The second in a three-part retrospective exploring the impact, practical application, and future of Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling.
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 took the opportunity to provide a personal perspective of the long-term effects on their health and the practicality of the changes a year later. Next up is Alice Lethbridge, and she wrote the following letter in response to my request. I edited her letter for the format, but the content, opinions, and beliefs are all Alice’s.
A letter from eracer, Alice Lethbridge!
As the ZRL Premier League season ended a year ago, I broke down physically and mentally. The Zwift algorithms where riders are penalized for every extra cm in height and every kg of weight had pushed me over the edge as I sought to raise my level of performance to try and help my team win the title.
As the other riders jubilantly celebrated victory in the league, I realized that being faced with weekly weigh-ins, where every registered user of zwift power would be able to see if I’d gained weight that week, had led me to slip back into the disordered eating habits I thought I’d put behind me. Looking through results each week, I could see many of the athletes filling the top places were dropping weight each week, and despite my attempts to rationalize that strength and health were more important, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to follow suit.
As I reflected on where things had gone so wrong, I realized I had two choices. I could speak up and ask for help, or I could run away and hide. I’d formed great friendships both at my team and with women in other premier leagues, and I didn’t want to lose that, so I started to confide in those closest to me.
It soon spread to talk to more riders, both within the premier league and beyond. It became apparent that, sadly, I was far from alone. I decided to speak up more publicly and asked Eric at Zwift insider to publish an article that I hoped would help educate and advise others. I also opened a dialogue with Zwift HQ about the aspects of the platform I felt actively encouraged potentially dangerous habits in many people.
The response from the community overwhelmed me. I had people of all abilities and ages, men and women, contact me about how they, too, constantly felt pressure to lose weight when racing on Zwift. It wasn’t just at the elite level where our weight was actively monitored, but right through the categories from A+ to D riders.
I’d been very nervous about opening up to talk about my struggles. There were many unkind and unpleasant comments too, but knowing my article had prompted other people to seek help for their difficulties made having to put up with that nastiness worth it.
So where are we a year later? Well, despite the promises to me, I haven’t seen anything pro-active from Zwift to address the prevalence of eating disorders amongst athletes on the platform. They totally backtracked on giving users the ability to hide their height and weight after a backlash from people claiming it would make cheating more prevalent.
I genuinely believe the effect would be neutral. More people might knock some kg off if they think no one is looking (and if you lack integrity, you’re probably cheating your power, too anyway). People will also enter their weight more honestly when they aren’t forced to share it publicly or see their weight appear in red on an event or profile.
I did find it somewhat amusing to see that many of the people vehemently arguing that the public display of weight was essential for ‘fair play’ hadn’t changed their own weight in many months.
So Zwift wasn’t backing down on forced public display of weight on Zwift power, so I asked that at the very least, they remove that red highlighting of the highest and lowest weights and heights in each event. That didn’t even get an acknowledgment.
I also recommended a pro-active approach to the pressure people feel under with the wkg algorithm and proposed that Zwift ran some of their celebrity and podcast rides based on positive body image. Again, nothing. In fact, several emails on the issues surrounding weight and the issues accentuated by certain aspects of the game were ignored.
When I first wrote to Zwift about the aspects of the platform I felt could be improved when it came to promoting a healthy attitude to weight, I did praise some of the current practices. In particular, the 24 hours weigh-in window for elite racing allowed all riders, wherever they were in the world, to do a fasted and ‘empty’ morning weigh-in.
You can imagine my disappointment when the one thing I had praised as helping those who had suffered from or who were predisposed to eating difficulties then got changed. Now we all had to weigh in a maximum of 2 hours pre-race. So while the US athletes could follow pretty much the same practice as before, Europeans were now weighing in at times between 5:15 and 8:30 pm.
Anyone who tries to claim a full day of normal eating and drinking doesn’t add a few kg clearly isn’t eating or drinking normally. I really worried about my ability to cope with this rule change. I didn’t want some rule makers who didn’t seem to understand the psychology of eating disorders to ruin the enjoyment I had of racing with my friends. I decided to try and fight the internal voices urging me to restrict my food all day.
At first, I managed better than I had anticipated. I definitely cut down a lot from what I had been eating on race day when we could eat in the morning, but I was eating. In truth, though, I wasn’t eating nearly enough. The restriction and spending the whole day hugely anxious over every bite and sip I took sent me back into a bad place.
More upsetting for me was how this was now causing other riders, who didn’t have a history of disordered eating, to think about their food and drink on race day. People without previous issues were now eating very irregularly to avoid “gaining too much weight” by the evening.
Meanwhile, ZADA turned a blind eye to dual recordings 10% out but were annulling the results of racers who entered their weight even 0.1kg different to on their video. The priorities for verifying race performance had become backward to me.
Organizers ignored a trainer reading 50W over the dual-source but punished a rider who did not correctly save a pound’s weight change. The message was that weight is more important than watts, but in reality, it’s strength and health that count the most.
So, where does that leave me? On February 14th, I lined up for the finale of the ZRL Premier Division, knowing it would be my final race at that level. I don’t want to step back, but I don’t want to ruin my ability to race well outdoors this season or, more importantly, damage my health anymore.
While I know I can get myself back on track because I’ve done it before, I also know how hard it will be to do so, and I am very worried about the other riders that have been affected negatively, too, and whether they have the necessary support. I know I’m not alone, and I’m not the first to step back from elite racing because of the weigh-in pressures.
What saddens me the most is that a rule change that didn’t need to happen, and hasn’t seen anyone change their weight to counteract the huge amounts Zwift claimed the 24-hour “cut” was enabling, has caused a lot of stress and unhappiness and forced talented riders away from elite racing.
I will continue to race in the community, and I will still be honest with my weight. I just won’t have to stress all day about doing an evening video, and like most community racers, I will weigh on the morning of a race and update accordingly.
Somewhat ironically, history tells me that when I don’t have to do these weight videos, my weight is more constant too, and I tend to settle at the “lighter end” of my natural range. As a biologist, I suspect the reduction in cortisol has a big part to play in that.
While I know I’ll be racing more disingenuous people than at the top level, despite what people might like to think, the top tier of racing is far from immune when it comes to devious practice. And having to roll my eyes a bit more at the power numbers produced by some avatars is a small price to pay for being happier and healthier.
So, in summary, a year from my first article, I don’t think anything has been done in an official capacity to promote a more healthy attitude to weight on the platform. Still, I believe the community’s support for those who open up and reach out for help has grown.
Thank you for sharing, Tom!
You don’t have to face it alone
Now that a year has passed since the ruleset changes, what do you think? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
About Alice Lethbridge!
Alice is a full-time teacher from Surrey, England. After watching the Olympic road race at the real Box Hill, she took up cycling. Alice races for Heino and Socks4Watts on Zwift. Outdoors she holds the UK National records for 100 miles and 12 hour TTs and races for UCI Continental Team AWOL O’Shea.
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!