and eating disorder risk. The first rule change involved the timing of weigh-ins, and the second ensured that all weigh-in videos remained private. 

The “Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling” article series published on ZwiftInsider shortly before the ruleset change raised awareness of the issue. I’m proud of my contribution to the virtual cycling and eracing community. Deep in my heart, I am confident that the changes and awareness have helped many of my fellow athletes.

A year since the articles were published, much has occurred in the virtual cycling world. I remain steadfast in my belief that the effect on the community has been more good than bad. However, I’m not immune to the criticism of the topic that has unaffectionately become known as “Weight Gate.”

With the passage of time comes a new perspective and the opportunity to test theoretical scenarios in real-world situations. The articles highlighted two prominent members of the eracing community significantly affected by disordered eating—Tom Gakes, and Alice Lethbridge.

They accepted the invitation to provide a personal perspective of the long-term effects on their health and the practicality of the changes a year later. First up is Tom Gakes, and he wrote the following letter in response to my request. I edited his letter for the format, but the content, opinions, and beliefs are all Tom’s.

A letter from eracer, Tom Gakes!

There have been two significant changes in the way Zwift handles weight videos in the past year.  One is that weigh-in videos are no longer public, and the other is that the time frame for weigh-in videos in Zwift governed eSports races is now a one-hour timeslot 2 hours before the start of the race. 

 

Then, another significant change for me has been the discovery of racing on RGT, where they handle weight videos differently.  I hope to explain my point of view as a racer who has fair racing as a very high priority and a past of eating disorders and weight issues.

 

The biggest (and best) change in the regulations has been the privacy of weigh-in videos.  Last year, I explained how getting on the scale was a big step for me, and making a weigh-in video was a necessary evil—making those videos public pushed me back on a path to my weight issues from the past.  

 

To be clear, Zwift themselves have never required or even encouraged weight videos to be made public.  It was an initiative from a small group of people who started Zwift Transparency, adopted by most top-level Zwift racing communities.  The intention was to stop the image that Zwift racers were all cheating by proving that the weight was correct (through weigh-in videos) and power was accurate (through dual recording).  

Tom Gake's indoor cycling setup

The people who started this group encouraged everyone but forced nobody to join.  So far, so good.  But after a while, more people from the community began to pressure riders who didn’t upload their videos to do so, claiming that everyone who didn’t must have been a weight doper. 

 

Some race organizers required videos to be uploaded publicly as well.  So, in my eyes, I was basically forced to upload videos against my will or stop racing.  I could never stop racing, so I did the videos.  

 

I lost 6 kg from an already very lean body in a few months.  With every video I made, I experienced tremendous fear that the weight would be higher than my Zwift profile showed.  For a while, this boosted my performance.  

You’ll find Tom’s Strava profile here, and his ZwiftPower here!

Not because I got stronger, but because the skewed dynamics on Zwift (I will get to this later) punish you too hard for every kg of bodyweight.  But after a while, I got so ill that I ended up unconscious on the kitchen floor.  

 

It took me a few weeks to get back on the bike, but I never fully recovered.  So when we had to stop weighing in publicly, that was a massive relief for me.  

 

I still have to do the weigh-in videos for esports races, like ZPL where I competed with Team Draft last season.  The knowledge those videos are handled with care for my privacy takes away a lot of the pressure.

Tom Gakes extreme dieting

Another change in regulations, which is not for the better, is the reduced time slot for weigh-in videos.  Previously, this was anywhere from 24 hours before the start until the race itself.  It was changed to no sooner than 2 hours before the beginning of the race.  

 

So theoretically, you have a 2-hour time slot.  In reality, though, you only have a one-hour time slot as all videos have to be submitted 1 hour before the start of the race.  The purpose is to prevent extreme dehydration on the videos and the chance to replace fluids after the racer recorded the video.  

 

So the intentions are correct because this is unhealthy behavior.  The problem is that it doesn’t practically work that way.  I mentioned the skewed Zwift dynamics above.  They are again a fundamental problem here.  

 

Because, unlike IRL, on Zwift, it is still beneficial to dehydrate and get a lower weight entered into the system even though you lose some power.  But because you do this max 90 minutes before you get on the bike now (you need to be in the start pens at least 30 minutes before the actual start of the race), there is no time to rehydrate fully, and this tactic leaves you racing in a state that is far from healthy.  

 

Although fewer people will use this strategy now, many people still do this.  Then, another big problem with this regulation change has nothing to do with eating disorders.  Most individuals racing on Zwift can’t make a living out of it.  Most of us still have day jobs.

 

Creating a video in the morning, before work, is no big deal.  With the one-hour time slot to make and upload the video, this can be challenging for people who get home only about an hour before the start of the race and only have 30 minutes to do their preparation (sometimes including dinner).  You have to start making a video, then get ready to race in a hurry.  It is not an ideal situation for many.

 

But the most significant change for me personally has nothing to do with regulations.  It is discovering a different platform with a different approach to weight, weigh-in videos, and the effect of weight on performance.  I’m racing a lot on RGT now, which has been a real eye-opener.  

