Virtual Cycling and Zwift—Foundation or Fad?

A report in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living summarizes Zwift's opportunities and threats.

Virtual fitness experienced widespread popularity during the pandemic. The rapidly growing online exercise industry emerged as one of the top-20 fitness trends worldwide in 2021, and the growth continues. No doubt, if you were a Zwifter before 2020, you noticed the numbers swell as isolation and social distancing forced cyclists to find indoor alternatives.

 

The trend carried over to the scientific community, and now exercise-related journals frequently publish reports and studies on virtual cycling. The journal Frontiers in Sport and Active Living added to the knowledge base with a study summarizing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to virtual training of endurance cycling.

 

The diverse group of authors—sports and exercise scientists—claims the report to be a critical evaluation of virtual training platforms. The authors bring up several interesting points from the perspective of the traditional mainstream cyclist looking from the outside into the world of Zwift.

 

However, suppose you are a frequent Zwifter. In that case, you will find very little unique or ground-breaking other than the aspects of virtual cycling that the traditional cyclist and non-indoor specialist consider significant. That in itself is worthy of note as many of the weaknesses and threats perceived by the lesser virtual cycling educated mainstream are barriers to entry and acceptance.  

Zwift cycling avatars

Photo courtesy of Tammy Brimner of TLBVelo

Threats and Weaknesses

According to the authors, cheating is the foremost threat to Zwift. Competitors and racers on the platform are continually frustrated by this insidious issue and voice their displeasure. However, of Zwift’s over 2.5 million registered users in 190 countries, only about 20% will enter a race at least once monthly.

 

Cheating affects a minority of the platform’s users and yet characterizes the negative experience for the majority of the cycling public. The group points to the questionable accuracy of the many models of trainers and multiple ways of measuring power output. Zwift’s algorithm to convert power output to in-game speed is described as a somewhat crude estimation of actual speed.

 

When coupled with the factors noted above, inaccurate data entry and cyber-doping lead to confusion in result reports, as indicated by the authors. Subsequent verification requirements of suspect performances not seen in traditional racing reduce confidence and undermine public perception.

 

Dropouts and technical system failures also taint public perception, and the authors consider the issue to be another significant weakness of the Zwift system. The group points out that these “cyber mechanicals” considerably impact apparent race performance and constitute a risk that athletes find unpalatable.

 

The negative aspects of Zwift competition will deter acceptance by traditional cycling teams, athletes, sponsors, and promotors. In addition, the authors feel that without serious competitors within the industry, Zwift will become an echo chamber, reducing the drive for innovation and development. A statement that doesn’t resonate with the recent acquisition of the virtual cycling platform RGT by Wahoo which proves to be Zwift’s most significant competition.  

Zwift virtual cycling avatars

Photo courtesy of Tammy Brimner of TLBVelo

Opportunities and Strengths

Many of the strengths and opportunities outlined by the authors are not lost on the loyal Zwift subscriber base. Consumer availability at a wide range of price points, safety, realistic simulation of different riding conditions, and gamification, to name a few.

 

The dynamic nature of virtual cycling platforms allows teams and athletes exposure to many types and levels of competition over varied terrain. Without the need to travel, competitors are more efficient in their racing and training with a decreased cost in time, financial resources, and fatigue.

 

Again, not a novel concept to the seasoned Zwifter. However, the chance for road cycling teams to utilize virtual cycling to test aggressive race scenarios and place their athletes in different roles leads to exciting racing and new cycling stars. Moreover, the crossover of athletes from one race venue to another, like a BMXer trying a virtual road race, will expand talent identification and opportunity.

 

With the more widespread availability of a digital coaching framework based upon historical recorded online data, athletes train with a quality they don’t usually have access to in the real world. In addition, adaptive, disabled, and paralympic athletes with cognitive or physical limitations have increased inclusion and diversity opportunities.

Zwift online fitness cycling avatars

Photo courtesy of Tammy Brimner of TLBVelo

Conclusion-The Future or a Fad

For the seasoned Zwifter, the positives far outweigh the negatives, and there is much more opportunity than threats. Virtual cycling has tremendous potential to develop and enhance public engagement and excitement after the pandemic surge in popularity.

 

The fusion of real-life benefits with virtual cycling’s access and availability is an opportunity to promote public health and wellness to the masses. Governments, healthcare agencies, and insurance companies can use the strategy to improve participation and outcomes through incentives. Not to mention the countless benefits already realized by competitive cyclists—the potential is endless.

 

As the global pandemic restrictions end and cyclists have a choice to make, the fear is that virtual training and competition will become a fad. The threat lies in the overlying belief by competitive cyclists and the mainstream riding public that Zwift is a haven for cheaters and facilitates the culture through questionable physics and inconsistent technology.

 

Whether or not you believe it to be accurate, the stigma exists. The stereotype is real and needs to be effectively addressed and eliminated. Zwift has established a foundation for the growth of virtual cycling as a unique cycling discipline, but without trust and legitimacy, it is at risk of only being a passing fad.

Author's Note

Multiple requests for comment from the authors went unanswered despite assurances to the contrary. Not surprising when considering that many of the follow-up questions challenged the lack of substantive information or novel perspective in the report. 

Foundation or Fad?

Do stereotypes that plague Zwift threaten its future? Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know. 

 

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