 

First of all, the handling of weigh-in videos.  Zwift requires weight videos for upper-level esports races only.  For other events, there is predominantly no weight verification required.  And although I wouldn’t say I like to do those videos, I realize they are essential for fair racing.  

 

So not having any weight verification is a lousy situation for community racing.  On RGT, there is a verification platform called Ebiopassport, where riders can upload dual recordings, calibration videos, and height and weight videos.  All race organizers can get registered as race organizers on their website if they wish to.  

Click here to access Tom’s eBioPassport!

tom Gakes tandem bike racing champ

When they do so, any racer who uploads a video, dual recording, or proof of owning a power source can select this organizer to share their data.  It means that your data is not publicly visible, but every organizer from the community can run verification as they think is suitable for their races.  

 

The only improvement I would suggest is to remove the option for weight videos to be shared publicly, for reasons outlined above and in last year’s article.  I think it would be great if Zwift would introduce a system like this, or even better, adopt Ebiopassport as the verification system for community races.  The system will work with any platform, so there shouldn’t be technical limitations!

 

Another big difference between Zwift and RGT is how weight affects performance in-game.  In Zwift, weight is a huge factor in aerodynamics.  For this reason, in all situations, you get punished for extra weight far more than on the road.  As speeds get higher (on flat roads and descents), the deficit for bigger riders increases exponentially.

You’ll find Tom’s RGT profile here!

On RGT, though, this is very different.  As on the road, weight does not affect aerodynamics.  It does affect rolling resistance and acceleration (which is more critical in RGT because it does have corner braking, unlike Zwift).  So a higher body weight still influences performance in flat races, but not to the extremes as it does on Zwift.  

 

As a result, you see much more specialization, with bigger, more powerful riders doing well in flat races and lighter riders doing well in races with more climbing.  Like in road cycling, you see different riders winning flat races or mountain top finishes.  

 

With those possibilities on RGT, I’m now far more relaxed about my training and diet.  I’m more focused on staying healthy and increasing absolute power rather than W/kg.  I avoided strength training to prevent gaining extra muscle mass and body weight.  It’s an essential part of my training now.  

 

As outlined in previous articles on The ZOM, this improves performance and overall health.  And yes, I did gain a few kg with that.  Which still stresses me out when I need to weigh in for a Zwift race.  

 

But on RGT, I don’t mind the extra kilos.  I know they bring enough extra Watts to perform better in flat races, and I won’t be at the front when the climbers go full throttle on a long and steep climb anyway.

Overall, Zwift has done a lot regarding regulations to prevent eating disorders, but the biggest trigger is a fundamental platform design problem.  Hiding videos from the public has taken a lot of pressure off the athletes.  It has been a notable change that Zwift has enforced, where Zwift has taken more responsibility.  

 

The reduced time frame for weigh-in videos is not ideal, in my opinion.  I don’t see how it structurally reduces disordered eating.  It may stop some people from extreme dehydration, but I’m not sure if that’s true.  Either way, this new regulation is causing many practical issues for non-professional athletes.  

 

But the main thing that can, and maybe should be done, is to follow the example of RGT in how body weight affects performance on flat roads.  We may not be able to stop disordered eating in endurance sports completely.  Still, a change like that could dramatically reduce the occurrence in esports cycling.  It will also make racing better because it allows greater diversity in riders who would race with different tactics.

Click here to find Tom on Instagram!

You don’t have to face it alone

Do you feel you may have a disordered eating problem, or you just don’t know? You are not alone and there is help available.  Contact the American National Eating Disorders Helpline for guidance and support.

Your thoughts?

Now that a year has passed since the ruleset changes, what do you think? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

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Harry
Harry
2 months ago

Interesting thoughts on Zwift’s modeling of Aerodynamics. I’ve been thinking some about this myself because I don’t feel zwift gives me enough credit or gives too much credit to others. Two people of the exact same size and shape can have drastically different aerodynamic profiles. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I doubt either model (Zwift or RGT) gets it right for everyone. That just seems like an impossible task. If someone could come up with an extremely simple field aerodynamic test but that doesn’t seem likely. Even if there was one it would be difficult to get people to use it. Maybe not at the upper end of racing but at the community level it would be a big challenge. I’ve always wondered if at the very top end there have been any complaints about Zwit’s aerodynamics not getting it right for an individual rider. At the speeds we’re riding at on Zwift Aerodynamics can account easily for 90+% of the power. Is it safe to say Zwift just makes a guess at what 90% of our power can do to propel us forward? If that’s true should we be working more on making things more aerodynamically fair? Maybe Zwift Insider should run some Bot tests on both platforms and just vary the weight to quantify what you are saying. That would be interesting.

Quietman
Quietman
1 month ago
Reply to  Harry

I doubt the funding agreement that Zwift insider has with Zwift would allow Eric to do anything to shine a light on RGT…

Harry
Harry
1 month ago
Reply to  Quietman

Maybe someone else could do the testing 🙂

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